Human World

How the ancients explained eclipses: gods, dragons and more

Ancients explained eclipses: A yellow-haired man in a large orange cloak, floating in the clouds with a halo behind his head, shooting an arrow.
German artist Anton Raphael Mengs created this painting in 1765. It portrays Helios, the personification of the sun in Greek mythology. Learn how the ancients explained eclipses, below. Image via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).
  • Total solar eclipses stunned the ancients, spurring them to invent stories to explain the sun’s disappearance.
  • Gods and goddesses and hungry creatures were some of the top explanations for total solar eclipses in the past.
  • But the ancients also began to understand our worlds in space so they could predict when the “dragon” would devour the sun.

Give back to astronomy with a donation to! Your gift will support educational resources that teach people of all ages about space exploration and the fascinating facts about our universe.

How the ancients explained eclipses

By Roger Culver, Colorado State University

On April 8, 2024, a total solar eclipse will cross parts of the U.S. As the Earth and moon sweep through space and around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. Observers then witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon’s disk … a spectacular celestial event.

But until astronomers were able to explain this phenomenon, a solar eclipse could be a terrifying event. In many cultures throughout human history, the sun was an entity of supreme importance, crucial to their very existence. People regularly worshipped it as a god or goddess. For example, it was the god Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks. And it was the goddess Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.

One reason the sun served as a god or goddess in so many cultures was its awesome power: Looking directly at it would severely damage the eyes, a sign of the sun deity’s wrath.

So the idea that a total solar eclipse could temporarily extinguish the sun deity inspired a number of imaginative explanations. Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it.

Eclipse myths

Various hungry creatures were enlisted to explain eclipses. These include the Vikings’ sky wolves Skoll and Hati, a Chinese dragon, a Vietnamese frog and assorted Roman demons. In many cultures, they believed such creatures could be driven off by creating as much loud noise as possible. So, for example, people would yell, ring bells, and bang pots and pans.

Perhaps the most creative version of this strand of mythologies comes from certain branches of Hindu culture. In that version, the mortal Rahu supposedly attempted to attain immortality. The sun and moon told the god Visnu of Rahu’s transgression. As punishment, Visnu decapitated Rahu.

Ever since, Rahu has sought to exact vengeance on the sun and the moon. Rahu pursues them across the sky, trying to eat them. Once in a while – at the time of an eclipse – Rahu catches the sun or the moon. In the case of a solar eclipse, Rahu slowly devours the sun. Then it gradually disappears into Rahu’s throat … only to reappear from his severed neck.

A fierce demon with a toothy mouth biting into a large yellow circle.
Rahu swallowing the moon. Image via Anandajoti Bhikkhu/ CC BY 2.0.

Other sun eaters

In other branches of Hindu culture, the “sun eater” took the more traditional form of a dragon. To fight this beast, certain Hindu sects in India immersed themselves up to the neck in water. It was an act of worship, as they believed the adulation would aid the sun in fighting off the dragon.

Other cultures had equally ingenious explanations for – and defenses against – a total solar eclipse. Eskimos thought an eclipse meant the sun and moon had become temporarily diseased. In response, they’d cover up everything of importance – themselves included – lest the “diseased” rays of the eclipsed sun infect them.

For the Ojibwe tribe of the Great Lakes, the onset of total eclipse represented an extinguished sun. To prevent permanent darkness, they proceeded to fire flaming arrows at the darkened sun in an attempt to rekindkle it.

How ancients explained eclipses: with a glimmer of science

Amidst the plethora of the myths and legends and interpretations of this strange event, there are seeds of understanding about their true nature.

For example, the famed total solar eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C., occurred in the middle of a battle between the Medes and the Lydians in what is now the northeast region of modern-day Turkey. The eclipse ended the conflict on the spot, with both sides interpreting the event as a sign of the displeasure from the gods. But based on the writings of the ancient Greek historian Heroditus, the great Greek philosopher-mathematician Thales of Miletus may have, coincidentally, predicted its occurrence.

Chinese, Alexandrian and Babylonian astronomers were not only sophisticated enough to understand the true nature of solar eclipses, but also to roughly predict when the “dragon” would devour the sun. (As with much knowledge back then, however, astronomical and astrological findings were relayed only to the ruling elites, while myths and legends continued to percolate among the general population.)

Advances in modern astronomy have given us detailed explanations for solar eclipses. So much so that their time and location can be predicted centuries into the future and reconstructed from centuries ago.

Of course, mythologies surrounding total solar eclipses still exist today. Some conspiracy theorists were convinced that a 2017 eclipse would spell the end of the world. It’s perhaps a testament to the endurance of the superstitious side of the human psyche.The Conversation

Roger Culver, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Colorado State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bottom line: Learn how some of the ancients explained eclipses, from gods and goddesses to hungry animals to the glimmers of early science.

April 6, 2024
Human World

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 

EarthSky Voices

View All