“The sun has perished”: The creative myths of an eclipse.

March 20, 2015


A couple of days ago, Pastor Mark Biltz – in 2015 – warned that the solar eclipse – a natural phenomena that we can predict and understand – was actually a sign from God, warning humanity. Biltz, using what can only be described as flawless logic, said:

“When we look at where the darkness will be, it will be in northern European countries like England and Sweden where we see the rise of Islam and anti-Israel sentiment.”

– That’s right. An eclipse that would have happened anyway, actually happened because there’s a few Muslims in England. If we can say anything about God, it’s that His ‘signs’ are often very ambiguous, and irritatingly – for His devout followers – far better explained scientifically. The creative rethinking of Pastor Biltz when it comes to natural event is not unique to a few devout believers, but the gap in which supernatural explanations reside is growing ever smaller.

The racecourse not too far from my house, has for the past 24 hours been streaming with stargazers, waiting to catch a cloudless glimpse of the solar eclipse; the moment the Sun blocks out the light of the Sun, and for a brief moment our city is plunged into darkness. Driving home tonight, I passed several amateur astronomers picking out the perfect spot. Today we watch the universe, not for the mystery of the unknown, but for the beauty of reality. Science has allowed us to understand a natural phenomena, that has a wonderfully creative history in the minds of humanity. With the Sun having long been considered a source of life, it is not surprising that most myths used to explain a solar eclipse, were more often than not, based on fear.

Babylonians were so fearful of eclipses, they would protect the King by placing a substitute King on the throne at the time of an eclipse, just in case. Over in ancient Greece, Homer’s Odyssey may perhaps be referring to an eclipse when it says:

“The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world.”

– Several centuries later – around 500bc – the Greeks developed a method to predict eclipses, and Hipparchus used an eclipse to predict the distance between the Earth and the Moon to only 11% away from the distance as understood today. Similarly, The Vikings interpretation of an eclipse, was based on fear. The Vikings believed two wolves – Skoll and Hati – were chasing the Sun and Moon, with an eclipse occurring whenever a wolf caught up with either celestial body. Vikings would bang drums, scream loudly, throw rocks, and make as much noise as possible in order to scare the wolves away. A few centuries later, when King Henry I died just after an eclipse in 1133ad, the country was sure it was a sign from the heavens. Much like Pastor Biltz, the Islamic website onislam takes the fear of eclipses into the 21st century and gives the myth a bit of an update when they say:

The Muslim reaction to lunar and solar eclipses can be summarized as follows:
1. Solar and lunar eclipses are reminders of the Day of Judgment, when the sun, moon, and stars will all lose their light.
2. Being a reminder of the Last Day, the eclipse is a time for Prayer, charitable acts, and generally remembering Allah and seeking His forgiveness.

– The eclipse itself is no longer directly linked to a myth in itself, but instead, is based on the larger myth of Islam in general. This is perhaps the difference between the ancient myths – that tended to have the Moon and Sun as personified objects fighting or being chased (Willcox and Littman’s book “Totality” explores this idea further) – and monotheistic myths – that tend to be linked to the overall faith, manipulated by an outside force. In the Islamic example, an eclipse is encompassed into the Islamic narrative, without first proving the basis of the Islamic narrative to be true. It is in essence absolutely no different to Vikings believing in hungry celestial wolves.

A wonderful trait of human-kind, is our natural desire to understand. We look in wonder at the sky, at the Earth, at the seas, and we need to know how it all works. To this day, religious folk will remind you to ‘just look around’ if you inquire as to why they believe a God exists. When we don’t understand, we create often wonderful quick-fix myths, adding more mystery to the actual original mystery. Creative and ingenious myths grew up around natural phenomena, later becoming religions in themselves. The scientific method has grounded our desire to understand, in reality, distinguishing what we’d like to be true, with what is actually true. To continue to insist upon adding a supernatural agent to an explainable natural event, is to complicate nature, with unnecessary and unanswerable questions for the sake of preserving the religious narrative and ultimately its power structure. The wonderful thing about the abandonment of such myths, is that the reality is often far more beautiful and awe-inspiring than the myth.