Before the science: Eclipses in myth and legend

4 months 2 weeks 4 days ago Monday, July 03 2017 Jul 3, 2017 Monday, July 03, 2017 3:08:00 PM CDT July 03, 2017 in Eclipse Science
By: Carolina Brigagao, KOMU 8 Reporter
Photo courtesy Rick Fienberg/TravelQuest International/Wilderness Travel

COLUMBIA -The total solar eclipse, which will cross Missouri on Aug. 21, is drawing a lot of attention to the science of astronomy. But ancient civilizations did not have the benefit of scientific knowledge and created a wide variety of myths and legends to explain eclipses. (See our interactive timeline.)

"The beauty of an eclipse was not always appreciated by those who saw in it a threat to the order of their everyday lives," wrote Edwin Charles Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, in his book "Beyond the Blue Horizon." "Imagine what ancient people must have felt when they saw the sun darken without warning." 

MU's director of astronomy, Angela Speck, shares the same view.

“It would get dark in seconds and that must be terrifying,” she said.

Eclipses had a greater religious and cultural significance to ancient civilizations than they do today. They were explained with stories about gods fighting, the coming of the apocalypse or creatures attacking the sun or the moon.

“It’s always some kind of beasties that swallows the sun,” Speck said.

Even with advanced technology and an understanding of eclipses, people decide to believe in unfounded superstitions, Speck said.

There is a popular misconception in Mexico and in North American that eclipses are harmful to pregnant women and their unborn children.

In some parts of India, some believe any food cooked while an eclipse is taking place will be poisonous. 

But not all modern superstitions are based on fear. In Italy, it is believed that flowers planted during a solar eclipse are brighter and more colorful than flowers planted any other time of the year.

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