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Celestial harmony or an evil omen? Solar eclipse superstitions throughout history



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SALT LAKE CITY — The word “eclipse” comes from the Greek word “ekleipsis,” which means “an abandonment.” So it comes as no surprise that civilizations throughout history have associated bad things with solar eclipses.

There are those who associate good things with solar eclipses, though, says University of Utah astronomer Paul Ricketts.

“Eclipses have several different meanings for popular culture and astrology,” he said. “Some people believe that during an eclipse, you can become one with the universe.”

Here’s a roundup of eclipse superstitions and beliefs throughout history.

There’s a demon swallowing the sun!!

Various ancient cultures — from the Americas, to Europe, to Asia — described believing that a demon or an animal had eaten the sun during eclipses.

Chinese stories describe a dragon swallowing it, Ricketts said.

“So when you see the eclipse, it’s like a dragon trying to steal the sun away from you,” he said.

Ancient Mayans, who occupied Central America, also described a dragon that came to eat the sun, and they used eclipses as a symbol in their art, Ricketts said.

Mayans and ancient Chinese recorded eclipses when they occurred.

The Native American Chaco people, who occupied present-day northwest New Mexico until about 800 years ago, even tried to predict eclipses using astronomy.

“So we know that they were witnesses to it and they tried to do some kind of thing with it, like a little bit of science,” Ricketts said.

A good sign or a bad sign?

While some people in popular culture today think an eclipse can be fortuitous, others still look at them as a bad omen.

“If you have a baby during the eclipse, I’ve heard two different stories,” Ricketts said. “One, that the baby is going to have health problems, and the other one is the baby is going to be more intelligent. So there’s two ways you can actually see that. There’s a lot of like mixed things in popular culture these days.”

Some people think you can become “one with the universe” in an eclipse, but other people think if you do something during an eclipse it could cause harm, Ricketts said.

Contrary to some stories he’s heard, Ricketts said preparing food during an eclipse won’t lead to food poisoning.

“That’s kind of a funny version of it,” Ricketts said. “The actual eclipse will have nothing to do with what you’re preparing for dinner or lunch."

No more sun? No more war

Two civilizations in ancient Asia called a truce after six years of war during a battle where “the day was suddenly turned to night,” according to ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

The Medes, an ancient Iranian people, and the Lydians, who were from present-day Turkey, were fighting a war in the 6th century B.C. During a day battle, an eclipse occurred, abruptly stopping the violence.

“So when the Lydians and Medes saw the day turned to night, they stopped fighting, and both were the more eager to make peace,” Herodotus wrote.

Related

The battle is now known as the Battle of the Eclipse, for obvious reasons. That eclipse, which is estimated to have darkened central Asia in the year 585 B.C., may have been the first eclipse that someone predicted before it happened.

Ancient Greek author Pliny the Elder wrote that Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus predicted the 585 B.C. eclipse, which is the earliest evidence that someone predicted one.

Won’t my dogs freak out during the eclipse?

Wild animals might become confused during the eclipse because they believe it’s nighttime.

“When the eclipse comes, it’s kind of like a midday sunset for them, so often you’ll hear birds tweeting and stuff like that as they would during sunset or sunrise,” Ricketts said.

Domestic animals and pets such as dogs and cats shouldn’t be confused, though, he said. Most cats will go by their own biological clock, or they’ll be inside and not notice the eclipse, he said.

Dogs follow their human’s schedule based on when their owners come home and feed them.

“You really don’t need to worry about your animals looking at the sun because they’re not going to be curious in that way,” Ricketts said.

Eclipses could lead to health, spiritual problems for Navajos

Many Navajos believe that solar eclipses can be a bad omen, Ricketts said.

Some believe that even looking at a photo of the eclipse can lead to health or spiritual problems. So if you’re Facebook friends with Navajo tribal members, you might want to make sure it’s OK to post eclipse photos.

Rob Varner, the superintendent of schools in Page, Arizona, said educators wanted to be sensitive to their students' needs. Page is a Navajo Nation border town and about 75 percent of students in the district are Navajo, he said.

“We knew that the eclipse was a very important cultural issue for them,” Varner said.

Most students will be kept inside during the eclipse on Monday, but a few classes will be allowed to go outside, he said. Parents were asked to sign permission slips in order to allow their kids to see the show.

“According to their beliefs, viewing an eclipse could result in health and spiritual problems,” Varner said. “(Navajos) believe that during the solar eclipse, there’s no eating or sleeping or being out in the sun while the eclipse is happening. … We just wanted to be very mindful of what needs to occur… but learning will continue.”

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