Solar eclipse 2020: A history of eclipses and bizarre responses to them

From believing in sun-swallowing monsters to screaming in terror, people have responded to the brief disappearance of the sun in strange ways for millennia.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
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Eric Mack
5 min read

Johann Berkowski took this image of the total solar eclipse in 1851.

Johann Berkowski

As one of the final major events of 2020, the sun will go dark. Fortunately, this is expected to be only temporary and due to the lone total solar eclipse of the year.

Unlike the major eclipse that was at least partially visible for many Americans in 2017, the 2020 eclipse on Dec .14 will only be visible in totality from the southern end of South America and parts of the Atlantic and Pacific. Though it will be possible to watch from anywhere via livestream. 

Although a total solar eclipse only lasts a few minutes, the rare phenomenon has a long history of eliciting all sorts of odd reactions from the beings it briefly blankets with daytime darkness.

The Vikings made loud noises to scare off Skoll and Hati, the two wolves of Norse mythology who chased the sun and moon and occasionally caught them, causing an eclipse. Centuries later, a woman anxiety-ridden over the doomsaying associated with a 1748 solar eclipse "locked herself up in a room and cut her arm in such a manner that she bled to death," according to the London Evening Post at the time.

Some of the strangest responses came in previous centuries when understanding of what causes these stellar abductions was less widespread. But we enlightened, modern folk are not immune.

In her 1982 essay Total Eclipse, Annie Dillard recalls hearing screams of terror and/or elation at the sight of a solar eclipse that swept across Washington state in 1979. 

Steve Ruskin, a historian of astronomy and author of America's First Great Eclipse, discovered a commonality too. 

"What I find most amazing, having studied eclipses throughout history, is that no matter the time period or the scientific knowledge (or lack thereof), human responses to an eclipse are consistently, universally, expressions of awe and wonder, and even fear and terror," Ruskin told me. 

He says Norse wolves weren't the only creatures, according to ancient myth and legend, causing eclipses by devouring the sun. The Maya, who learned to predict eclipses, sometimes depicted them as a giant snake. The Inca seemed to believe a jaguar swallowed the moon to cause a lunar eclipse. 

"One rather unique and largely unknown response to an eclipse is found in an 1886 account of Australian aborigines," Ruskin says. They "reportedly believed that the eclipse was caused by another tribe up on the moon itself, a people who were sick and angry, and were taking their 'bad frame of mind' out on the Australian aborigines below."


An illustration of an eclipse from 1613.

M. Blundeuile/ US Library of Congress

Royal concerns

Ancient Babylonians had an understanding of mathematics advanced enough to predict eclipses, but still saw them as bad omens for their royalty. They often put a commoner on the throne during an eclipse so that if some actual dark doings befell the king they would fall upon the fake king instead. After the eclipse, the regal stand-in was rewarded for his service by being killed, just to be sure any bad eclipse cooties died along with him.

Court astronomers in ancient China met a similar fate when they failed to predict an eclipse, allegedly because they were drunk. The 4,000-year-old anecdote later inspired a poem that has been passed down for centuries:

"Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hi, Whose fate though sad was visible, Being hanged because they could not spy Th'eclipse which was invisible."

Arguably the most famous solar eclipse was the one that coincided with the death of England's King Henry I in 1133. Chaos and civil war followed. 

An eclipse in Turkey in 585 B.C. had the opposite effect. Warring armies took it as a sign from the gods that perhaps they should try to get along. Just like that, the story goes, 15 years of fighting came to a sudden end.

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Minds, blown

After the eclipse of 647 B.C., the Greek poet Archilochus found himself considering what other tricks the gods might have in store for the mortals below: 

"After this, men can believe anything, expect anything. Don't any of you be surprised in future if land beasts change places with dolphins and go to live in their salty pastures, and get to like the sounding waves of the sea more than the land, while the dolphins prefer the mountains." 

According to Ruskin, an eclipse had even darker implications for native Jamaicans when seafaring super-jerk Christopher Columbus used the event to convince locals that they had best feed his crew or risk angering his god. The arrival of the eclipse helped Columbus subjugate the natives.

Perhaps history's strangest response to a total solar eclipse was the least hysterical one. When the sun vanished shortly after rising early in the morning over Europe in the year 1230, local workers apparently thought little of it. They just went back to bed, according to historian Roger of Wendover, only to be astonished when the sun had regained its normal brightness within an hour. 

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Still shocked to see the sun slip away

"More often than not, (eclipses) were a source of fear and anxiety," Ruskin says. "Not until the period known as the European Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries do scientific explanations of the motion of the Earth, sun and moon tend to alleviate such anxieties, at least among Europeans."  

This scientific enlightenment allowed us to take a deep breath and a look around during eclipses. Turns out the event has an odd effect on animals too. 

"A crow was the only animal near me; it seemed quite bewildered, croaking and flying backwards and forwards near the ground in an uncertain manner," wrote John Couch Adams about one 19th century eclipse. 

Scientific curiosity around eclipses also prompted some presumably anxiety-inducing endeavors, like Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev's use of a balloon to watch an 1887 eclipse from over 2 miles high in the air. 

So as we look back now on some of the irrational, illogical and downright bizarre reactions to this trick of trigonometry, try not to judge. Even today, the myth that an eclipse is somehow a danger to pregnant women persists. When the thing that sustains all life suddenly vanishes from the sky, who's to say it might not trigger some deep primal instinct that supersedes the more rational responses of the conscious mind?

You'll have a chance to find out first-hand if you can get to a spot somewhere in the path of totality on Dec. 14. 

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