Though the phenomenon of eclipse has a solid scientific explanation, different cultures have developed their own set of interpretations which are rooted in myths and superstitions.
The human race has always believed in a higher power that is beyond their control. It is no wonder that during the evolution from a raw flesh eating mammal to today’s civilized and sophisticated human being, progress was made in terms of culture and religion. During this transition period, mythology gained importance among the masses who needed satisfactory answers to celestial and earthly occurrences.
The myth of an eclipse is one such aspect which is prevalent all over the world, across different cultures. For centuries, man has considered the sun as the source of life. So, it was obvious that when their primary source of light was ‘blocked’ for a period of time, people were driven by fear and insecurity. Various cultures have developed their own explanation for the occurrence of an eclipse.
The word eclipse actually originated from the Greek word ekleipsis, which literally means abandonment.
Mythology and Religion
Since mythology and religion are closely interconnected in India, the root of explanation for an eclipse generally lies in religion. For instance, in Hindu mythology, the entire period of an eclipse is called ‘parvakala’. The Bhagavata Purana(a puranic holy text of Hinduism) has an answer to the occurrence of an eclipse with an interesting fable.
A fierce battle was fought between the Devas(gods) and Asuras(demons) for many years. Lord Vishnu, known as the Preserver among the trinity of gods, arranged a truce between the warring sides and offered to churn the ocean to leverage its benefits. After many rounds of churning, the Amritam(nectar) emerged from the ocean in a pot, which was snatched by the demons. Lord Vishnu, in disguise as a beautiful woman enticed the celebrating Asuras . He managed to steal it and get it across to the devas. But Rahu, a demon, saw through the trickery. While the nectar was being distributed to the gods, Rahu disguised himself and tried to have a sip of the nectar. But the sun and moon gods detected his presence and informed Lord Vishnu, who then chopped off Rahu’s head. Luckily for him, since he too had a sip of the nectar, he will live for eternity as a trunkless demon and his headless trunk is known as Ketu. Apparently, Rahu never forgave the sun and moon gods and as retribution for their action, tries to swallow them periodically.
For centuries, this fable has long remained the accepted reason. So much so that, even in this age of rapid modernization, special rituals are held to ward off the evil demon. During the eclipse period, people bathe neck deep in the holy rivers, hoping that it will give the strength to fight the demon.
Other mythological accounts of eclipses
The Chinese mythology resembles the Indian mythology to a certain degree. The term for eclipse in the Chinese language was “chih”, meaning “to eat”. The Chinese believe that a dragon tries to swallow the sun or moon and this can evaded by the beating of the drums and shooting of arrows in the sky. It is rumored that this practice continued till the late nineteenth century, when the Chinese navy fired its cannons to scare away the dragon that was eating the moon.
The eastern part of the world, generally known as “the Orient” among the westerners, has always been associated with myths and superstitions. However, certain European cultures also fancied certain myths regarding eclipses.
The Greeks consider an eclipse to be an act of the god – Zeus, who unleashes his fury by blocking the sun. Another myth that is associated with the Greek culture is that of Medea, the Thessalian witch trying to overpower Helios(the Sun) and Selene(the Moon). During the day, the sun god - Helios was known to ride his horse drawn chariot in the sky. The same act was repeated by his sister Selene, in her silver chariot, during the night. The witches of Thessaly, most notably the evil Medea, tried to bring down the two gods during their travel by casting magic spells. The lunar eclipse was known as the “red moon” phenomena and it was assumed that the witches cast the spells to extract the blood of the goddess.
In roman mythology, the equivalent of Selene is known as Luna.
The biblical accounts of an eclipse sometimes involve the episode of Jesus’s crucifixion. The episode is named the ‘crucifixion darkness’, a phenomenon which tends to interpret the darkened skies as a sign of God’s anger with the Jewish people.
In Egyptian mythology, it was believed that the sun was temporarily attacked or was ill. Hence, the Pharaohs who considered themselves as the descendants of the Sun, took it upon themselves to maintain the cosmological balance by circling around the palace.
Ignorance and Insecurity: the crux of myths
A common thread to all the myths associated with different cultures is ignorance. A large population of the world has not been privy to the rational and scientific approach of thinking. Throughout the history of mankind, a few influential characters have taken significant advantage of the lurking fear factor among the masses. For instance, it is believed that the priests in India recommended a host of rituals during eclipses, in order to maintain their supremacy in the hugely caste segregated society. Non-Christian observers have disputed the story of crucifixion darkness and consider it as a literary creation. It is also thought that the story of a dragon swallowing the sun was actually a joke played by two Chinese astronomers.
It is quite evident that a lot of mythological accounts originated from being shrouded in ignorance and lack of rational thought. As we move ahead in the 21st century, there is a definite need to put an end to such beliefs and spread scientific awareness.
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