The Demons of Darkness Will Eat Men, and Other Solar Eclipse Myths
We understand the cosmic calculus that leads to solar eclipses like the one that enchanted many Americans on Monday, August 22, 2017
But even for the most jaded skygazers, a solar eclipse can provoke a visceral sense of wonder that the phenomenon provoked long before it was understood.
Here’s a glimpse at the way that populations around the world understood solar eclipses, and used them to reinforce cultural norms and values.
“This is something wrong. We’ve got to figure out what.”
That, said Dr. David Dearborn, an astrophysicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., was frequently the response of ancient civilizations to the onset of a solar eclipse, particularly when they were unaware that the phenomenon would occur.
“If you were the Greeks, before they came to have an understanding of eclipses, you might think it was a bad omen, something the gods were telling you you had done wrong,” he said. “If you were the Chinese, you thought dragons were eating the Sun.”
“If you read the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ — which is a really boring read — but if you scan through it, you’ll find lots of instances of eclipses, all related to other bad things,” he added.
Anthony Aveni, a cultural astronomer and the author of the 2017 book In the Shadow of the Moon: The Science, Magic and Mystery of Solar Eclipses, said that in every culture that he was aware of, solar eclipses were seen as cosmic “interruptions.”
For instance, he said, the Arapaho Plains Indians, who saw the celestial bodies as siblings, a brother Sun and a sister Moon, were alarmed to see that the two were suddenly converging. An obvious question was prompted, Mr. Aveni said: “What are they doing having sex in the sky?”
Understandably, the eclipse was thought by many cultures to herald the apocalypse. Susan Milbrath, the curator of Latin American art and archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, provided a list of those who believed that solar eclipses could signal end times.
The Ch’orti’, indigenous Mayas, believed “an eclipse of the Sun that lasts more than a day will bring the end of the world, and the spirits of the dead will come to life and eat those on earth,” she wrote in an email, drawing on her book, Star Gods of the Maya: Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars.
Other Mayas including the Yucatec and the Lacandón associated eclipses with total destruction, she said. The Lacandón, who still live in what is now the Mexican state Chiapas, expected that Earth would split and that jaguars would emerge “and eat most of the people.”
The Florentine Codex, a ethnographic study of 16th-century Aztecs in Mexico, described a solar eclipse in particularly vivid terms:
There were a tumult, and disorder. All were disquieted, unnerved, frightened. Then there was weeping. The commonfolk raised a cup, lifting their voices, making a great din, calling out shrieking. People of light complexion were slain as sacrifices; captives were killed. All offered their blood. They drew straws through the lobes of their ears, which had been pierced. And in all the temples there was the singing of fitting chants; there was an uproar; there were war cries. It was thus said: “If the eclipse of the Sun is complete it will be dark forever. The demons of darkness will come down. They will eat men!”
Biting, eating, swallowing
Laura Danly, an astrophysicist and the curator of the Griffith Observatory, was one of many researchers who pointed out how commonly people interpreted solar eclipses as the Sun being eaten by some horrible creature.
“It’s a natural thing to think if you’ve ever seen one,” Dr. Danly said. ”The Moon literally looks like it’s taking a bite out of the Sun until it consumes it completely.”
Since the Sun always reappears, she said, “some throwing up or regurgitation is often a part of the story as well.”
An intricate version of the story related by Dr. Danly involved the Sun being eaten by a decapitated head of a Hindu demon, Rahu. The god Vishnu, warned by the Sun and the Moon, caught Rahu drinking the elixir of life and as punishment sliced off the demon’s head before the elixir passed through his throat. The immortal head takes his revenge on the celestial bodies by devouring them, but because he has no body, they re-emerge after he swallows them.
Not all the tales are quite so elaborate. Many involve predators in a given region devouring the Sun: in North America, dogs and coyotes; in South America, big cats like pumas; in what we now call Vietnam, unusually, a very large frog.
Reinforcement of cultural norms
Mr. Aveni pointed out that when we understand how myths functioned for the peoples who created them (rather than outsiders interpreting their tales), it is easy to see how they helped to reinforce cultural norms.
For instance, for the Arapaho, he said, the coupling of the Sun and the Moon prompted a discussion of sex and incest. In the Andes, where an Inca-related people believed that the Moon was whispering lies into the Sun’s ear, solar eclipses provided an occasion for a discussion about the evils associated with lying.
“I think we need to pay more attention to how these other cultures around the world regard nature instead of tending as we do to dismiss their ideas as silly,” Mr. Aveni said.
And finding the eclipse moving—and a little terrifying—is not an experience that was left behind with premodern people.
Dr. Danly is traveling to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where she used to spend time as a child, for the eclipse. She expected to experience an intensity of meaning that the myths may have helped accommodate.
“In our modern day, to give it meaning, you’ve really got to see the thing,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, it’s life-changing. And in that way makes us connect to what our ancestors might have felt and experienced.”
 See Jonah Engel Bromwich, “The Demons of Darkness Will Eat Men, and Other Solar Eclipse Myths,” The New York Times (August 18, 2017). A version of this article appears in print on August 19, 2017, on Page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: “The Demons of Darkness Will Eat Men, and Other Solar Eclipse Myths.” Follow Jonah Bromwich on Twitter: @Jonesieman