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"Dragon devours sun, spits it back out."
That could have been a headline in an ancient Chinese newspaper the day after a total solar eclipse.
We've known for years that the "Great American Eclipse" will cross the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on Aug. 21. But imagine how freaked out you'd be if you didn't know it was coming.
"Many years ago, people were surprised and terrified when an eclipse occurred," said former NASA astronomer Fred Espenak in his booklet Get Eclipsed.
Myths in many cultures claimed animals such as dragons, frogs, snakes or jaguars devoured the sun during a solar eclipse, then regurgitated or excreted it back out, said astronomy historian Steve Ruskin, author of the book America's First Great Eclipse. "Early words for eclipses in China were to eat or devour."
Vikings thought eclipses were caused by two great wolves chasing the sun and moon across the sky, while Mayans imagined snakes were eating them.
The moment the sun was totally eclipsed, "people would do all kinds of things to make the sun return," Espenak said. "In China, they would light fires or shoot arrows at the sun to try to make it catch fire again."
In cultures across Europe, India and Indonesia, Espanak said people would bang on pots and pans or drums and make all kinds of noise to try to scare the "monster" that ate the sun away.
Ruskin divides eclipse history into pre-scientific and post-scientific eras, with pre-scientific societies primarily seeing eclipses as supernatural events that caused fear and consternation.
People also thought of solar and lunar eclipses as bad omens or as portents of doom, according to Cameron Gibelyou of the University of Michigan.
"The Dresden Codex, a well-known Maya text, puts hieroglyphs representing misery, malevolence, and death next to a set of images representing an eclipse," he noted on the Big History Project website.
Several deaths of famous people have occurred around eclipses, fueling the fear: Charlemagne’s son, Emperor Louis the Pious, may have died in the aftermath of the terror he felt due to an eclipse on May 5, 840, Gibelyou said.
An eclipse on Jan. 27, 632, coincided with the death of the Prophet Mohammad's son Ibrahim. And in England, King Henry I died shortly after an eclipse that produced "hideous darkness" on Aug. 2, 1133, prompting the spread of the superstition that eclipses were bad omens for rulers.
But it wasn't always bad news: A total eclipse of May 28, 585 BC, occurred during a war in eastern Turkey between the Lydians and Medes. Greek historian Herodotus reported the combatants were so disturbed by the sight of the sun being “devoured” that they stopped fighting and made peace.
Some cultures saw eclipses as a good thing, such as the Tahitians, or the Warlpiri people of the Australian Aborigines, according to Gibelyou. Those groups thought an eclipse "involves an amorous encounter between sun and moon," he said.
Pre-scientific astronomers in some cultures — such as the Greeks, Mayans and Egyptians — had some success predicting eclipses, Ruskin said.
Better predictions of eclipses began during the Renaissance. Christopher Columbus, during his final voyage to the New World in March 1504, used his knowledge of an upcoming lunar eclipse to basically blackmail what he considered to be uncooperative natives in Jamaica.
Columbus told the Jamaicans that soon his god would take away the moon. And when the eclipse occurred as predicted, the Jamaicans "came running with food" to Columbus and his crew, according to Ruskin.
Accurate celestial tables with precise eclipse paths, times and dates were finally widely available in the 18th century from the British Royal Astronomical Society. They were useful as the British Empire spanned the entire world.
This sort of knowledge allowed hundreds of astronomers and thousands of tourists to travel by train to Wyoming, Colorado and Texas to witness America's first "Great Eclipse" of July 29, 1878, Ruskin said. Those folks had to brave treacherous storms, debilitating altitude sickness and the threat of Indian attacks to enjoy the spectacle.
Hopefully, bumper-to-bumper traffic will be the only obstacle to enjoying our Great Eclipse of Aug. 21.
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