CHICAGO — Throughout the ages, humans have told mythic stories to make sense of unusual cosmic events, like a solar eclipse, explained Lisa Poirier, an associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University. “These disruptions of the cosmos, when the world was suddenly different than everyday life, were explained in stories that provided reassurance that the world was still constant,” she said.
“There are all sorts of wonderful stories that personify the sun and the moon. In Hindu myth, Rahu and Ketu are demons that ‘eat’ or ‘swallow’ the sun during a solar eclipse. The same Rahu also shows up in Buddhism in Thailand and in parts of China. In traditional Chinese religion, the sun-eater takes the form of a dragon,” said Poirier.
“All of these people, from ancient times, were not superstitious, or making up stories. They were well-versed in astronomy. Their lives depended upon familiarity with their environment, including celestial phenomena. So these symbols, whether demons or dragons, were personifications of the lunar nodes — the points where the moon's path in the sky crosses the sun's path in the sky,” said Poirier. “The people who told these stories to one another, and to their children down through the generations, were not misunderstanding cosmic events, but turning these events into lively and culturally resonant narratives.”
In North America, there are numerous myths, symbols and rituals associated by various indigenous peoples with solar eclipses, according to Poirier. “There's a Choctaw story about a black squirrel attempting to devour the sun, and we have historical accounts of traditional Choctaw people making a racket in order to shoo away the squirrel. They were clearly seeing themselves as participants in these cosmic events — not merely spectators, but important parts of the cosmic order who also had a role to play,” she said.
“For the Aztecs, there are sacred beings called the Tzitzimime who are associated with certain stars; they are understood to be attacking the sun during a solar eclipse. That makes it a dangerous time for Aztec human beings as well, since the sun is one of their most important sacred powers. It gives life, so when it is in danger, so are they,” Poirier said.
Eclipses are also linked to many major historical events in Native American history, notes Poirier. “It seems, for instance, that a solar eclipse marked, or perhaps even sparked, the peace agreement created — possibly as early as the 12th century, in 1141 — between the original five nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, sometimes called the Iroquois,” she said.
“In the 18th century, Tenskwatawa, sometimes called The Shawnee Prophet, used his knowledge of an upcoming eclipse to consolidate his position as a newly emerging religious specialist and visionary. And the Paiute man called Wovoka, the visionary founder of the new religious movement called The Ghost Dance of 1890, had his foundational vision during an eclipse,” said Poirier.
“Religious people, even today, respond to major cosmic events like solar eclipses with reverence and prayer and ritual activity,” said Poirier. “There is a special, unusually lengthy prayer in Islam called Salat-al-Kusuf, and it commemorates an event in the life of the prophet Muhammad when he prayed during an eclipse, but the prayer also serves present-day Muslims, many of whom will gather in community during this upcoming eclipse, as a reminder of the judgment day which is to come.”