As I watched the eclipse—through special glasses—I couldn’t help but wonder what an eclipse might mean to people from a time & place without the science needed to predict or understand it.
I watched it from the 72nd Street Pier on the West Side of Manhattan with my cousin, some friends, and a picnic lunch. We knew exactly what was going to happen and we even had reports from my cousin’s husband in Northern California as he previewed our experience and gave a few safety oriented photographic suggestions.
As the eclipse rolled across the country—from West to East, in a diagonal line, from North to South—neither Berkeley nor New York City were in the path of the ‘TOTALITY’ but our 70% eclipse was still quite a show. In the blackout glasses I saw NOTHING, absolutely nothing, when I looked in the direction of the river, the people I was with, even at my own feet, but when I turned around to face the sun, I saw the moon’s shadow passing over the sun; and clouds dancing on the decreasing and then increasing crescent of the star.
My science fiction fan cousin talked about famous science fiction stories featuring eclipses and I’ll delve into them another time, after I read, or reread, a few. In the moment—munching on picnic food & with people enjoying a late summer day near the water—I thought about the terror that a total eclipse might inspire—even in cultures with the astrological sophistication to predict the sun’s return.
The Aztecs and Mayans were extraordinary astronomers and capable of predicting an eclipse, but to many ancient peoples an eclipse was a frightening event. I read recently that, although they could predict an eclipse, the ancient Chinese explained it as a giant creature (a dragon or a dog) “eating” the sun. Not far off from the Viking idea of two wolves devouring the sun and moon.
Since Monday I’ve been pondering my own calm enjoyment of what would have been a terrifying and awesome event, fraught with mystical, spiritual, and magical power to a woman on a riverbank in the long distant past. Would the mythology of her people give her comfort? Would she believe the world was ending? Would she stare at the sun?