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Eclipse mythology: Celestial creatures try, fail to swallow sun

Mar 27, 2024

Before eclipses were the focus of scientific studies and celebratory watch parties, they were the subject of mythological stories that often involved celestial creatures trying to swallow the sun — and never succeeding.

“It’s been suggested that mythology was what people had to explain the cosmos before we had science, and that it often took the form of seeing natural phenomena as if they were living things,” said Moira Marsh, collection manager and liaison librarian for anthropology, folklore and sociology at the Herman B Wells Library at Indiana University Bloomington, one of five IU campuses in the path of totality for the April 8 solar eclipse. “In myth, the sun and the stars were personified with human-like will, and they behaved like human beings.”

In one example from Norse mythology, the sun and moon are sister and brother. They ride horse-drawn chariots across the sky, pursued by two giant wolves called Skoll and Hati. The wolves hunted their prey since the beginning of time, but at Ragnarok — the end of the cosmos — the wolves will swallow their prey and the earth will descend into darkness.

Wolves chase anthropomorphized versions of the sun and moon. Illustration by Willy Pogany from the book Children of ... Wolves chase anthropomorphized versions of the sun and moon. Illustration by Willy Pogany from the book “Children of Odin.”In ancient Hindu myth, the sun-swallower is the demon Rahu. The sun and moon reveal that he has stolen the elixir of immortality. When the god Vishnu finds out, he cut the demon’s head off, but it was too late. He was already immortal.

“Thus, his head became Rahu and his body Ketu, and the two celestial bodies eternally pursue the sun and moon and try to swallow them,” Marsh said. “Since Rahu has no throat, the sun always emerges again after being swallowed.”

Many mythological explanations of eclipses depend upon large and fearsome creatures, but that’s not always the case.

“According to the American historian H.B. Cushman, the Choctaw people used to say that eclipses were caused by a little black squirrel that was trying to devour the sun,” Marsh said. “Women shouted and shrieked, children banged pots, men fired off rifles until the squirrel was frightened away. This myth rests upon a creature that is small but ravenous.”

Eclipses remain a rare phenomenon that captivate humankind, although for different reasons.

“In history, a total eclipse of the sun was something uncanny, an omen, perhaps the end of the world,” Marsh said. “Today, it’s scientific or entertainment — less mythology, more merchandise. We’re still fascinated by it, but our fascination has taken on different forms.”

Author

IU Newsroom

Tia Broz

Communications Consultant, Strategic Communications

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