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A Glimpse of Eclipse Related Superstitions Throughout The World

In this section we will briefly describe the various kinds of eclipse-related superstitions prevalent all over the world, and also indicate the rationale behind such practices as spelt out by the local priests and or the governors.

Since time immemorial, eclipses have been interpreted in various ways by different communities all over the world, reflecting many a time the working philosophy of the religious denominations they belong to.

The lunar and solar eclipses have, by and large, been held to bring in their wake calamities like epidemics, wars, etc. It has been a common practice to observe several do's and don'ts with religious overtones so as to avoid such cataclysmic fallouts of eclipses as well as hasten their end.

In ancient Egypt (c. 2650 B.C.) the clan of the ruling kings, the Pharaohs, thought themselves to be direct descendants of the Sun, and therefore, the earthly representative of their Sun god. The king walked around their main temple of Osiris till the solar eclipse was over. The idea behind this rituals seems to be the wish that the Sun should keep on moving continuously in the sky without any obstruction. When the Sun becomes engaged in a process of eclipse, his human representative, namely the Pharaoh, must do whatever best he can on his behalf to ensure his regular motion in the sky (Fig.3).

Eclipses became quite accurately predictable at the hands of the Babylonians, who among other things discovered what is known as the Saros cycle of eclipses. Eclipses are found to recur once every 6585.321 days (corresponding to 18 years and 10.3 or 11.3 days, depending upon whether there are five or four leap years in between). Babylonians kept very meticulous observational records of astronomical interest, from about 1800 B.C., in the form of several tens of thousands of clay tablets. They also kept weather charts and documented all the natural calamities as well as the downfall and ascendance of the Babylonian rulers. Some of these clay tablets survived till about the eighth century B.C., and the Assyrians and the Greeks developed a theory of the universe. In fact, the Greek historian Herodotus (c. 485-c.425 B.C.) narrates the case of Thales of Miletus who accurately predicted that a total solar eclipse would occur in the year 585 B.C. A war between the Lydians and the Medes ended in a truce due to the occurrence of this predicted eclipse while they were in the battlefield.

The Babylonians, regarded eclipses as highly important omens. Though the date and place over which an eclipse was visible in the sky were accurately recorded, still there is a possibility that these events might have been entered under the title 'the Sun becoming the Moon', which could also indicate dust storms.

Omens regarding the lunar eclipses are more abundant than those for the solar ones. Not only was a total lunar eclipse regarded as universal--since it would be visible from a large part of the globe--it was also seen to be impartial in its intensity given the totally eclipsed disc of the Moon. On the contrary, a partially eclipsed Moon would have one of its four sides (western, southern, eastern or northern) obscured. Depending on the side of the lunar disc eclipsed to the maximum extent, it was possible for the Babylonians to ascertain which geographical directions pointing to the neighbouring kingdoms would experience a bad or good phase. Such details are to be found in their compendium, known as Enuma Anu Enlil. Each entry in the record of a watch of a lunar eclipse included detailed data on the exact year, month, date, day of the week, hour of the night watch, wind and its direction, and location of the star nearest to the eclipsed Moon in the sky. From all these factors, the nature of the omens could be ascertained. For example, we find the following report on a certain eclipse (lunar) in the month of Simannu occurring just before dawn:

An eclipse in the morning-watch meant contracting to diseases.... The morning watch is toward Elam, the 14th day is over Elam, Simannu is at Amurru, the second side is towards Akkad.... When an eclipse occurred during the morning watch and it lasted for the entire duration of the watch, and at the same time the north wind was blowing, any sick person viewing it will recover. On the other hand, when the eclipse started on the first side and stood on the second side, there would be a slaughter of Elam; Guti would not approach Akkad.... When an eclipse happens and stands on the second side, gods will have mercy on the land.... When the eclipse is in the month of Simannu, there will be flood....

More detailed ones would warn the kings about possible disasters in an ensuing war, and prescribe the most favourable geographical directions for a possible victory, and so on.

Many a such rich enumeration of omens had a profound significance not only for the then astrologers but also for the then rulers of the territories. One should always remember that in those ancient times there was no distinction between what are now formally classified as astronomy and astrology. Our aim is to filter out the astronomy component, and give a thought to finding out plausible reasons as to why certain ritualistic details figured in the form of astrological conventions. Details such as these indicate fairly accurate observations of the eclipses. Thus, the Babylonians had mastered the art of predicting the eclipses before the seventh century B.C. For example, it is stated in Thompson (p. 273): "On 14th an eclipse will take place, it is evil for Elam and Amurru, lucky for the king, my lord, rest happy. It will be seen without Venus. To the king my lord I say thee: there will be an eclipse."

As it happened the day turned out to be cloudy and the eclipse was not sighted. This was interpreted as : 'The god of Ashur, Tutelary, knowing that no evil threatened the country and its king drew the curtain of cloud over the horizon so that the king and his subjects should not be unnecessarily frightened'. This interpretation is important because this was a period when the king was ill and had returned from an unsuccessful Egyptian campaign.

