Before science and logic and reason, there was a different way to explain strange phenomena: magic. Long ago it was commonly thought in China that eclipses were caused by dragons eating the Sun.
This caused archers to shoot arrows into the darkened sky until the dragon was defeated, and the sun returned. The Chinese have remained undefeated to dragons since the first recording of an eclipse in 2134 B.C.E.
Courtesy of Fair Fax Underground
It has been nearly 100 years since the last total solar eclipse in the United States. Since the rise of heliocentrism, or the knowledge of the Earth orbiting the sun, we can both predict and more accurately explain the phenomenon that is an eclipse.
Unfortunately, no dragons are involved. As long as you aren’t a flat-earther, you probably understand that the sun is being blocked by the Moon intersecting the Earth and Sun. As many people have been captured by this rare event, many authors find the topic fascinating as well use it as a driving point of plots.
One of the first examples of the eclipse in literature is in the “The Epic of Gilgamesh“ from 2100 B.C.E. Mesopotamia. Instead of dragons, this poem blamed the gods for the sunless sky, saying “Early in the morning at dawn a black cloud arose from the horizon . . . [the gods] turned everything to blackness.”
Gilgamesh Tablet, Courtesy of Ancient History Encyclopedia
John Milton’s epic “Paradise Lost” also deals with the world of gods, as well as Satan, Adam, and Eve. An eclipse is used in his opening:
…as when the sun new risen
Looks through the horizontal misty air
Shorn of his beams, or from behind the moon
In dim eclipse disastrous twilight sheds
On half the nations, and with fear of change
The blocking of the Sun by the Moon has done more than perplex monarchs. William Wordsworth wrote a poem about solar eclipses with perhaps the first accurate scientific depiction. His prose is gorgeous, illuminating the event by writing:
High on her speculative tower
Stood Science waiting for the hour
When Sol was destined to endure
That darkening of his radiant face
Which Superstition strove to chase,
Erewhile, with rites impure.
Finally…science! Moving on from gods and beasts, one of the first science fiction stories to use a solar eclipse still fell a little short in the science department. The novel “King Solomon’s Mines” received a lot of flack for making the solar eclipse last for hours, when in reality it happens quickly. The author H. Rider Haggard received so many complaints that in future editions of the novel, they changed it to a lunar eclipse instead of a solar eclipse.
Another science fiction book that has covered (ha) the subject of suns and eclipses is “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov. It deals with a society that lives in constant daytime until a very rare total solar eclipse on their planet of six suns. Seeing nightfall for the first time causes the people who live on the planet to imagine there are stars, worlds, and maybe even other life outside of their planet.
Cover of Asimov’s “Nightfall”, Courtesy of Popular Science
Though Asimov needed to create a whole fictional world to explain the effects of the eclipse, he made some pretty sharp commentary on mythology that applies to the real world.
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It seems like people have been struggling with the notions of eclipses for thousands of years. When night falls on the planet for the first time, the people go mad. Eclipses frequently conjure chaos.
Victor Hugo used an eclipse to explain the shifting state of politics:
Nations, like stars, are entitled to eclipse. All is well, provided the light returns and the eclipse does not become endless night. Dawn and resurrection are synonymous. The reappearance of the light is the same as the survival of the soul.
In Mark Twain’s science fiction novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” the time-traveling main character Hank is able to take advantage of the people of 528 C.E. by threatening he will use magic to block out the sun if he is executed. When the sun is eclipsed, people stop laughing at the odd notion and let him off the hook instead.
Cover of “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” / Courtesy of Wikipedia
Stephen King has used eclipses to develop his novels twice. Once for his character Dolores Claiborne in “Dolores Claiborne” to murder her husband during the eclipse. Another dark time in King’s novels caused by an eclipse is the story “Gerald’s Game” where a character recalls a disturbing experience from her youth that happened during the solar black-out.
Shakespeare also used the eclipse to explain murder in his play “Othello.” After (spoiler alert) discovering his wife has died, Othello says:
Oh, insupportable! Oh, heavy hour!
Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that th’ affrighted globe
should yawn at alteration.
A few lines later he blames another murder on the moon driving men crazy because it’s too close to the Earth.
Even in non-fiction, there is a sense of unease. In Annie Dillard’s essay “Total Eclipse” on the eclipse of 1979, feeling as though she was going to die. She says “We had all died in our boots on the hilltops of Yakima, and were alone in eternity. Empty space stoppered our eyes and mouths; we cared for nothing.”
Will the eclipse today cause the same chaos and craze that a moment of darkness caused in these tales?
Feature image courtesy of Wikipedia.