People still think eclipses are fire-eating dragons and doomsday predictors

A dark day that’s scientifically illuminating.
A dark day that’s scientifically illuminating.
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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A dark day is coming this summer. On August 21, the moon will obscure the sun’s light and night will seem to fall suddenly and briefly in parts of the world  Around the globe, 500 million people will experience a solar eclipse and for many it will be total.

Eclipse How from NASA.
The sun’s rays hitting Earth.
Image: NASA

Fear not, however. Though eclipses are dramatic—the ancient Chinese believed a fire-eating dragon swallowed the sun and medieval European Viking sailors attributed these celestial events to sky wandering wolves catching up with the burning orb—they aren’t tragic, despite the many myths and misconceptions about them that have historically existed, some of which persist to this day.

An epic tragedy

The sun is a dependable friend that gives light and life. So when, historically it did not, people got scared. ”If you do a worldwide survey of eclipse lore, the theme that constantly appears, with few exceptions, is it’s always a disruption of the established order.” EC Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California told National Geographic. “All of a sudden, Shakespearean tragedy arrives and time is out of joint,”

Ancient Assyrian tablet documenting eclipse and insurrection.
Assyrian tablet linking an eclipse and an insurrection from around 518 BC.
Image: NASA

For example, early Assyrian records link a 763 BC eclipse to an insurrection in the city of Ashur, now known as Qal’at Sherqat in Iraq. Likewise, when King Henry I of England died in 1133, the event coincided with a total solar eclipse and so the cosmic incident was blamed for the death.

The connection between tragic events and eclipses is now, however, recognized to be nothing more than confirmation bias. People historically have linked bad news to eclipses after they happened—and anyone who happened to have guessed that the bad news was going to happen would appear to be a sage, according to NASA.

A deadly plague

The black death. Watercolour by Monro S. Orr.
Map showing the history and distribution of the black death around the world.
Image: Monro S. Orr/Welcome Images

For example, European astrologer Geoffrey of Meaux saw a 1345 eclipse that he claimed lasted 3 hours, 29 minutes, and 54 seconds and predicted a plague that would last for over three years. In the traditions of astrology at the time, the duration of the eclipse was thought to indicate how long the bad news would last.

Two years later, the Black Death spread through Europe, and lasted until 1351. The 15th century scholar of arcane lore, Abbot Trithemius, later praised Geoffrey of Meaux for his prognostic powers.

Today, we know that a bacillus called yersina pestis, which travels through the air and via flea and rat bites, is what actually caused disease to spread so rapidly in Europe. In October 1347, twelve infected sailors docked in Sicily, leading to the death of more than 20 million people on the continent.

Radiation blindness

NASA eclipse safety visual.
No brighter than moonlight.
Image: NASA

People have long believed that looking at the sun during an eclipse will cause blindness due to electromagnetic radiation. This is a misconception.

Staring directly at the sun causes eye damage, regardless of an eclipse. Yet the eery greenish glow of coronal light around it during some eclipses is likely to blame for the eclipse blindness myth, NASA says.

19th century astronomy text.
Astronomy in 1873.
Image: Public Domain

Coronal light looks creepy. But in fact it is much dimmer than light from the solar surface that we usually see, and less dangerous. “Scientists have studied [coronal light] radiation for centuries. Being a million times fainter than the light from the sun itself, there is nothing in the coronal light that could cross 150 million kilometers of space, penetrate our dense atmosphere, and cause blindness,” NASA explains.

When the eclipse is total, staring straight at the sun is just like looking at moonlight. Still, its rays remain dangerously bright when the eclipse is partial and since it’s dark out, you’ll be tempted to stare a lot longer than would normally be possible.

If you’re planning a cosmic observation, wear special eclipse glasses—regular sunglasses won’t suffice. Public libraries across the US will be distributing two million pairs of these for free, care of the Space Science Institute.

Poisoned plates

Le Petit Journal 1912 solar eclipse image.
A 1912 newspaper image of a solar eclipse.

The sun is to this day blamed by some in India for poisoning food prepared during eclipses.

NASA begs to differ. It states on its myths misconceptions page that there is no connection between a bad meal that makes someone sick and a solar eclipse. The space agency points to the fact that crops are unharmed by eclipses to support this.

The yogi Sadhguru would not likely be convinced by the agency’s argument. Sadhguru says the Earth mistakes the eclipse for a full moon cycle and this unnatural event especially disturbs prepared foods which are already in a deteriorating, unnatural state. He writes:

This is why while there is no change in raw fruits and vegetables, there is a distinct change in the way cooked food is before and after the eclipse. What was nourishing food turns into poison.

Of course, there is no real science to support this belief.

Bad for babies

Pregnant women hear no end of superstitious beliefs supposedly pertaining to them. Among them is one that says eclipses harm the child-to-be. In some parts of rural Mexico, for example, solar eclipses are said to cause babies to be born with harelips.

But there’s no particular harm to people or fetuses from the sun’s rays, or absence thereof, during eclipses. To the extent that the sun hurts while it helps us, it does this daily.

Reveling in the cosmic event

Scientists in the US are counting down the weeks, days, and minutes until first (visual) contact between the sun and moon in the country.

The moon will pass between the sun and Earth, and block all or part of the sun for up to two minutes and 40 seconds (the duration of the eclipse depends on where it’s observed from). This offers a rare opportunity for scientists to see more of the sun than just its photosphere, or the bright yellow surface that most think of when they picture the star of the solar system. While the moon blocks out the intense light of the photosphere, the corona and chromosphere, the two much dimmer outermost layers of the sun’s atmosphere will be briefly visible to all in the path of the total eclipse.

A total solar eclipse will be visible to more US residents than any other since 1979, as the path of totality goes through 14 contiguous states. The eclipse will also be observable, at least partially, in all of Mexico and Canada, and parts of South America, Africa, and northwestern Europe.

NASA eclipse map.
The path of the eclipse across the US.
Image: NASA

Experts are already waxing poetic about the solar event, and it hasn’t even happened yet. According to Thomas Zurbuchen of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, speaking at a press conference in Washington DC on June 21: “These cosmic moments where nature speaks to us in an emotional way, sometimes come loud, like thunderstorms, storms, hurricanes and earthquakes, but this one…will be silent. Day will turn into night and back again.”