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On 'the marvellous sudden dark coming' History books were full of stories of eclipses taking place at significant moments, writes Dr Chris Upton.

If you don't understand what's happening, a solar eclipse can be very hard to deal with. As late as 1560 Henry Rogeford noted in his almanac that an eclipse "doth terribly amaze and fear them which have no knowledge in astronomy, considering the marvellous sudden dark coming thereof".

Well into the following century his fellow astronomers and astrologers were still trying to knock on the head the idea that an eclipse spelled trouble.

It was not easy to shake such a notion. After all, the history books were full of stories of eclipses taking place at significant moments. Whether the darkening of the sun was a portent of trouble down below or a reflection of it, was a much trickier question.

In 1375 BC it was recorded at Ugarit that "the sun was put to shame and went down in daytime", while the Assyrian chronicles recorded in 763 BC that the sun was eclipsed during an insurrection in the city of Assur. And even if you didn't entirely trust the historians, the Bible (which you did) was also full of accounts of the sun standing still or disappearing during the day.

The moment of the crucifixion of Christ was one such moment. More disturbing still, the Book of Revelation indicated that the Apocalypse would take place at a time when "the sun became black as sackcloth of hair and the whole moon became like blood".

Such apocalyptic foreboding was not restricted to Christianity. Norse mythology foretold that Ragnaruk - the final battle between the gods and giants - would take place after the sun darkened. Christian or pagan, an eclipse was not something you took lightly.

The eclipse of October 1995, which passed over much of Asia, led to many people spending the day indoors, fearing the ill-effects of being exposed to the phenomenon. Shops and businesses in India remained closed, as did many schools in Pakistan. The fact that the eclipse happened to coincide with Diwali, the festival of light and fire, only added to the superstition.

In South-East Asia pregnant women believed that the eclipse could adversely affect their unborn children. Why take the risk ?

Most ancient civilisations thought of the sun as a god, whose turning circle brought daylight and summer warmth, without which there was not a lot to live for. It was hard enough to accept its disappearance at sunset (the Egyptian Pharaoh ritually walked a circuit of his palace to encourage his heavenly companion to complete the same round trip), let alone that the sun's light might be dimmed in daytime.

The folklore and religious beliefs of many cultures described the event as the sun being devoured by an evil creature. In China (where the word "eclipse" was derived from the verb "eat") it was a dragon, whilst in Hindu mythology the malevolent spirit was Urta, the demon snake.

In Romanian folklore the creature was called Varcolac, one of a group of sky beasts who attacked both the sun and the moon. The phases of the moon were a sure sign that Varcolac had taken great chunks out of it.

In some parts of Romania Varcolac was believed to be a ghost; in others he was a werewolf which had risen from the body of an unbaptised child. He was also likely to appear when a particular household taboo was broken, as, for example, if a member of the house threw out rubbish in the direction of the sun.

Given the threat to their livelihood (not, obviously, in the case of Cornish hoteliers), it was understandable that primitive peoples made an effort to protect the sun or to scare off the demon.

James Frazier tells us in The Golden Bough that the Ojebway Indians of North America and the Sencis of Peru fired burning arrows into the sky in an attempt to re-ignite the sun's rays. Either that, or to ward off the creature which attacked it.

The Chilcotin Indians, on the other hand, adopted a different technique. They tucked up their clothes, as if going on a long journey, leant on their walking-sticks and trudged round the village for the duration of the eclipse, as if weighed down by a heavy burden. Their efforts, they believed, helped to support the sun in his failing steps. Since it was clear that what happened in the sky affected what happened on Earth, many peoples believed the reverse as well.

During an eclipse the ancient Chinese banged drums to frighten away the dragon, while the Incas tried dancing and shouting at it. In Japan it was common to cover wells, in case the poison in the atmosphere dropped into them and polluted the supply.

However, not every civilisation accepted that the solar eclipse was a portent of doom. In Tahiti it was believed that the sun and moon were lovers, and that an eclipse was a visible sign of the two "spending a night together".

And among the Eskimos and other tribes of the Arctic regions (where, perhaps, the sun did not have quite as vital a role to play in their lives) the eclipse was an indication that the sun and moon had come down out of their spheres to cast a parental eye over the earth. Perhaps the Eskimos are just not worriers like us Southerners.

Whatever your beliefs, it was clear that a solar eclipse was something to take very seriously indeed. There was, if you think about it, some method in all this madness. When an eclipse takes place it's very tempting to stare at it, and that, of course, is a very dangerous thing to do. At least as far as your eyesight is concerned.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 11, 1999
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