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Dinner date: it's a celestial smorgasbord during eclipses.

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ECLIPSES ARE ON THE MENU this month, and you may order them from Column A and from Column B. There's a total solar eclipse on August 1st and a partial lunar eclipse on August 16th (see pages 66-67). If you have a taste for totality, your best chance for getting a good table is in China, Mongolia, or Russia. For most eclipse-hungry palates, that's a long way to go for a quick bite out of the Sun.

The table was spread closer to home on June 10, 2002, however, when Sylvia and Richard Sligar cooked up something special for an annular ("ring") eclipse that was served as a deep-partial croissant at maximum eclipse from where they lived. These fellow eclipse connoisseurs booked an elevated hillside view over the Pacific at a nearby restaurant, where they watched the Sun, toasted syzygy, and consumed their meal.

In many traditional cultures, the Sun or the Moon isn't a guest on such a dinner date--it's the main course. China serves its eclipse delicacies with the word shih. It means "to eat," and it has been a term for "eclipse" for at least 3,400 years. Carved onto Shang-dynasty oracle bones, it documents Bronze-Age eclipse consumption.

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Although many popular accounts report that the ancient Chinese blamed a dragon for eating the Sun and Moon, reliable sources actually identify the true eclipse predator as the Heavenly Dog.

According to Korean eclipse belief, eclipses occur when the King of the Land of Darkness dispatches Fire Dogs after the Sun and Moon. Although the luminaries get caught in the Fire Dogs' jaws, they always escape.

Celestial canines also chewed up the Sun and the Moon in old Scandinavia. The Prose Edda, a compilation of Viking lore authored by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, puts the mythic sky wolf Skoll ("Repulsion") at the Sun's throat while a second wolf, Hati ("Hatred"), dogs the Moon. When Hati swallows the Moon, its blood spatters over the sky.

The Armenians and the Baltic peoples both believed that a dragon dines during an eclipse, and the notion of an eclipse dragon persists in astronomical terminology. The ascending and descending nodes of the Moon's orbit--its intersections with the Sun's path across our sky--were traditionally known as the dragon's head and dragon's tail. The word draconic is rooted in the Latin and Greek word for dragon, and the Sun completes a "draconic" year when Earth's orbital motion returns the Sun to the same lunar node. This interval is also associated with eclipse recurrence because an eclipse of any flavor can only occur when the Sun and Moon both occupy a node.

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Many other creatures presented their Diners Club cards during eclipses. In Siberia, a blood-drinking monster gorged on the Sun and Moon. A cloud-chasing werewolf put the bite on them in Yugoslavia. They're gobbled by a toad in Vietnam. The Hupa Indians of northwest California said the eclipsed Sun is eaten by his pets: mountain lions and rattlesnakes. In the Pacific Northwest, the Kwakiutl blamed eclipses on the Mouth of Heaven, and the Toba, in South America's Gran Chaco, figured that supernatural jaguars were on the heavenly hunt.

Various deities belly up to the celestial table in South Pacific legends. For example, in Tahiti and Moorea, a neglected god ingests the Sun. And in Samoan lore, the Shark God eats the Moon goddess Hina when a lunar eclipse is served.

A carved boulder at Teotenango in central Mexico depicts a 1477 eclipse as a jaguar eating the Sun. The Codex Acatitlon, a post-Conquest Aztec document, illustrates a 1306 eclipse with a snake swallowing the Sun.

The Maya of Mexico's Yucaton called a solar eclipse the "eating of the Sun" and a lunar eclipse the "eating of the Moon," but European influence in the Colonial era is evident in the Chilam Balam of Chumayel, a book of traditional calendrical prophecy. A note with its eclipse diagram explains, "Neither the Sun nor Moon is eaten." Eclipse vocabulary among other Maya groups also refers to eating.

The Dresden Codex, a pre-Conquest Maya divinatory almanac, contains a table illustrated with images of eclipse glyphs dangling above the open maw of an undulating serpent with dinner in mind.

The eclipsing mouth that gobbles up the Sun and the Moon in Hindu India belongs to the celestial demon Rahu, according to a story in the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic consolidated around the 5th century AD. Decapitated by the god Vishnu, Rahu hounds the Sun and Moon, who caught him stealing the elixir of immortality (S&T December 2005, page 46). Hungry for revenge, Rahu takes a bite. His head is astronomically equated with the Moon's ascending node, while the rest of his body, halfway around the sky, is the descending node.

Eclipses are, of course, gastronomically predictable. Not long after you've consumed one, you're hungry for more.

E. C. Krupp has an appetite for astronomy at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
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Title Annotation:Rambling Through the Skies
Author:Krupp, E.C.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2008
Words:827
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