According to the Chaldeans, the occurrence of a lunar eclipse signified that the wrath of the Moon had been incurred, resulting in the onset of diseases, famine, war, earthquakes and other natural calamities. Since witnessing the eclipse would cause viewers to suffer from these disasters, they were instructed to stay indoors during its duration.

The Greeks considered an eclipse to be a forerunner of ill omens, and believed that it occurred only when both the Sun god and the Moon god became angry. There were occasions when one part of the territory witnessed the eclipse, while other areas did not. In such instances, inhabitants who lost wars against their neighbours understandably regarded eclipses as bad omens. It is said that the Greeks used to halt and sometimes retreat from a war front if they had sighted an eclipse during their war adventures.

The Roman historian Levy (59 B.C.-A.D. 17) has recorded that during a lunar eclipse it was common practice to scream and shout to drive away the demons who cast their shadows on the lunar disc. Another Roman historian Tacitus (A.D. 55-117) has similarly asserted that people used to make loud noises using drums and cymbals to shorten the duration of the eclipse (Fig. 4).

Similar practices were observed by people living in Turin. The Armenians thought that eclipses occurred when a black planet invaded the space between the Earth and the Moon (Fig.5). Such an idea is certainly more credible and ingenious,-- it would explain why the darkened portion of the eclipsed Sun or the Moon should have a round shape. The idea of demons engulfing the Sun or the Moon does not explain why the two interfaces are circular in nature. However, given the fact that the Sun god and the Moon god are both round in shape and luminous in nature, the celestial demon could have been imagined to have a similar shape though a dark nature. The way a lunar eclipse proceeds is visually not the same as that due to the changes in phase of the Moon. So the idea of shadows engulfing the Moon during a lunar eclipse could also emerge during such early epochs.

Astronomical ideas play their important part in the culture of the Chinese civilisation. It is difficult to arrive at a correct picture of their development as the later Chinese authors try to ascribe an earlier date to relatively more recent ideas to enhance the mystique of their civilisation. Massive burning of books containing extremely valuable records of astronomical interest over a period of at least two thousand years took place in 213 B.C. at the command of the then Emperor Shih Huang Ti. In the ensuing Han period much of the old philosophy was restored, but many distortions crept in when the books were rewritten. The famous example is the story of the Hsi and Hso brothers who were portrayed as being beheaded for failing in their predictions of an eclipse (Fig. 6). In reality both the brothers were beheaded for having taken sides in a civil strife. The later editions transformed this into the anecdotal, demoralizing tale of two astronomers who in their merry life neglected their duties, failed to predict the solar eclipse, and were punished by decapitation. Since the date (the first day of the autumn) and the location of the Moon (the Moon being stationed in Fang, that is, in Scorpion's head) had been added to the tale, modern astronomers could calculate the date of the above reported eclipse to be 22 October 2137 B.C. But surely, it would be too much to expect an accurate prediction of a solar eclipse in such ancient times. Questions would also arise as to the credibility, if any, of the original tale.

Astronomical rather than cosmological ideas were deeply interwoven in the Chinese way of life. According to its orthodox state religion, China was the centre of the flat earth, the centre corresponding to the celestial pole, and the centre of Heaven. Here the god Shang-ti ruled as the emperor of the Earth, the emperor being 'Son of the Heaven'. He maintained harmony between Heaven and Earth by precisely following the rituals and prescriptions of his forefathers in his action. It was believed that disorders in one realm led to turmoil in the other. In other words, not only were irregularities in Heaven the cause of calamities on Earth, but the evil actions of man (including the rulers) also brought about disturbances in nature and in Heaven. Eclipses and comets were signs that the emperor and/or his officials had sinned, governed badly, or neglected the ceremonial. According to the astronomical work Shih-Shen of the fourth century B.C.:

When a wise prince occupied the throne, the Moon follows the right way. When the prince is not wise and the ministers exercise their power in a wrong way, the Moon loses its way. When the high officials let themselves act against the interest of the public as well as monarchy, the Moon goes astray towards north or south. When the Moon is rash, it is because the prince is slow in punishing....

For a long time, the Chinese believed that an eclipse was caused when a dog or some such wild animal bit (by way of casting shadows on) the Sun or the Moon. In order to drive away those animals they used to ring bells loudly. And since the solar eclipse was thought to be a bad omen, they used to fast during the eclipse hours to prevent its recurrence.

During solar eclipses, the Shintos in Japan used to have a talisman, a precious stone-studded necklace, put on the branches of the sacred Clauria tree. The brilliance of these stones was thought to compensate for the amount of sunlight lost during the eclipses (Fig.7). At some places bonfires were lit during the eclipses, with the idea that their light would make good the loss of sunlight and might help shorten the duration of the eclipse, as it did without failure!

Some of the Eskimo tribes also held that eclipses brought the Earth under bad influences, believing further that their failure to place all their utensils upside down before their deities would lead to widespread diseases (Fig.8). Even today, Eskimo women follow this ritual for the duration of the eclipse. Underlying this belief is the idea that during an eclipse the Sun and the Moon are diseased for a short period, much like the ordinary humans on the Earth, who fall sick for a while. Therefore, rays from these striken bodies falling on utensils could transmit the same disease to the Eskimos, as well as their respective deities.

