What Folklore Tells Us About Eclipses

August 17, 2017

A long time ago, before NASA and Google teamed up to create interactive maps of forthcoming solar eclipses, or before we ever sought celestial advice from GeekDad.com, our human ancestors would look up at the darkening sky and exclaim something like, “what the heck?”

A total solar eclipse is amazing. I’ve seen only one before—on August 11, 1999, in eastern Bulgaria, not far from where I was living at the time—but am planning to be in South Carolina, within the path of totality, on August 21, 2017.

Not that I’m one of those “eclipse chasers,” recently profiled by WAMU 88.5, for whom “following the moon’s shadow is an addiction,” but I would like to see more of what NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller vividly described to WAMU: “The sky starts to get cool and dark, a couple minutes before totality. And all of your instincts, all of a sudden, start to freak out. Something’s going wrong. . . . There’s this deep basic panic that sets in as the whole world changes in a way it’s not supposed to. All of a sudden it feels like you’re standing on another planet.”

As a folklorist, what especially intrigues me are the folk beliefs shared and the stories told across world cultures to explain this astronomical phenomenon.

According to the Motif-Index of Folk Literature, a magisterial six-volume compilation of myths, legends and folktales collected by folklorists in the early 20th century, these may include a monster devouring the sun, a punishment from the gods for human errors, and a prelude to apocalypse.

Several entries from the late 1940s feature stories about eclipses from Native tribes in South America. For instance, according to the Chiqutoan Manasi people of eastern Bolivia, “The sun was a resplendent man and the moon was his sister. Eclipses were caused by celestial serpents which attacked these luminaries, threatening mankind with darkness. This catastrophe was to be followed by the transformation of men into hairy animals and by their mutual extermination.”

Among the Apapocúva-Guaraní people of eastern Paraguay and northern Brazil, “Eclipses are caused by the Eternal Bat, or in some cases the Celestial Jaguar, which gnaws the Sun or the Moon. The Apapocúva have a very pessimistic outlook on the future of the world; they are firmly convinced that its end is near. Very soon Our Great Father will set the earth on fire, unleashing the Eternal Bat and the Blue Jaguar which will destroy the stars and mankind.”

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