A disc of purest black is smothering the sun, rays of light flinging themselves from its edge in a desperate bid to escape. Your shadow twists and stretches into macabre shapes at your feet, and then fades to nothing like your soul has faltered. The world falls dark around you. The disc has almost completed its mutinous voyage. People in the street beside you begin to scream, clawing at one another, smashing windows and snatching the riches within.
You try to run, glass crunching under your feet, but a woman grabs you, tries to thrust a swaddled child into your arms and screams ‘Please, save my baby!’ The light has died. Now begins the reign of darkness. You fall to your knees. ‘All hail the disc,’ you chant. ‘All hail the disc!’
Thankfully these days we have a better understanding of what causes a solar eclipse, which means the above, moderately dramatised brand of hysteria should remain nothing but the melodramatic ramblings of some guy inexplicably given access to the internet.
But in less informed times, and indeed less informed places of the world today, a solar eclipse carried with it a celestial raft of superstitions that threw people into fits of strange behaviour.
Swallow the sun
In Hindu mythology, it’s believed that an eclipse is caused by the serpent demons Rahu and Ketu swallowing the sun in a bid to stifle the light that provides life. Given that the longest a total solar eclipse can last is 7.5 minutes, presumably serpent demons aren’t great at keeping their food down.
Some Hindu communities in Asia will bang pots and pans or set off fireworks to scare away these demons.
Lock up your children
A surviving superstition in some cultures is that solar eclipses are dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn children. In some parts of the world, if an eclipse occurs, it’ll be strongly suggested that any pregnant woman should remain indoors for the duration.
Don’t be a monarch or emperor
In Britain, the eclipse in 1133AD became known as King Henry’s Eclipse, as Henry I died shortly after its occurrence. This reaffirmed beliefs that eclipses were not a monarch’s best friend, a superstition which dated back to the Babylonians, who would put substitute kings on the throne during an eclipse in order to protect the real thing.
In China it was believed that the phenomenon was a threat to emperors, which made it incredibly important to predict when they would happen. In 2134BC a pair of astrologers failed to predict the solar eclipse, and were quickly relieved of their heads as punishment.
People in some parts of rural India will fast during an eclipse, because they’re scared that it will poison any food that is prepared during the event. So if you’re in India, make sure you stock up on your viewing snacks early.
Don’t mess with Jesus
It’s written in the gospels that the skies went dark when Jesus was crucified. At the time it was thought to be a miracle, a sign that God was kind of pissed off about what happened to his only son, and that bad times were bound to follow. Actually, it might just have been an eclipse in either 29AD or 33AD.
Prophet Mohammed didn’t care for superstition
An eclipse in January 632AD coincided with the death of Prophet Mohammed’s son Ibrahim. It’s recorded that this caused the public to speculate that the eclipse was a miracle to mark the death. Mohammed disagreed, insisting that eclipses were not an omen of either birth or death.
In Korean folklore, the story goes that an eclipse is caused by mythical dogs stealing the sun. Well, we do know that dogs like to play with balls…
Remember, don’t look directly at a solar eclipse with your naked eye!