Interpretation of eclipses in mythology

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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THE FRUIT THAT MAKES HISTORY

Apple

If you were asked to think of a fruit, which is the first one that comes to your mind? Most likely the apple. Mankind’s fascination with apples is itself fascinating. From naming companies to writing phrases, it is indeed the ‘apple of our eyes’. Not for nothing did Henry David Thoreau say, “It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”

A Costly Apple

Three apples changed the history of the earth- Adam’s apple, Newton’s apple and Steve Jobs’ apple. There are many who wish it was a pumpkin that fell on Newton instead. And what made Steve Jobs name his company after the fruit, only he knows. As for Adam, Chuck Palahniuk has the answer, or rather the question. “Did perpetual happiness in the Garden of Eden maybe get so boring that eating the apple was justified?” Many other apples too have had their share of history and myth. In Norse mythology for instance, the goddess Iðunn, in the Prose Edda (written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson), provides apples to the gods that give them eternal youthfulness. A historical fruit, if ever there was one.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a typical apple serving weighs 242 grams and contains 126 calories with significant dietary fiber and vitamin C content. Research suggests that apples may reduce the risk of colon cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer. So an apple a day might keep the doctor away. But apples can cause trouble. Atalanta, of Greek mythology, raced all her suitors in an attempt to avoid marriage. She outran all but Hippomenes (also known as Melanion, a name possibly derived from melon the Greek word for both “apple” and fruit in general). Hippomenes knew that he could not win in a fair race, so he used three golden apples (gifts of Aphrodite, the goddess of love) to distract Atalanta. It took all three apples and all of his speed, but Hippomenes was finally successful, winning the race and Atalanta’s hand.

Forbidden Fruit

Did you also know that apples had a hand in the war of Troy? The Greek goddess of discord, Eris, became disgruntled after she was excluded from the wedding of Peleus and Thetis. In retaliation, she tossed a golden apple inscribed Kalliste- ‘For the most beautiful one’), into the wedding party. Three goddesses claimed the apple: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Paris of Troy was appointed to select the recipient. After being bribed by both Hera and Athena, Aphrodite tempted him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. He awarded the apple to Aphrodite, thus indirectly causing the Trojan War. And who can forget the forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden? Though the Book of Genesis does not specifically name the fruit, popular Christian tradition has held that it was an apple that Eve coaxed Adam to share with her. A ‘bad apple’ indeed! On a less mythical note, the seeds of apples contain small amounts of amygdalin, a sugar and cyanide compound known as a cyanogenic glycoside. Ingesting small amounts of apple seeds will cause no ill effects, but in extremely large doses can cause adverse reactions. Nature’s own cyanide poison?

Fruit for Thought

The apple seems to be the favourite of both nature and humans. But there are indeed some individuals who prefer other fruits. Like Demetri Martin who says- “My favorite fruit is grapes. Because with grapes, you always get another chance. ‘Cause, you know, if you have a crappy apple or a peach, you’re stuck with that crappy piece of fruit. But if you have a crappy grape, no problem - just move on to the next. ‘Grapes: The Fruit of Hope.’” He may have a point there. And yet, it is always ‘A for Apple’- never ant, antelope or aeroplane. Nothing takes the apple’s place! Perhaps it is, as author Dan Brown says in his book the Da Vinci Code, the ‘sacred orb from heaven’.

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