To experience transcendence during a solar eclipse is a privilege of modernity.
I know a man who once sailed to a remote island in the South Pacific to see an eclipse, and having caught the bug on that trip, later flew to see another in Svalbard, where local law required him to keep a shotgun handy, lest he end up a warm meal for a polar bear. If I had to compress his field reports from these far-flung eclipse viewings into a single word, it would be wonder. In that, he’s no outlier. Wonder is the dominant theme of recent eclipse accounts, whose general spirit is captured by a 1925 article in The New York Times that described an eclipse as “the most magnificent free show nature presents to man.”
These breathless reports of “magnificence” represent a radical break with the historical literature on eclipses. For Shakespeare, an eclipse was a “stain on the sun that portended no good.” Milton compared the eerie light of the eclipsed sun to the tarnished glow of the fallen Lucifer. And these are relatively recent accounts. The eclipse myths of antiquity were more unsettling still.
It’s no surprise that eclipses used to trouble us. One behavior that distinguishes humans from animals is the considerable energy we devote to observing the sky. Some form of stargazing likely took hold among other species, especially the Neanderthals, who shared our upright-ape body plan, a natural advantage for looking at the sky. Several of our fellow creatures respond to the moon’s phases—and much else, I’m sure, given that our understanding of animal consciousness is so impoverished. But humans are a special case. We are obsessed with the sky, in part because we recognize its dangers.
Other creatures may fear thunder and lightning, but only a species with written records can remember the devastation that follows in an asteroid’s wake. And only humans feel philosophical dread when looking at the sky. Whether you’re gazing up at the blue, sunlit vault of noon, or peering through a telescope into a dark, galaxy-filled vista, the sky always conceals deeper recesses. It always confronts you with a vision of the unknown.
To ease this psychic pain, we have filled our skies with gods, including Sumer’s Anu, Greece’s Zeus, Rome’s Jupiter, and Hinduism’s Shiva. Even the God of the Hebrews behaved conspicuously like a sky god. In the Sinai desert, he assumed the Zeus-like form of clouds marbled by lightning. When he wanted to judge humanity, he emptied the sky onto the Earth, and when the cleansing deluge was complete, he stretched a rainbow from horizon to horizon, to signal a new covenant with the survivors. Sometimes, he even spoke from the sky, as when he thundered replies to Job “out of the storm.”
This is the first thing to understand about the prescientific experience of an eclipse: It happened against this unnerving backdrop, this existential realm where the gods displayed messages of great import, messages that could be read only by the highest and most learned priests. We get a clue as to how this singular message from the sky was received from our English word “eclipse,” a descendant of the Greek “ékleipsi,” which has, among its roots, a word meaning “abandonment,” that potent psychological state that animates the very worst of our childhood fears.
What could be more traumatic than the abandonment of the sun? This is the energy source that powers Earth’s photosynthetic food chains, the ball of fire that anchors and warms us as we twirl around in the cold cosmic void. The sun is the giver of life. It is also the giver of light, the ethereal stuff that illuminates the world, making it manifest to the mind. Philosophers have often likened sunlight to consciousness itself. In Plato’s cave, it is sunlight that awaits those who throw off their chains. And in Descartes’ dark forest of metaphysical confusion, enlightenment comes only when sunbeams break through the canopy.
You can imagine what it would suggest about your own fate, were you to see the white-hot center of your sensory world vanish, with no promise that it would return. The sun is the most robust of all physical phenomena. Even today, our scientific end-times tales involve its death. In deep antiquity, a few minutes without the sun would have felt like an eternity, or like a stepping out of time altogether. It would have felt as though some dark new chaos had dawned. The ancient Ojibwe peoples of the American Midwest felt this distress acutely: They tried to reignite the blacked-out sun by firing flaming arrows into it.
The sun is not the kind of thing you expect to need rekindling. The sun is fearsome. It can burn you, blind you, drive you to thirst or even madness. It can kill you and bleach your bones where they lie. The ancients warned against even approaching the sun, as Phaethon and Icarus did to their peril. Their sun gods weren’t cuddly. They were disapproving fathers, or birds of prey. They wielded symbols of strength and domination, like the beams of light hurled to Earth’s surface by the sun god Ra, which Egypt’s sculptors reconceived as obelisks, monuments to power that have lost little of their potency across 4,000 years.
One still towers over the capital of the world’s most powerful country. It looks a lot like those that were hauled out of Ancient Egypt to stand in the piazzas of Imperial Rome. And then there is that other symbol of power, the crown, a golden ring made to look like a sunburst adorning the sovereign’s head.
This close identification with the sun might explain why kings have long feared eclipses. A surprising number of popes and monarchs have died in their wake. Louis XIV, the “sun king” who so loved decadent gold decor that he chose the solar sphere as his emblem, died just after an eclipse hung in the skies above Paris. Some ancient rulers, including Alexander the Great, executed a substitute king after an eclipse, as a kind of sacrificial hedge.
Of all the stories about earthly kings being laid low after an eclipse, my favorite comes from the psychedelic end-times text of Christianity, the Book of Revelation. In a dream, John of Patmos watches as the seals on the book of judgment rip open, each triggering a fresh calamity. After the sixth seal is torn, the sun darkens, as though in eclipse, and nature begins shedding its fundamental features. Stars drop to the Earth like fruit falling from the boughs of a tree. The planet’s crust shakes with unprecedented violence, displacing whole mountain ranges and islands. And all the world’s kings, princes, generals, and the rich slink away to hide among the rocks thrown off by the geological mayhem, or in caves, like Peter Thiel in his New Zealand bunker.
Kings are right to fear the blotting out of the sun. If you stake your political legitimacy on divine right—on the idea that your dominion was written, by god, into the very laws of nature—you have a big problem when the natural order begins to unwind, right before your subjects’ eyes, in the most dramatic way possible, such that it cannot be denied by royal proclamation—or by tweet. This is what gives eclipses their Dionysian edge, this sense, drawn from our collective cultural memory, that back in the mists of prehistory, a vanishing sun could unleash something primal and violent.