Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Dance of the sun and moon

Dance of the sun and moon
Dance of the sun and moon

In the middle of the day suddenly the sun vanishes from the sky. 

The US has seen many dark days of late, but this darkness was different. The intense expectations kept rising for this instant of revelation of nature’s miracle. Crossing the US from coast to coast, the solar eclipse is a unique experience that fills man’s senses with the glory and the mystery of the heavens.

Eclipses happen all the time but depending on where you live, total solar eclipses are rare and you are the richer for experiencing this complete yet fleeting gift of nature. Americans went so far as to leave home, travel to one of the 10 states where the eclipse occurred, for the drama and the glory of this rich earth.

As the moon totally covers the sun, the earth hides from human eyes their celestial dance in the heavens.

A solar eclipse occurs only when the earth, sun and moon are in nearly a straight line. As it moves from west to east, the moon’s shadow sweeps across the face of the Earth, at a speed of 3,200km per hour. If the moon completely blots the sun, we have a total eclipse — one of nature’s most impressive sights.

Though it lasts no longer than seven minutes and some seconds, the human view does not exceed 2.15 minutes of total darkness, yet the sky remains blue… a darker blue and some stars and planets may become visible. Viewing the darkness, animals get ready to sleep and birds chirrup their goodnight lullabies. 

One can only imagine the fear felt by ancient man. It is little wonder that this sudden darkness produced all sorts of stories and myths, some of which exist till today.

Demons, dragons and other creatures prowled through the skies, disturbing their gods, threatening to devour or steal them, caused the lunar and solar eclipses. The fear still exists in many cultures that consider eclipses as bad omens carrying death and destruction. Pregnant women are to remain indoors in order to protect the unborn. In India many fast during an eclipse for fear that the food was poisoned.

In ancient China, a celestial dragon was thought to lunch on the sun. In fact, the word for eclipse in Chinese is “chin” or “shin”, which means “to eat”. Koreans suggest that mythical dogs are trying to steal the sun, while for the Vietnamese a giant frog was eating the sun.

Beating on pots and pans, or hurling objects at the sky was thought to make loud noises to scare away the demons causing the eclipse by the Pomo American indigenous group. “Sun got bit by bear” was the name of an eclipse. The bear started a fight with the sun and took a bite out of it. Another advanced American tribe, the Inuits, believed the sun and the moon were fighting and to stop them from hurting each other people on earth should resolve all conflicts with each other.

During the highly superstitious days, ancient astronomers were groping for reasons for this phenomenon. The ancient Greeks believed that a solar eclipse was a sign of angry gods and the beginnings of disasters and destruction. The Lydians and the Medes ended a war in 585 BC following an eclipse, a sign of heavenly disapproval.

Pliny the Elder drew a line to towns struck by lightning in 59 AD.

Aristotle watched a lunar eclipse and concluded the earth was a sphere.

The fear in people persisted despite the efforts of Edmund Halley of “Halley’s comet” in 1715. He published a paper describing an eclipse to 18th century readers.

Sometimes natural events confirmed the belief that eclipses were a bad omen. Remember the King of Siam, in The King and I based on the book Anna and the King of Siam? That was based on a real King Rama IV of Siam, (Thailand), who was a student of astrology and astronomy who predicted a solar eclipse with stunning precision. The eclipse occurred and he died. The king had been bitten by a mosquito and died of malaria but the eclipse was to blame. 

Eclipses were blamed for deaths, wars, plagues, floods and fires such as “The Great Fire of London” in 1666. 

Despite the scientific information, explanations, description and photographs, E C  Krupp, director of the renowned Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, an expert in eclipse folklore believes that: “myths and superstitions continue to surround those celestial events. People pray, make offerings and try to chase the demons from the clouds.” 

Some of the Western myths are more sentimental than sorrowful. Italians believe that flowers planted during an eclipse are brighter and richer than at any other time. The question is how do you do that in total darkness?

Surprisingly enough the most romantic interpretation of eclipse lore comes to us from Germany.

The sun and the moon are married. The blazing sun rules by day and the sleepy moon by night. When the moon misses his bride he seeks her companionship and darkens the Earth so none can see. A solar eclipse is a visit of companions.

If not scientific, it is a happy picture, close to our interpretation of a romantic, celestial dance with all its tension and tempo.

What could be stranger than the momentous touching of two destinies, so utterly unlike, the fleeting contact of the extremes — fire and ice.

“The heavens call to you and circle round you, displaying to you their eternal splendours, and your eye gazes only to earth.”

Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)

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