ORDER AND CHAOS: SAVING THE SUN FROM DEATH DURING A TOTAL ECLIPSE
As I sit here in my office in Columbia, South Carolina eagerly awaiting the coming total solar eclipse in two days, I can reflect on my good fortune to be residing in one of the epi-centers for this historic and unique event. It has been a hundred years since a total solar eclipse traveled from coast to coast in the U.S. and this once in a lifetime opportunity cannot help but call out the anthropologist in this writer to consider how such a spectacular celestial event has no doubt imprinted itself in the minds and myths of many cultures from times long beyond our knowledge. As I have often noted in several earlier blog articles in this series, ancient cultures undoubtedly placed far more emphasis, and devoted much more of their thought processes and subsequent behaviors, to events they witnessed and recorded in their myths about what they saw or interpreted in the heavens above them. Nothing they witnessed could have been as devastatingly upsetting to their world view than an unexpected total solar eclipse, especially if no one alive in their group had ever witnessed such an event in their lifetime—a very likely occurrence the farther back in time we look.
It is hard to imagine few such celestial events having produced more of an impact on these ancient astronomers—not to mention the common people who looked to them for guidance or explanations of what their eyes were revealing to their superstitious world views—as the passage of a total solar eclipse. What such a singular event and all that it must have represented, given the primary status of the Sun as a source of godly veneration in virtually every past human culture, is difficult to imagine for those of us who have a more scientific view of such occurrences, as well as explicit awareness of previously recorded similar events. The mere knowledge that we have the capability of predicting these eclipses exact appearance date, path of movement, and duration (something we now take for granted, of course) still does not lessen the intense interest and anticipation of the actual event. (Note: There has not been a hotel or motel room, campground space, etc. available in this area for over a month, and the same is happening elsewhere in major locales in the direct arc of the eclipse. My own home will be hosts to several out-of-state guests in the coming days, all as eager as everyone else to travel a significant distance to witness the unique event.)
Ancient peoples, for the most part, lacked the capability of predicting most solar eclipses in a given location, primarily due to their infrequency and the inability of past generations to record them. We know that lunar eclipses, occurring much more frequently, were more easily predicted and recorded. Several authors and archeologists have for some time noted the likelihood of major sites, such as Stonehenge, being used as lunar eclipse cycle calculators and predictors even though some of the more exact claims for such specific features at major astronomical sites in various locations around the world are still in dispute. What is not in doubt, however, is that ancient astronomers would have been desperate to find both the means to gain such knowledge and the manner by which they could then explain to their followers just what the meaning for such an event in their particular world view must have meant in the larger context of their time and specific belief system. It would be instructive, then, to look at some ways that we do know about how ancient peoples reacted to such eclipse events in the past and how these reactions might have been rooted in much earlier beliefs or myths passed down over the generations in the hopes of explaining what must have generally felt like not only the unexplainable but the extremely dangerous as well.
CALLING BACK THE SUN
During a total eclipse the sun goes completely dark as the moon’s orb completely covers the more distant solar circle. While the total eclipse may last only minutes, the entire event from beginning until the sun completely reemerges from the moon’s shadow can take several hours to pass. Since it is well-known that to gaze directly at the eclipse for any extended period can have dire consequences to the eyes of the watcher (By the way, we can only guess at how many unfortunates had to pay a heavy price for not knowing or not heeding this knowledge before humans learned how to react to an eclipse.) no one would have been able to follow the beginning of the entire cycle reversing itself for who knows how far back in ancient times. Therefore, without such prior knowledge it clearly would have appeared that the very Sun itself—the primary God in most cultures—was either dying or being eaten by the moon or some other celestial monster during such an event. The relief that must have been felt among ancient peoples as the darkened sun began to re-emerge, or be reborn, as the eclipse wanes must have been a moment of high spiritual significance in any culture that experienced it. It should come as no surprise, then, that many cultures that had some knowledge of prior eclipses having occurred in their past must have soon developed some mechanisms among their priestly elites to insure they received the credit for initiating or even causing the “rebirth” of their great God when an eclipse happened.
Among less sophisticated or less astronomically advanced cultures, the common people out of their sheer terror at the apparent loss of the single most essential aspect in their lives, a significant fact that cannot be over-stressed, must have also developed methods for calling the Sun back into existence during the eclipse. We know, for example, even in modern times, many tribal peoples will “sing” the Sun back into light—or sing its attacker away. It has been recorded that some peoples will grab pots and pans, whistles, drums, or other noise-making implements and rush forth to bang on them and shout in an attempt to drive away the “monster” that is eating their Sun. Those sophisticated ancient cultures with a more highly developed astronomical observation history will have had specific ceremonies, perhaps even involving human or other sacrifices, to appease the Sun God at such an important moment. It is easy to assume that cultures that made blood sacrifices to the Sun (and Moon as well, perhaps, although much less frequently) in normal times would certainly have reacted with such extreme measures during or immediately after a major eclipse. The high cultures of Central and South America that were both astronomically sophisticated and well-steeped in the practices of human sacrifice most likely reacted in this way, even if direct evidence in their records is not clear on the subject of eclipses. Other ancient cultures in other parts of the world may have reacted similarly, with or without blood sacrifices.
