A solar eclipse was once considered a sign of the devil

In the past, when there was not enough understanding of astronomy, people used to be afraid every time the Sun disappeared.

On December 26, people in Asia and the Middle East witnessed an annular solar eclipse, also known as the “ring of fire”. This is the last solar eclipse of 2019, and in many Asian countries, children can be seen eagerly looking up at the sky with tools to see the eclipse.

Things are not so simple in history. Although the Sun is only covered for a few minutes each eclipse, mankind has repeatedly recorded the panic when the sunlight suddenly disappeared.

The Vikings believed that the mythical wolves Skoll and Hati always chased the Sun and Moon, occasionally gnawing on the object. The Maya illustrated solar eclipses with a snake swallowing the sun, while the Incas believed that the eclipse was the action of a leopard.

A solar eclipse was once considered a sign of the devil
A solar eclipse caused ancient people to panic and fear when the light from the Sun suddenly disappeared.

Until 1979, according to Annie Dillard’s article, many people in Washington state were still scared to scream when they saw the eclipse happening.

“After reading about the history of solar eclipses, I’ve noticed that no matter how much time or modern human knowledge, people’s reactions to eclipses are very diverse. They can be surprised, there are also some can be scared,” says astrophysicist Steve Ruskin.

One of the most recorded eclipses of modern times was in 1886 in Australia.

“Indigenous people at the time believed that the eclipse was caused by a tribe living on the Moon, angry and sick, taking out their anger on them,” Mr. Ruskin said.

The Babylonians had such a good understanding of mathematics and astronomy that they were able to calculate the time of a solar eclipse. However, they still think that this is a bad omen, so every time a solar eclipse occurs, a commoner will sit on the throne to avoid risks to the king. After the eclipse, the people will be rewarded and then killed to ward off all the bad luck that comes from the phenomenon.

A solar eclipse was once considered a sign of the devil
Photograph of the 1851 solar eclipse by Johann Berkowski.

In 1133, a solar eclipse coincided with the death of King Henry I of England. This coincidence caused chaos and a civil war. In the 15th century, when he arrived in the Americas, Christopher Columbus took advantage of a solar eclipse to convince the natives that he had the favor of God.

The solar eclipse that took place in 585 BC in what is now Türkiye had a different outcome. The Medes and Lydian soldiers were fighting when the eclipse occurred. The leaders of both sides thought that this was a sign of god for the two sides to reconcile, and this eclipse led to 15 years of peace.

“After the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people began to explain the motions of the Earth, the Moon and the Sun. That made them less afraid of each eclipse. At least in Europe,” Ruskin said.

A solar eclipse was once considered a sign of the devil
Drawing explaining the solar eclipse in 1631. (Source: Library of Congress).

Scientific insights help us to calm down and accept solar eclipses as a natural phenomenon. In 1887, chemist Dmitry Mendeleev used a hot air balloon to fly to an altitude of more than 3km to see this phenomenon.

Perhaps few people know that this phenomenon also has a strange effect on animals.

“The crow near me suddenly panicked, screamed and took off,” mathematician John Couch Adams described a solar eclipse in the 19th century.

In modern times, there are still many myths about solar eclipses such as that pregnant women should not watch the eclipse. Either way, a solar eclipse is a rare phenomenon. So perhaps scientific understanding has not been able to completely erase the human instincts of fear after thousands of years.

Learn about solar and lunar eclipses