For ancient civilizations, thousands of years from a Google search, witnessing a total solar eclipse was like witnessing the end of the world.
In a flash, shadows became piercingly sharp, and temperatures cooled. Day became night, and people’s only measure of time — the sun — dissolved into darkness.
When the moon shields the sun during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21 —
But for ancient civilizations, only one thing was clear: Their singular source of life and light had vanished.
“It’s a fearful experience,” said Nicholas Campion, a cultural astronomer and lecturer at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. “Everybody depends on the sun. Without the sun we would not be alive, without the sun we would have no time — it’s absolutely fundamental.”
“You can forget this, being a modern, urban dweller,” he said.
It’s entirely possible that some of the earliest ancient eclipses were recorded through stone alignments. One of the earliest written accounts of a solar eclipse dates to 2137 BC in China, said Anthony Aveni, an astronomy professor at Colgate University who helped develop the field of cultural astronomy.
However, written records aren’t the only significant accounts, Aveni said. Of equal importance are the cultural records, manifested in stories, legends, and superstitions following the galactic show.
For example, the ancient Chinese didn’t believe a solar eclipse was simply the moon covering the sun; they determined a dragon was devouring it. This alarming consensus prompted them to clang pots, bang drums, and howl to frighten the dragon away.
To the ancient Greeks, a solar eclipse meant the gods were demonstrating their anger and signaling the start of earthly destruction.
For the Pomo tribe of Native Americans in the United States, a solar eclipse occurred when a bear, walking through the Milky Way, decided to snack on the sun.
Behind these colorful interpretations was a desire to explain the inexplicable, Aveni said.
“I think it’s very important for those in power to be able to explain to the citizens what’s going on in the world,” he said.
Aveni said such explanations were taken seriously — so seriously that astronomers who failed to warn about eclipses in ancient China could face execution.
“In the case of an eclipse, it was almost always a portend of disaster,” Aveni said.
Today, specific eclipse glasses are highly recommended to protect viewers’ eyes from retina damage. In addition to providing protection, the glasses create a drastically different viewing experience than what it was for viewers of ancient times.
Because the lenses dim the surrounding light, viewers today are able to watch the buildup of a solar eclipse: The moon gradually approaching the sun, covering it, then leaving its surface.
This process is one that ancient civilizations were, quite literally, in the dark about.
“Without the glasses, you’re experiencing what ancient people saw: The sun goes a bit dim, then an odd shape — then, radically, there is no sun,” Campion said.
Ancient viewers didn’t think the sun was being momentarily covered; they thought it had been swallowed whole.
In the midst of this sight, people might have felt compelled to repent for their sins, imagining imminent death, Campion said.
“My view is in any culture which experienced a total solar eclipse, you’d probably get some religious or political reform,” Campion said. “The sun’s gone black, it’s like a huge warning — there’s no life without the sun.”
But then, moments later, the sun would reappear.
“ ‘I’ve been forgiven, I’ve been saved!’ ” Campion said, imagining how people might have responded to the reemergence of light. “Whatever it was I had promised to do, or did when the sun disappeared, I’d do it even more.”
The Greeks demonstrated this philosophy in 585 BC, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, when the Lydians and the Medes ended their six-year war after reasoning that the eclipse was a sign to make peace.
As time progressed, and groups like the Babylonians and Greeks began to better understand the rhythmic timing of eclipses, total solar eclipses became more predictable and less horrific.
“But even then, they were considered to be points in which the natural order can come unstuck,” Campion said.
Today, viewers no longer have to fear sun-eating dragons or think the eclipse is an omen of the world’s end. But regardless of the millennium, the wide-eyed wonder viewers will experience during a total solar eclipse will never age out, Campion said.
“To witness a total eclipse of the sun is pretty much the most awe-inspiring experience you can have in the natural world,” Campion said.
“Once you’ve experienced that, then all discussion of different eclipse traditions around the world becomes academic, because they’re all attempts to explain this utterly profound experience,” he said.