All Things Assyrian
Eclipses and Fire-eating Dragons
By Ephrat Livni
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Assyrian tablet linking an eclipse and an insurrection from around 518 BC. ( NASA)
A dark day is coming this summer. On August 21, the moon will obscure the sun's light and night will seem to fall suddenly and briefly in parts of the world Around the globe, 500 million people will experience a solar eclipse and for many it will be total.

Fear not, however. Though eclipses are dramatic--the ancient Chinese believed a fire-eating dragon swallowed the sun and medieval European Viking sailors attributed these celestial events to sky wandering wolves catching up with the burning orb--they aren't tragic, despite the many myths and misconceptions about them that have historically existed, some of which persist to this day.

An epic tragedy

The sun is a dependable friend that gives light and life. So when, historically it did not, people got scared. "If you do a worldwide survey of eclipse lore, the theme that constantly appears, with few exceptions, is it's always a disruption of the established order." EC Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California told National Geographic. "All of a sudden, Shakespearean tragedy arrives and time is out of joint,"

For example, early Assyrian records link a 763 BC eclipse to an insurrection in the city of Ashur, now known as Qal'at Sherqat in Iraq. Likewise, when King Henry I of England died in 1133, the event coincided with a total solar eclipse and so the cosmic incident was blamed for the death.

The connection between tragic events and eclipses is now, however, recognized to be nothing more than confirmation bias. People historically have linked bad news to eclipses after they happened--and anyone who happened to have guessed that the bad news was going to happen would appear to be a sage, according to NASA.

A deadly plague

For example, European astrologer Geoffrey of Meaux saw a 1345 eclipse that he claimed lasted 3 hours, 29 minutes, and 54 seconds and predicted a plague that would last for over three years. In the traditions of astrology at the time, the duration of the eclipse was thought to indicate how long the bad news would last.

Two years later, the Black Death spread through Europe, and lasted until 1351. The 15th century scholar of arcane lore, Abbot Trithemius, later praised Geoffrey of Meaux for his prognostic powers.

Today, we know that a bacillus called yersina pestis, which travels through the air and via flea and rat bites, is what actually caused disease to spread so rapidly in Europe. In October 1347, twelve infected sailors docked in Sicily, leading to the death of more than 20 million people on the continent.

Radiation blindness

People have long believed that looking at the sun during an eclipse will cause blindness due to electromagnetic radiation. This is a misconception.

Staring directly at the sun causes eye damage, regardless of an eclipse. Yet the eery greenish glow of coronal light around it during some eclipses is likely to blame for the eclipse blindness myth, NASA says.

Coronal light looks creepy. But in fact it is much dimmer than light from the solar surface that we usually see, and less dangerous. "Scientists have studied [coronal light] radiation for centuries. Being a million times fainter than the light from the sun itself, there is nothing in the coronal light that could cross 150 million kilometers of space, penetrate our dense atmosphere, and cause blindness," NASA explains.

When the eclipse is total, staring straight at the sun is just like looking at moonlight. Still, its rays remain dangerously bright when the eclipse is partial and since it's dark out, you'll be tempted to stare a lot longer than would normally be possible.

If you're planning a cosmic observation, wear special eclipse glasses--regular sunglasses won't suffice. Public libraries across the US will be distributing two million pairs of these for free, care of the Space Science Institute.

Poisoned plates

The sun is to this day blamed by some in India for poisoning food prepared during eclipses.

NASA begs to differ. It states on its myths misconceptions page that there is no connection between a bad meal that makes someone sick and a solar eclipse. The space agency points to the fact that crops are unharmed by eclipses to support this.

The yogi Sadhguru would not likely be convinced by the agency's argument. Sadhguru says the Earth mistakes the eclipse for a full moon cycle and this unnatural event especially disturbs prepared foods which are already in a deteriorating, unnatural state. He writes:

This is why while there is no change in raw fruits and vegetables, there is a distinct change in the way cooked food is before and after the eclipse. What was nourishing food turns into poison.

Of course, there is no real science to support this belief.

Bad for babies

Pregnant women hear no end of superstitious beliefs supposedly pertaining to them. Among them is one that says eclipses harm the child-to-be. In some parts of rural Mexico, for example, solar eclipses are said to cause babies to be born with harelips.

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