The people living along the western coast of Africa believed that the lunar eclipse occurs because of the Sun's shadow, which is always following the Moon. So during eclipses, people gather on the street and shout: 'Leave Him', 'Go away', and so on.

According to the Ojibawas sect of the Red Indians the solar eclipse signifies the extinguishing of the Moon or the Sun for a while. Consequently, they hurl burning arrows in the direction of the Sun so as to rekindle its original brightness (Fig.9).

The inhabitants of the Tahiti Islands are found to believe that a lunar eclipse is a sign of impending disaster caused by evil spirits. In order to free the Moon from the clutches of these diabolical influences, they gather at their shrines and prey.

The aborigines of Sri Lanka also understand the solar eclipse as an indication of an unholy and disastrous event and observe a fast on the day of the eclipse.

The Todas from the Nilgiris believe that there is a rabbit on the Moon, which is not very difficult to imagine if one closely looks at the face of the Full Moon. According to them when a serpent swallows the Moon the lunar eclipse begins. In order to drive the serpent away, these people shout and make loud noises; they also fast during the eclipse hours. It seems that they have hardly witnessed any of the total solar eclipses.

The Maoris in Assam and Bihar believe that the lunar eclipse is a sign of imminent victory over their enemy in a war and the collapse of their enemy's fort. It would have been logical for their enemies to also arrive at a similar interpretation. But one has to keep in mind that war always takes place between two communities, religious denominations, or rival rulers. If one of them wins just after witnessing a lunar eclipse by fortuitous coincidence the previous night or within a few days of its rest day, a superstitious belief which attributes final victory in a war to the occurrence of an eclipse is quite natural. In that case, the vanquished party would naturally view an eclipse as a bad omen.

The imagination of the Munda tribes hailing from Bihar, and Bastar region in Madhya Pradesh is quite fertile. They believe that the Sun and the Moon take loans from a demon, named 'Dhanko'. Their failure to repay within the scheduled period invites imprisonment by their creditors, and therefore, the Sun and the Moon are not seen in the sky at their usual positions. This, in their opinion, is why eclipses take place. So the Munda people bring their utensils, rice and weapons to their courtyards in the belief that the Sun and the Moon will accept these to repay their debts to the demon thereby liberating the Mundas from the ghastly spectre of an eclipse.

In the Holy Quran, in the Sura of Resurrection (Al-Qiyama), it is stated that before the day of Resurrection, the Moon will be eclipsed, and the Sun and the Moon will be brought together (75: 7-11). It may sound either paradoxical or trivial, depending upon how one is interpreting these words. In the Holy Bible (Mathew 24:29), similar statements are recorded about the signs of the future return of Jesus Christ. The Holy Prophet had advised the people to resort to prayer and charity during eclipses, be it solar (kusoof) or lunar (khusoof). The Prayer Book (Salat, p. 66-76) prescribes a two Rak'aat prayer on the occassion of any eclipse. In fact, the Holy Prophet performed two Ruku in each Rakat. The central theme behind this is to rekindle the human spiritual light in the believer's heart while the celestial spiritual light diminishes during eclipses.

The Holy Prophet also stated that a Divine Reformer (Mahdi) would come and His signs would be a lunar eclipse on the thirteenth night of Ramazan (first of eclipse nights) and a solar eclipse on the twenty-eighth day of Ramazan (middle of eclipse days). (Darqutani, vol. I, P.188). In fact, eclipses have played very crucial roles during the formative phases of Islam.

The birth year of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (A.D. 569-570) was also a year of total solar eclipse (on A.D. 24 November 569), with its path of totality passing within about a thousand kilometers of His birth place. This was in concurrence with the prevailing notion that a total solar eclipse ushers in a new regime or signals the downfall of older dynasties, although the Quran does not make a causal connection between these two events. However, the tragic death of the Prophet's infant son, Ibrahim, on A.D. 22 January 632 coincided with the occurrence of an annular solar eclipse. On A.D. 2 July 632 another annular solar eclipse took place when Mu'awaiyah (the son of the chief Meccan enemy of Ali) assumed leadership after the revolt against Ali (who was Prophet's son-in-law), and decided to transfer the Prophet's pulpit from Medina to his capital in Damascus, Syria. Due to the occurrence of an annular solar eclipse during the raising of the pulpit, the mission was abandoned.

Generally, the Jains also regard an eclipse (solar and lunar) as a bad omen, and have laid down certain rituals to ward off their ill effects. A total solar eclipse is thought to be the sure cause of the death of the king or some such highly placed person. If two eclipses occur during the same month, it is believed to be a definite harbinger of some great calamity, such as a war.

The Buddhist tradition interprets eclipses as being caused by two demons, namely Rahu and Ketu, devouring the Sun and the Moon (Fig. 10). Many Buddhist scriptures, written in Pali language, refer to eclipses caused by Rahu and Ketu. This issue will be dealt with in more detail in the context of the beliefs and practices of the Hindus in the following section.