On August 21st, a total solar eclipse will be visible from near where we are here in Omaha, Nebraska. For roughly a minute and a half, the moon will pass between the Earth and the Sun and nearly 100% of the light will be blocked from view. Personally, I am extremely excited. Ever since I first saw it pictured in my 5th grade science textbook, I have been dreaming of getting the chance to witness a total solar eclipse. It just seems like such an amazing and impossible thing to happen. And even though I fully (more or less) understand the science behind it, I can’t help but feel like there’s something unnatural about it; something magical.

Which got me thinking… If I’m feeling this way, and I know the facts behind what’s causing it… How did the people in history who DIDN’T know the facts feel about it? How did they explain it? What kind of legends and myths did they come up with to try and make sense of it?

Gobbled Up…

One of the most popular ancient explanations for the solar eclipse, it seems, is that the sun is being bitten or gobbled up by some kind of being or creature. In Norse mythology, it was thought that two sky wolves, Skoll and Hati, were always in pursuit of the sun and the moon, and whenever one of them managed to catch a bite, that’s when an eclipse occurred. In Vietnam, it was believed that the sun was being devoured by a giant frog while among the Pomo, a tribe of Native Americans indigenous to northern California, believed that the sun was being bitten by an angry bear. In fact, the Pomo word for a solar eclipse translates to “sun got bit by a bear.” As the story goes…

One day a great bear was walking along the Milky Way when the sun came along its path in the opposite direction. Both refused to move out of the other’s way and, naturally, an argument ensued. Pretty soon things got out of hand and, out of ravenous anger, the bear finally bit the sun. Thus, an eclipse.

Reconciliation…

The Pomo weren’t the only ones who thought the eclipse was caused by a fight. One particularly interesting tradition which, in fact, still persists today, comes from the Batammaliba people of Togo and Benin in Africa. They believe that, during an eclipse, the sun and the moon are fighting each other and that it’s up to the people to encourage them to stop.

How, you ask? By being nice, of course.

To them, the eclipse is a time of coming together and resolving old feuds and anger. It’s a chance to reconcile any differences and disagreements that may be causing their world to fall out of order. Basically – Be nice or the world’s going to end! (One can’t help but wonder if maybe everyone should embrace this tradition…)

The Cosmic Order…

While the Batammaliba people thought the eclipse meant the world was falling out of order, the Navajo actually saw it as an example of the universe being IN order. According to Nancy Maryboy, president of the Indigenous Education Institute on San Juan Island, Washington, “Something like an eclipse is just part of nature’s law. You pause to acknowledge that that time is special, [and] you reflect on the cosmic order.”

Some Navajo still observe traditions that are associated with an eclipse such as, according to an article from National Goegraphic, “staying inside with their family, singing special songs, and refraining from eating, drinking, or sleeping.”

“’They say if you look at the sun during an eclipse, it will affect your eyes later.’ A person who looks at the sun goes out of balance with the universe, leading to problems down the road. The same goes for eating and drinking during this time.”

Myth vs. Truth…

When I was a kid, I remember wishing that all the myths and legends I read about from other cultures had actually been true. I wished that seven sisters really were chased up Devil’s Tower by a bear and then went into the sky to become stars. I wished that there really were at one point such things as cyclopses and dragons, and that an eclipse really was the result of a sky wolf’s bite. These stories all seemed so amazing and magical to me that I couldn’t help but feel like the real world, the world that science said it was, was just so excruciatingly boring.