The eclipses of the Sun and the Moon are phenomena that once excited much curiosity and even horror. That is where a lot of superstitious beliefs about eclipse come from. Today, the cause of these phenomena is so well known and easy to specify, that astronomers can predict the exact time of the beginning and the end of an eclipse a long time in advance. So we could imagine that they have lost their fantastic interest to the public and that the big scares have stopped because of the electronic calculators and Internet reign on the world. But the fantasies aroused for example by the eclipse of August 11, 1999, complacently relayed by the media, show enough if it was necessary that there is no more absurd belief that the one who would not have it There is no place today for absurd beliefs (Scientism). It is with this remark in mind that we must consider what we thought about eclipses at other times, or what we sometimes still believe in other places.
In astronomy, the eclipse refers to the total or partial disappearance of the sun caused by the passage of the moon before him.
I – Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in Europe
*** Superstitious Beliefs in Ancient Greece.
The cause of the eclipses of the moon was attributed to the visits that Artemis or the moon made to Endymion, in the mountains of Caria. Others claimed that the magicians, especially those of Thessaly, where poisonous herbs were more common, had the power, by their enchantments, to attract the moon to the earth, and, to believe the Greek and Latin authors (Plato, Pliny, Titus Live), that it was necessary to make a great noise of cauldrons and other sound instruments to prevent him from hearing their evocations and their magic songs.
The ancient Greeks already regarded these phenomena as the omens of the greatest misfortunes. History tells us that Pericles reassured his sailors and his soldiers terrified by an eclipse of the Sun. Alexander, near Arbelles, used all his skill to calm the terror of his troops at the time of an eclipse of the Moon. Sulpicius Gallus, lieutenant of Paul-Emile, predicted an eclipse of the Moon which arrived the next day and changed in confidence the terror which his soldiers would have had.
*** Superstitious Beliefs in Scandinavia.
The Scandinavians had about the same ideas. The Moon and the Sun, Mane, and Sunna, who are brother and sister, walk fast, pursued by two terrible wolves ready to devour them. The most fearsome is Managarmer, a monster who is fattening from the substance of humans nearing their end, sometimes eating the moon, and spilling blood in the sky and in the air (an allusion to the blackish-red hue of the moon during eclipses total).
*** Superstitious Beliefs in the Lapps.
According to the traditions of the Lapps, eclipses of the moon are caused by the demons that devour this star. That’s why they throw firearms into the sky, to scare bad spirits and rescue the moon.
II – Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in Africa
*** Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in West Africa.
In their popular traditions, the Mandingoes, though professing Islam, attribute eclipses of the moon to a cat who puts his paw between the Moon and the Earth; and for as long as the phenomenon lasts, they keep singing and dancing.
*** Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in Ancient Egypt.
The Egyptians honored Isis, one of the personifications of the Moon, also with a similar sound of cauldrons, drums, and timpani. A total eclipse was a terrible event, a terrible upheaval, a war to the death against the Sun or the Moon, and spreading consternation in all minds. The announcement of the eclipses and their insertion in the calendars was not enough to reassure, and it was a long time before the multitude could consider these phenomena with an eye of indifference and simple curiosity.
III – Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in Asia
*** Eclipses in India.
The sacred books of the Indians recount that the gods and demons having, by their united efforts, obtained the amrita or drink of immortality, fought against each other for the possession of the precious liquor. Vishnu having succeeded in seizing it, made him drink to the devas; but Rahu, one of the bad geniuses, took the form of a devil, slipped among the gods, and came to drink it in his turn. The Sun and the Moon, who had discovered the deception, warned Vishnu, and this god, with a blow of his sharp disk, made the head of the monster fall before the liquor had managed to groan; his body died, but his head, which had participated in the amrita, was endowed with immortality. Full of wrath against the two stars who had denounced him, Rahu is constantly busy pursuing them in celestial spaces, and whenever he encounters them, he tries to devour them. This is the cause of eclipses. It is in order to obtain the deliverance of these stars that the Hindoos give themselves up to prayer, ablutions, and practices of piety during the duration of the eclipses. Thus the time of the appearance of these phenomena is carefully indicated in the almanacs published annually by the Brahman astrologers.
Famous Eclipse of 1666
Bernier gives us further details of the superstitious practices of the Hindoos during this famous eclipse of 1666. He himself was an eye-witness, for he lived in a house on the banks of the Yamuna River. From the top of his terrace, he saw on both sides of the river the Indians plunged into the water to the waist, their eyes fixed on the sky, in order to hide entirely under the water, as soon as the eclipse would begin. The children of both sexes were entirely naked, the men had their thighs covered with a sort of scarf and the women with a simple sheet. On the other side of the river, he saw the rajahs, the bankers, and the merchants, who were in tents with their families. They had planted species of screens in the river which they call khanates so that no one saw them wash. As soon as the eclipse began, all the Indians plunged into the water several times in succession, uttering loud cries: then, raising their eyes and hands towards the eclipsed star, they saluted him with several deep inclinations, mumbling certain prayers, and making several contortions. They also took water in the palm of their hand, and cast it to the sun. When this star had resumed its clarity, they came out of the water. But before they left, they deviated several pieces of silver into the river and put on new clothes that had been brought to the shore. The most devout made presents to the Brahmans their old clothes.
Pregnant women in India also keep themselves carefully shut up in their homes, without daring to come out during the duration of the eclipse, lest Rahu, the evil genius that causes the eclipse, devours the fruit of their bosom. For the rest, it seems that the ceremonies just described are chiefly for eclipses of the sun; for Hindus seem to be uneasy about those of Moon.