RESTORING ORDER FROM CHAOS
All human cultures that have predominantly celestial based mythologies or belief systems (which, of course includes nearly all past and present systems) have historically followed some of the same basic elements in their belief system, Without a doubt, the bulk of these are related in some way to the Cosmos and what they observed there. The primary things these systems rely upon the heavens to provide them is regularity and predictability for the passage of time—past, present, and future—and the mechanisms for establishing a means to fit their own mortality and belief in some form of immortality into these observations and passages of large blocks of time beyond their individual lives. In other words, they needed a place to mark the eternal passage of time where they or their spirits might go to dwell in eternity once their earthly existence was ended. Any interruption in the regularity observed over time in the celestial sphere upon which they depended could introduce a more dangerous Chaos into their world view in a manner that must be both explained away and some form of expiation put forward to deal with it to insure the continuation of endless time—and their own celestial existence.
Surely, such things as the appearance of a comet, a super nova, and most of all, a total solar eclipse would have been an event of such significance in upsetting the natural order of the Cosmos upon which all peoples depended that coming up with some way to restore the balance of the heavens would have been an absolute necessity for the priest/kings who ruled those ancient cultures. To have failed to do so could have brought down those who could not call back the Sun from the Darkness, or assure the common folk that the event they had just observed was not the beginning of the end of their world—both on earth and in the sky. Conversely, any ancient astronomer who could have predicted the arrival of such an event or known that it was temporary in duration would have been able to exert an amazing power over those who turned to him for guidance at the critical moment that the Chaos was interjected into their heavenly world view.
Most cosmologies are based on the same regular patterns. The sun and moon were the primary gods that moved across their sky. The Sun marks time by days and the moon keeps time by months. The fixed stars and the constellations they make up also move in predictable regularity across the sky from season to season. They may represent animals or specific events that are fixed points in time and can be recalled with predictable certainty as they move with the Milky Way, the great river of time that flows across the sky and marks the beginning and end of specific longer periods of creation and beyond. The planets, however, are not fixed in the sky and they drift through the stars and constellations and are used to mark less extended or more limited durations of time—but still in a predictable manner. Saturn or Chronos, with the widest arc through the heavens is in almost all cases the great keeper of these generationally marked periods of time (twenty years, forty years, etc.). All the known planets served as the gods and goddesses who enjoyed this divine mobility to pursue specific paths in the heavens. The periodic conjunction of these god/planets as they cross each other’s paths, or those of other zodiac marked constellations, provided most ancient cultures with the regularity they needed to produce the various myths of creation and Order that were required to develop and maintain a meaningful and comprehensible structure within which belief systems could be developed and nurtured over time.
When any event such as an eclipse interrupted this structure a disaster could occur—not only in the heavens but on earth as well. Wars, pestilence, and any such traumatic event or series of them, no matter how seemingly unrelated, would have been attributed to the disaster in the stars themselves. Indeed, our very word for these events, “Disaster”, refers directly to such celestial chaos-introducing events as an eclipse. Dis- is a prefix that means “from” of course, and aster, is the root word for star. In other words, a Disaster is something that comes “from the stars”—no small thing for ancient peoples needing a supernatural explanation for anything not otherwise explainable in the absence of science.
LITERATURE AND ECLIPSES
Eclipses have, of course, long been used by authors as a device in fiction to extract characters from tricky situations or to imbue these characters with some form of apparent supernatural powers. Many an explorer in some dangerous tropical adventure thriller has been saved from the “stewpot” so-to-speak by his ability to refer to his pocket almanac and conveniently discover that an eclipse of the sun or moon is about to occur. Armed with this knowledge he is able to save himself and his lovely companion from imminent demise by wowing the local tribesman with his ability to make the sun disappear and then call it back into existence at just the critical moment in the story to “save the day”, and the author’s story. My personal favorite example of this device, although not the only one by any means, is H. Ryder Haggard’s boyhood favorite KING SOLOMON’S MINES. I must also admit that I am guilty of using this device myself in one of my own stories. Those who have read books in THE PEOPLE OF THE STONE series may have discovered this writer’s personal predilection for paying a certain “homage” to other authors I favor in some way by subtly (or not so much) borrowing from one of their stories in the form of a character name, etc. In the fourth book in the series, A DARK WINGED SHADOW, which deals with the rise of one of the charismatic early astronomers I have featured in my books on more than one occasion, I use the device of a solar eclipse and the main character’s ability to know that it will soon pass to stop a war and advance his own status at a critical point in the story.
However, like much of our fiction, myth is based in reality, and it is easy to imagine that time and again in our long human history of watching the spectacular events that played out in the skies above us and how these events found their way into our legends and myths ancient peoples used these events not only to mark time and history but to advance their knowledge and cultural heritage in ways we can only think about and wonder. It will be both an honor and a privilege to watch the coming total solar eclipse with the same wonder of our ancestors, secure in the knowledge that the world, or Time itself, is not going to end and that, like nearly all things in our long human history, “this, too, shall pass.” I will be happy to sing back the Sun to help reestablish the Order of our universe at the proper time—if only I can recall all the lyrics to The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun”.
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