Understanding Solar Eclipses

by Midnight Freemason Contributor
Jim Stapleton

A total solar eclipse is set to occur on April 8, 2024, and will impact a wide swath of North America. It is estimated that more than 40 million Americans will be in the path of the eclipse.1 Excitement is certainly building for this event. Locations in the exact path of the total eclipse are bracing for increased tourism and crowds. There are plans underway for activities such as watch parties, live online viewing programs, and there are even special airline flights that will follow the path of the eclipse. The interest in the event is understandable. Afterall, the next time a total solar eclipse will impact a large area of North America won’t be until 2045.

However, humans have not always been excited about observing celestial occurrences like eclipses. Since ancient times, people have looked to the skies and studied the heavens. They observed the way the moon changed shape and traveled across the night sky. Patterns were recognized amongst the stars that resembled people and animals, which led the ancients to describe them as constellations along with accompanying stories. Though, one of the most terrifying and awe-inspiring phenomena that ancient civilizations observed had to have been a solar eclipse.

The sun has long held a place of extreme importance in many cultures throughout the course of history. They believed that the sun possessed incredible power. It provided warmth, was vital for agriculture, and aided navigation. The sun is so powerful that it can cause eye damage and potentially blindness if gazed upon directly. As a result, ancient cultures believed the sun held supernatural powers. “It was regularly worshipped as a god – Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks – or as a goddess, such as Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.”2 When solar eclipses occurred, earlier civilizations thought they were bad omens. Since they lacked scientific understanding, they invented explanations for the sudden disappearance of the sun during an eclipse.

Some of the oldest records of solar eclipses are from ancient China. The Chinese Emperors feared that solar eclipses were signs from heaven that the stability of their power might be in danger.3 So, there was a tremendous emphasis on recording and predicting solar eclipses. The people of ancient China believed that a celestial dragon devoured the sun when the light disappeared. It became a custom to try to scare away the dragon during eclipses by banging drums and making loud noises.4 Since eclipses are temporary, it is easy to see how people could assume that their interventions had an impact when the sunlight eventually returned.

In Hindu mythology, it was believed that the serpent god, Rahu Ketu, wanted to devour the sun. To prevent this from happening, Vishnu cut off his head. However, this did not solve the problem. The head, Rahu, still wanted to catch the sun and the moon. Sometimes he would successfully catch them, causing an eclipse. Though, with his head no longer attached to his body, the captured sun and moon would eventually fall out of his neck.5

The Vikings believed that Sk├Âll and Hati, two giant wolves, would chase the sun and moon trying to devour them. Eventually, Hati would catch up with the sun and consume it. When an eclipse would happen, the Vikings holler and make loud noises to scare Hati away.6

Interestingly, it seems that various ancient cultures believed that some sort of deity or mythical creature was responsible for eclipses. Of course, we have an understanding of the cause of such planetary phenomena in modern times. By utilizing geometry, astronomers can precisely predict when and where eclipses will happen. As Masons, we are taught to study the liberal arts and sciences. So, we should make sure we learn more about the science behind astronomical events which leads to a better understanding of the universe.

  1. https://www.brown.edu/news/2024-03-22/total-solar-eclipse

  2. https://source.colostate.edu/ancient-cultures-explained-eclipses/

  3. Han, Y., & Qiao, Q. (2009). Records of solar eclipse observations in ancient China. Science in China, 52(11), 1639-1645. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11433-009-0241-8

  4. https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/eclipse-history#:~:text=In%20Ancient%20China%2C%20solar%20and,the%20Moon%20during%20lunar%20eclipses

  5. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2017/08/solar-eclipse-awe-wonder-and-belief/

  6. https://vikingr.org/other-beings/skoll-hati


Jim Stapleton is the Senior Warden of USS New Jersey Lodge No. 62. He is also a member of the New Jersey Lodge of Masonic Research and Education No. 1786. Jim received the Distinguished White Apron Award from the Grand Lodge of New Jersey. He was awarded the Daniel Carter Beard Masonic Scouter Award. Jim is also a member of the Society of King Solomon.

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