We live in times when a coast-to-coast total solar eclipse is noteworthy mainly because of its wow factor.
Those of us in the path of totality — a west-to-east path from Oregon to South Carolina — have the best chance of seeing the full show.
Such phenomena, while cool and fun, also are highly predictable for those of us living in modern times. We know when it will happen; NASA is running a countdown clock that is accurate to the minute of first contact in Oregon.
We have the means, technology and equipment to explain what was once believed magic.
Today, few fear the event portends the end of days. If we want to know what’s happening and why, it’s easy to find information.
So as much as next week’s solar eclipse has been hyped, it’s nothing like the attention an eclipse drew in the past.
A total solar eclipse occurs only during the new moon, when the moon passes between the sun and Earth. From certain vantage points, it can appear the moon partially or fully obscures the sun.
Only the outer edges of the sun are visible around the perimeter of the moon’s shadow, creating the effect of a fiery ring in the sky.
Because the moon is so dwarfed by the sun’s size, the object alignment required for a total solar eclipse is incredibly rare. The next time a solar eclipse will take a path identical to Monday’s is April 8, 2024.
In ancient times, the sun was a source of speculation, wonder and fear. People had little to no basic understanding of physics, so a total solar eclipse seemed impossible without a supernatural cause.
“Science” came from sacred texts, which shrouded such events in mysticism or even wild speculation.
Consider Luke 21: 25-26: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in perplexity at the roaring sea. People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
Add a floating ring of fire, and you have a recipe for bone-chilling terror.
Stories of what were likely total solar eclipses were passed down through generations, mainly through religious leaders and/or oral traditions. Most explained the sun’s “disappearance” as witchcraft. Explanations of the meaning ranged from bad omens to harbingers of an apocalypse.
According to “Encyclopedia of the Occult,” Romans could be charged with the crime of public blasphemy for claiming a solar eclipse was a natural occurrence.
The “Book of History,” an ancient Chinese text, records the first known eclipse in October 2136 B.C.E. Among those people and other ancient witnesses, the event was believed to be a case where evil of some sort aimed to threaten the sun.
Among the ancient Chinese, the threat was a monster that would devour the sun. “Book of History” explains the ritual for scaring away the monster: shooting arrows into the air, beating drums and gongs and shouting.