*** The Eclipses in Imperial China.
The Chinese, like other peoples of the East, imagined that in the sky, there was a dragon of prodigious grandeur, declared enemy of the Sun and the Moon that he wants to devour. Thus, in the imperial period, as soon as one perceives the beginning of the eclipse, they all make a terrible noise of drums and basins of copper, on which they strike with all their might, and until that the monster, frightened by the noise, has let go. Others believe that eclipses are occasioned by an evil genius who, with his right hand, hides the sun, and the moon with his left hand. It is a capital crime for an astronomer not to predict an eclipse; the ignorant who is mistaken about this article is punished with death. It is often told about the story (it is true purely legendary) of two astronomers Ho and Hi were sentenced to death for not having planned, as the law prescribed them, the eclipse of the Sun arrived under the reign of Emperor Chong-Kong around the year 2153 BC.
When there must be an eclipse, the tribunal des rites are careful to have a poster placed a few days before in a public square, where the day, the hour, and even the minute when eclipse must appear. He does not fail also to give notice to the mandarins of all orders, who, dressed in their ceremonial clothes, go to the court of the astronomy tribunal; and while the observers are busy looking at the tables on which the stars are traced, in determining the beginning, the duration, and the end of the eclipse, the other mandarins are on their knees in a room or courtyard of the palace, always attentive to what is happening in the sky. As soon as the phenomenon begins, they all prostrate themselves and beating their foreheads on the ground, either in front of the Sun, as if to bring him compassion, or before the dragon, to beg him to let the world rest, and not to devour a star that is so necessary to him. At the same time, the sound of drums and timbales echo throughout the city.
These ceremonies were still in use until the turn of the twentieth century, although all these mandarins knew perfectly well, and for a long time, what to hold on to the cause of the eclipses.
*** In Thailand.
The ancient Siamese imagined, like the Indians and the Chinese, that the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon are occasioned by an aerial dragon who wants to devour the star; and to deliver it they make a great noise with stoves and cauldrons, believing in this way to let go of the animal.
*** In Vietnam.
It is the same with the Tonkinese (North Vietnam), who, at the time of the eclipse, not content with screaming and reasoning the culinary instruments, still added the sound of bells, drums, and even that of the artillery; for the king, on this occasion, put all his troops on foot, and made them take up arms.
*** In Indonesia.
In the popular beliefs of Sumatra and Malaysia, the darkening of the star is caused by a large snake that twists it in its folds. The Alfourous of Ceram believe that the Moon falls asleep during eclipses, and drums to wake her.
IV – Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in America
***Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in Jamaica.
Christopher Columbus was going to be at the mercy of the people of the island of Jamaica when his supplies would be exhausted when an eclipse of the Moon provides him with a way out of embarrassment. He sent word to the chiefs that he was going to deliver them to the last misfortunes if they did not bring him immediately all he desired, and that he would begin by depriving them of the light of the moon. The Amerindians first despised his threats; but when the lunar eclipse arrived, they were terrified, gave Columbus all he desired, and conjured him to have pity on them.
*** Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in Florida.
During the eclipses of the moon, most Indians who lived in Florida, imagined, like Orientals, that this star was in danger of being devoured by a dragon. To save him from this danger, they danced all night, young and old, men and women, making small jumps, feet together. They put one hand on their head, the other on their hip; they did not sing, they only uttered mournful and frightful cries. Those who had once begun to dance were obliged to continue until the day, without being able to give it up for any reason whatsoever. However, a girl held in her hand a calabash, in which there were some small pebbles. She stirred it briskly and dropped her voice with the noise she made.
*** Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in Mexico.
The Aztecs fasted during eclipses. The women were abusing each other, and the girls were pulling blood from their arms. They imagined that the Moon had been hurt by the Sun for some household quarrel.
*** Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in Peru.
When the moon was overshadowed, the Incas thought she was sick. As soon as one saw it started, anxiety spread in all hearts. If it were to disappear entirely, it would be the sign of certain death, because it could no longer support itself in heaven, fall on the Earth, crush the poor mortals and the world would end. So, as soon as we noticed one of these eclipses, whose dates we did not know, everyone rushed on the instruments he could find at hand, drums, trumpets, cauldrons, making a terrible noise. They tied the dogs and whipped them to shriek them, convinced that the moon loved these animals, and that, touched by their moans, she would make an effort to revive themselves.
In Peru, again, during lunar eclipses, men, women, and children shouted with a deafening set: mama quilla! mama quilla! That is to say, Mother Moon, begging the heavenly powers not to let her die. When she regained her light, we praised the great god Pachacamac, the support of the universe, who had healed her, and this healing had prevented her from putting an end to the existence of men.
*** Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse Elsewhere in America.
For some tribes of South America, it is a gigantic dog that devours the Moon during eclipses. It is a jaguar for the Guarani of the Orinoco Basin, a shark for the Makkah of the Strait of Fuca. In some societies, arrows were fired in the air to ward off the purported enemies of the Moon and the Sun.
The Hurons and the Caribbean had about the same ideas: the terrible demon Mahoya, who is the author of frightening apparitions, diseases, thunder, and storms, was trying to devour the star of nights. To put the monster to flight, a great noise was made by striking barks, timbales, cauldrons, and especially by waving the maracas (gourds containing pebbles, as our bells have little bells). The Caribbean then dances all night long, young as well as old, women and men, jumping with both feet together, one hand on the head and the other on the buttock, without singing, but uttering mournful cries and appalling. Those who started dancing are obliged to continue until daybreak, without daring to leave for any need.
*** Superstitious Beliefs About Eclipse in the Arctic.
The Inuit hide the provisions and close the houses, lest the Sun or Moon enter. Humans are shouting and banging; women pull dogs’ ears. If these animals cry, the end of the world is not yet near, because they existed before men, and have a presentiment of the future much more certain. (L. Barré / A. Bertrand).