Eclipse History is Bizarre and Terrifying

On Monday, August 21st a large swath across the United States will be able to witness the spectacle of a total solar eclipse. Many are planning special events to celebrate this momentous occasion. Though we are sadly not in the path of totality, Advance Air is planning to celebrate the event with a Solar Eclipse party of our own on the rooftop deck of a restaurant in Downtown New Bedford. We’re shutting down early (though we are ALWAYS available for HVACR emergencies!) so that we can all have an opportunity to see the magic happen!

In my research of this event, I stumbled across some interesting/disturbing history around solar and lunar eclipses, that I had to share. For obvious reasons, before science could predict and explain eclipses, they were feared not celebrated. I mean, imagine suddenly seeing the sun start to disappear behind a dark shadow without warning or explanation! Reactions ranged from strange to truly bizarre and disturbing. Here are just a few examples I found in an article written by Senior Writer Calla Cofield:

  1. To “protect” themselves from an eclipse, rituals were often performed that included shouting or wailing at the sky during an eclipse, firing arrows into the heavens to chase off beasts, or making offerings to the creatures responsible for these events.
  2. A Spanish priest named Bernardino de Sahagún, who lived with Aztecs in ancient Mexico, wrote that when a solar eclipse became visible in the sky, there was “tumult and disorder. All were disquieted, unnerved, frightened. There was a weeping. The common folk raised a cry, lifting their voices, making a great din, calling out, shrieking … People of light complexion were slain [as sacrifices]; captives were killed. … It was thus said, ‘If the eclipse of the sun is complete, it will be dark forever! The demons of darkness will come down; they will eat men.'”
  3. Even modern skywatchers have reported being so hypnotized by these events that they completely forget to do things like snap a photograph or execute a scientific experiment. Skywatchers who have witnessed total solar eclipses may understand why people throughout history, and even into the modern era, have felt that these celestial events were a sign from another world.
  4. Take, for example, the story of a Roman emperor who witnessed a total solar eclipse in A.D. 840. In his book “American Eclipse” (Liveright, 2017), journalist David Baron reported that the emperor was “so unnerved” by the sight of the eclipse that he stopped eating and eventually starved to death, “plunging his realm into civil war.”
  5. On a somewhat happier note, in the sixth century B.C., a battle in Asia Minor between the Medes and the Lydians came to a halt when a total eclipse darkened the sky, Baron wrote; following the event, the soldiers were eager to make peace, believing the eclipse was a sign for them to stop the fighting, reports say.
  6. In the summer of 1878, a total solar eclipse swept down through the continental U.S. Despite relatively extensive news coverage of the event, and despite the fact that astronomers knew not only when the event was coming but also where it would be visible, some of the people who witnessed the event swore it was a sign of the end times. A man named Ephraim Miller believed the eclipse marked the coming of the apocalypse, and rather than stay to see the horrors that were sure to follow, he took his own life, right after he murdered his son with an axe.
  7. In the Hindu text known as the Mahabharata, the demon Rahu creates eclipses of the sun and moon by periodically swallowing the celestial bodies.
  8. Some still believe that eclipses can cause birth defects in unborn fetuses or miscarriages in pregnant women. To be clear, there is no evidence that eclipses harm pregnant women or their fetuses.
  9. Many people also thought that during an eclipse children would turn into mice.

For the Aug. 21 eclipse, NASA and the American Astronomical Society have conducted a massive campaign of public awareness to avoid general panic and the repeat of any of the above bizarre history. In addition to providing people with information about eye safety (look for ISO and CE certifications), the Eclipse Task Force folks are warning people about the massive crowds that are expected to gather in the path of totality. With the massive influx into the path of totality, experts warn that gasoline could become scarce near the path and resources such as food, water and bathrooms may be overwhelmed. Angela Speck, a researcher at the University of Missouri and part of the AAS Eclipse Task Force said that conditions during the eclipse are “going resemble a zombie apocalypse.”

When I read that, I was kind of glad, NOT to be in the path of totality! I hope things turn out better than anticipated and wish you all safe and zombie-free solar eclipse viewing next week!