In astronomy, the total or partial obscuring of one heavenly body by another; a passing into the shadow of a heavenly body.
An eclipse of the moon occurs when the earth is between the moon and the sun, thus depriving the moon of the sun's light. An eclipse of the sun occurs when the moon is between the sun and the earth.
Man has always regarded the sun with awe and reverence, not only because it is seen to be the energy source of all life, but also because of its constancy and the inflexible reliability of the cycle of day and night. This diurnal cycle has been built into the evolutionary pattern of all living things so that they respond to sunset and sunrise as if remotely controlled by the sun itself. Sunset and dawn have become the natural regulators of our activities and rest periods. It is not surprising, therefore, that the sun should be treated with respect and even worshipped, because of the security that it inspires. It is because of the unfaltering cycle of the movement of the sun across the sky that we are peculiarly sensitive to any interruption that occurs.
In the days when solar eclipses were not understood, these phenomena were the cause of great alarm and were generally ascribed to supernatural agency. Among the Romans at one time it was even considered blasphemous and held to be a legal offense to speak openly of their being due to natural causes.
A total solar eclipse is indeed awe-inspiring even to experienced astronomers. The scene is set by the gradual weakening of the sunlight as the moon moves across the disc of the sun, even though the sky remains clear and blue. Just before the eclipse is total the shadow can be seen bearing down at a speed of about 2000 miles an hour and the air has become unusually still. As the darkness sweeps down there is an involuntary temptation to crouch and let the shadow pass; a glance at the sun reveals the crimson prominences, like huge angry flames embedded in the pearly light of the corona. One's attention is riveted on the magnificent spectacle until suddenly the sun reappears. Dawn is repeated in the space of a few seconds and the whole world seems to come to life again.
The earliest recorded eclipse seems to have been the one that took place on 22 October 2136 BC, which is referred to in the ancient Chinese classic the Chou King or Book of History. Eclipses must have been observed earlier than this for the story has it that the two official astronomers of the time were taken by surprise by this one, with the result that there was insufficient time to prepare the customary rites. The normal procedure was to beat drums and gongs, shoot arrows in the air, and make a general din with the intention of frightening away the monster that threatened to devour the sun. In spite of the fact that the sun recovered from this attack the two astronomers were executed for their negligence. There are many other cases of the use of various rites to ward off the threat to the sun.
One particularly interesting case in modern times is the one recorded in a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer concerning the eclipse of 29 July 1878:
"It was the grandest sight I ever beheld but it frightened the Indians badly. Some of them threw themselves upon their knees and invoked the Divine blessing; others flung themselves flat on the ground, face downwards; others cried and yelled in frantic excitement and terror. Finally one old fellow stepped from the door of his lodge, pistol in hand, and fixing his eyes on the darkened sun, mumbled a few unintelligible words and raising his arm took direct aim at the luminary, fired off his pistol, and after throwing his arms about his head ins series of extraordinary gesticulations, retreated to his own quarters. As it happened, that very instant was the conclusion of totality."
Solar eclipses are usually very short and the total phase cannot last longer than eight minutes. It is this transient nature of the event that seems to promote the use of some sort of ritual. No sooner have the demonstrations begun than the monster moves away and the eclipse is over. Such highly 'effective' deterrents will obviously be remembered and used again if the occasion should arise.
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