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The Myth and Reality of Eclipses

Updated on August 22, 2017
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Science has always fascinated me. This includes not only the ecological sciences, which I studied in school, but other endeavors as well.

The Terror of an Eclipse

Peruvians terrified during a lunar eclipse, 19th century colour engraving, by Gallo Gallina
Peruvians terrified during a lunar eclipse, 19th century colour engraving, by Gallo Gallina

Christopher Columbus Pulls a Fast One

On Christopher Columbus's fourth journey to the New World, his small fleet found themselves in a pretty tough predicament on the north shore of the island of Jamaica. The year was 1504 and the month was February. The natives of the island were in a near state of revolt because they had been forced to feed the starving sailors for many months. To make matters worse, mutinous members of the crew, had deserted the beached ships and were making their own war on the indigenous population.

Things indeed looked pretty bad for the Great Admiral, but fortunately for the Spanish, Christopher Columbus had one last trick up his sleeve. In his possession he had a book from Germany that laid out the calculations for both solar and lunar eclipses. So in essence, Columbus knew there would be a lunar eclipse at the end of February, while the Natives hadn't a clue.

Columbus used this inside information so that it appeared that he had connections to some very powerful deities, who even had control over the heavens. The end result was that after witnessing the eclipse of the moon, the local inhabitants gladly kept the explorers fed until they could continue their journey.

The Babylonians

The Babylonians were able to predict lunar eclipses about 700 years before the birth of Christ
The Babylonians were able to predict lunar eclipses about 700 years before the birth of Christ

Prediction of an Eclipse Is an Ancient Art

Ancient records show that both Chinese and Babylonian astrologers were very interested in eclipses as early as 2500 BCE. However, the ability to predict such events took many centuries with the Chinese finally being able to make accurate predictions of solar eclipses around the time of the birth of Christ.

On the other hand, using the 223 month lunar cycle, Babylonian astronomers were able to accurately predict lunar eclipses sometime around 700 BC. Even though some of the ancients were able to understand the celestial movements of the sun, moon and earth with great precision, there are many places on our planet today, where a solar or lunar eclipse is still observed with superstition and alarm.

Some Modern Day Myths

One of the most popular misconception about a solar eclipse is that dangerous radiation is emitted during the course of events. Nowhere is this more obvious than with the popular notion that it is risky for pregnant women to venture outdoors during a solar eclipse. Today, this view is held in many countries, but fortunately, there is no factual basis to this belief. And then, in Japan, it has been noted that many villagers will cover up their wells, so that the celestial event does not poison the water.

On a similar note, many people in India will fast during a solar eclipse. The belief here is that cooked food eaten during this time will be unpure.

And then from Italy, there comes a beneficial theory that flowers planted during a solar eclipse are brighter and more colorful than ones, which are seeded at other times..

A Bite Out of the Sun

A partial solar eclipse or a total solar eclipse in progress often gives the impression that something is taking a big bite out of the sun.
A partial solar eclipse or a total solar eclipse in progress often gives the impression that something is taking a big bite out of the sun. | Source

Eating the Sun

To the Vikings thought that an eclipse occurred, when a pack of wolves chased the sun across the sky and then captured the celestial orb. Meanwhile in Vietnam, it was a giant frog that devoured our nearest star. And in the Pacific Northwest, the Pomo Indians rationalized that the culprit was a giant bear. Even in ancient China, people believed that a giant dragon was the cause of the sun's demise.

These myths may seem strange to us today...that is.....until one takes a closer look at the images of an eclipse in progress, such as the one supplied above.

Total Solar Eclipse

A total eclipse is surrounded by a corona of light, A corona is defined as the rarefied gaseous envelope of the sun.
A total eclipse is surrounded by a corona of light, A corona is defined as the rarefied gaseous envelope of the sun. | Source

Viewing a Total Eclipse

Many of those, who take a big interest in public service announcements, are probably aware that is not advisable to look at the sun, while it is being eclipsed by the moon. Overall, this is sound advice, but if you happen to live in a place, where the eclipse is total, there is a short span of time, (several minutes at the most) when it is OK to view the celestial event, directly. That brief period occurs, when the moon completely blocks out the sun, so that only a corona of light completely surrounds the eclipse. But once the moon moves past the sun and those direct sun rays come shining through, then it is time to look away again. For anyone, who wants to learn the specifics about viewing an eclipse, they can check out this informative video.

Two Total Solar Eclipses In the Near Future

On August 21, 2017 there will be a total eclipse, whose path will cross the USA from Oregon to South Carolina. The area of darkness will be only 70 miles wide and will last only a few minutes. This is a rare coast-to-coast event that can be viewed by millions of people, who live along the path.

The second eclipse is predicted to occur on April 8, 2024. This eclipse will also be total, but it will follow a different path that begins in southwest Mexico and traverses in a northeasterly direction, across the U.S from Texas to Maine, and then continuing through the Canadian Maritimes.

By themselves, these are isolated events, but because these happenings are taking place only seven years apart, there abounds a sub-culture devoted to the idea that biblical prophecy may be related to the two eclipses. For interested parties, the internet harbors many of these bold predictions. Though they make for interesting reading, few government agencies or scientific organizations are taking the soothsayers very seriously.

A Big Deal

Path of the Eclipse

The path of the eclipse is displayed along with the times of impact
The path of the eclipse is displayed along with the times of impact | Source

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