Since time immemorial, eclipses have been interpreted in various ways by different communities all over the world, reflecting many a time the working philosophy of the religious denominations they belong to. The lunar and solar eclipses have, by and large, been held to bring in their wake calamities like epidemics, wars etc. It has been a common practice to observe the do’s and don’ts with religious overtones so as to avoid such cataclysmic fallouts of eclipses as well as hasten their end.
In ancient Egypt, the clan of the ruling kings, the pharaohs, thought themselves to be direct descendants of the sun and therefore the earthly representative of their sun god. During a solar eclipse, the king walked around their main temple of Osiris till the eclipse was over. The idea being: the sun should keep on moving continuously in the sky without any obstruction. When the sun becomes engaged in a process of eclipse, his human representative, namely the pharaoh must do whatever best he can on his behalf to ensure the regular motion in the sky.
In ancient Rome it was a common practice to scream and shout to drive away demons who cast their shadow on the lunar disc. For a long time the Chinese believed that an eclipse was caused when a dog or some such wild animal bit the sun or the moon. In order to drive away those animals they used to ring bells loudly. And since the solar eclipse was thought to be a bad omen, they used to fast during the eclipse hours to prevent its recurrence.
During solar eclipses, the Shintos in Japan used to have a talisman — a precious stone studded necklace — put on the branches of the scared Clauria tree. The brilliance of these stones was thought to compensate for the amount of sunlight lost during the eclipses. At some places bonfires were lit as a substitute for the talisman.
The Eskimos conceived that eclipses brought the earth under bad influences, believing further that their failure to place their utensils upside down before the deities would lead to widespread diseases. Even today Eskimo women follow this ritual for the duration of the eclipse. Underlying this belief is the idea that during an eclipse the sun and the moon are diseased for a short period therefore the rays from these diseased bodies falling on utensils could transmit the same disease to the Eskimos.
The people living along the western coast of Africa believed that the lunar eclipse occurs because of sun’s shadow, which is always following the moon. So during eclipses, people gather on the street and shout: “Leave him, go away’ and so on.
According to the Ojibawas sect of the Red Indians the solar eclipse signifies the extinguishing of the moon or the sun for a while. Consequently they hurl burning arrows in the direction of the sun so as to rekindle its original brightness.
The Todas from the Nilgiris believe there is a rabbit on the moon. According to them when a serpent swallows the moon the lunar eclipse begins. In order to drive the serpents they shout and make loud noises; they also fast during the eclipse hours.
The Maoris in Bihar and Assam believe that the lunar eclipse is a sign of imminent victory over their enemy in a war and the collapse of their enemy’s fort.
The imagination of the Munda tribes hailing from Bihar and Bastar region in Madhya Pradesh actually takes the cake. They believe that the sun and the moon take loans from a demon called ‘Dhanko’. Their failure to repay within the scheduled period invites imprisonment by their creditors and therefore the sun and the moon are not seen in the sky at their usual positions. Hence they bring their utensils, rice, and weapon to their courtyard in the belief that sun and moon will accept these to repay their debts to the demon thereby liberating the Mundas from the ghastly spectacle.
Possible rationale behind superstitions
The moon and the sun were widely regarded as gods. The Chinese civilization believed that the king was the incarnation of the sun god. The same was true of ancient Egyptians, who believed that pharaohs were direct descendants of the sun god. Probably the reason why the king himself took to moving around the sun temples in circles during an eclipse.
In the event of a disturbance in the very regular movements of the sun god, believed to have been caused due to illness or temporary attack, the human incarnation took it upon himself to maintain the stability of the cosmological order. Hence the logic went: If the gods could be attacked and reduced to such a pitiable condition, how secure would a common man feel? It was this insecurity which led the Eskimos to turn their vessels upside down during an eclipse. This was to protect their food and belongings from the attacking solar or lunar germs and all the unknown things attacking their gods.
However, the Hindus would lock themselves up in their houses and keep their doors and windows shut in order to protect themselves from the ill-effects of the rays falling all over. This practice has a very scientific origin in the event of a solar eclipse.
When we look at the sun directly, without any filter, that part of the retina where the tiny solar image falls suffers from burns. Sometimes the sunburn of the retina is so severe that it might take several days to recover, if not be permanently damaged. A solar eclipse would arouse the curiosity and given the painful experience of eclipse blindness, injunctions against direct viewing have come down the ages in the form of scriptural restrictions that one and all have to abide by.
In the event of total solar eclipse, the expected damage to the exposed rods and the cones of the human eye is at least ten times more severe than when casually looking at the sun during partially eclipsed or uneclipsed states. During the period of totality, the sudden nightfall draws everyone outside to view the sun. Due to darkness, the dilation of the eyehole or iris is at least three times that in conditions of normal daylight. It means the eyehole would now allow ten times more light on the retinal cells than would the normal eye.
The potential of the sun to inflict retinal damage would increase tenfold after its sudden emergence from the totally eclipsed stage. There are definite chances of permanent loss of eyesight during this sudden reappearance of the crescent sun. Therefore it is no wonder that ancient scriptures prohibited the viewing of a solar eclipse at any cost. This is how the eclipse taboo became institutionalised in India.
The shadow bands before the onset and just after the completion of total solar eclipse led people to believe that the sun is being gobbled up by a snake like dragon; food prepared during eclipse will become polluted; no one should eat during the eclipse hours; all doors and windows need to be kept closed. The strict observance of rituals and practices were encouraged by the priestly class to maintain their supremacy in society. This was achieved by playing upon the ordinary man’s fear of unknown and their insecurity.
While at a superficial level, all these practices may sound nonsensical, a more thorough examination would reveal their ingenuity and their underlying rationale; it also explains why they continue to be observed even today. It is time to wake up and learn to make a clear distinction between a real superstition and scientifically approved ways of looking at a totally eclipsed sun, which each of us must witness at least once in a lifetime.
First published by Published by Vigyan Prasar, New Delhi