By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
On Aug. 21, a total solar eclipse will pass over the breadth of the United States for the first time since 1918. While the ease with which we access information now allows us remove the mystique from celestial events. That wasn’t always the case.
In preparation for the eclipse, the Keizertimes is taking a periodic looks at the significance of eclipses and the evolving ways humans view them. We’re starting by looking way back.
Our ancestors blamed everything from demons to animals to wars between heavenly bodies as the cause for eclipses of all types. The paths the moon and sun traveled – as well as their seeming convergence – worked it’s way into mythology and legend from many cultures.
The Lord of Hanh’s Troublemaking Frog
In Vietnamese culture, eclipses were attributed to pet of the Lord of Hanh. According to legend, a giant frog tried to escape his master when the neighboring lord would fall asleep.
The frog would try to swallow the moon and could only be forced to cough it back up by the Lord of Hanh himself.
The ladies of the moon would rush to wake the Lord of Hanh from his slumber, which is why young Vietnamese women would beat rice bowls with pestles to summon him when eclipses occurred.
Korean cultural eclipse myths took a different spin on this tale in which fire dogs, called Bul-Gae, were sent to chase down the sun and moon. When they caught their prey, the sun was too hot and the moon too cold to hold for long. Animals swallowing or blotting out the sun during eclipses are frequent imagery in eclipse lore.
A Grotesque Punishment
In some Hindu cultures, the solar eclipse has a bloody origin. Based on a Hindu epic, trickster Kala Rau disguises himself to take a drink of an immortality elixir at a banquet of the gods.
However Vishnu, one of the supreme deities of Hinduism, is aware of the deception and decapitates Kala Rau before he is able to swallow leaving his head immortal while his body dies.
Ever since, Kal Rau’s head has chased the sun and moon across the heavens. When his head catches up, he eats them, but the sun and moon reappear after passing through his throat.
Heads Will Roll
In Chinese legend, two royal astrologers were tasked with studying the heavens for omens.
It was thought that eclipses were a dragon swallowing the sun and only through the actions of man – including archers firing in the direction of the sun and drummers beating their instruments – could it be scared off.
When an eclipse escaped the astrologers’ projections, preventing the dragon-deterring rituals from taking place, the pair was beheaded. However, the lasting effect was subsequent Chinese astrologers taking the issue to heart and calculating eclipse events in greater detail than many cultures had before them.
While eclipses were rarely viewed as good omens, there were some cultures that found hope in their passing.
According to the legends of the Batammaliba people in Benin, West Africa, the sun represented the creator God Kiuya, who had left earth for the heavens.
When the people of earth began quarreling amongst themselves, and the resentments eventually reached the heavens causing the sun and moon to battle. The people began making offerings to Kiuya and the darkness subsided but, feeling the need to further appease the heavens, also made offering of peace to their neighbors.
In this way, eclipses came to be viewed as a sign of the need for peacemaking.
Keizertimes intern Emily Dolph contributed to the reporting in this article.