What did eclipses mean to people living in ancient times? And how does that influence science today? | St. Louis Public Radio

What did eclipses mean to people living in ancient times? And how does that influence science today?

Aug 16, 2017

The furor over the coming solar eclipse is reaching a fever pitch, causing us to ask: has it always been this way? On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we discussed the ways eclipses have been viewed in the past.

From Babylonians’ scientific tracking of eclipses to frequent myth and lore about the relationship between solar eclipses and animal feeding habits, we discussed how old views of solar eclipses impact our viewing of them today.

Astronomers Studying an Eclipse painted by Antoine Caron in 1571.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Joining the program for the discussion were St. Louis-based science writer Rebecca Boyle, who is leading coverage of the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21 for The Atlantic and whose work has appeared in FiveThirtyEight, Popular Science, New Scientist and Wired. Her work has included a look at how artists have viewed eclipses over time and how ancient scientists catalogued the celestial events.

“There is science being done during this eclipse that is pretty robust, even though it is 2017,” Boyle said. “We know what is happening and why it is happening, but we can still learn a lot about the sun’s atmosphere. This is a strange and mysterious part of the sun: it’s hotter than the surface by a factor of a million. This eclipse will allow scientists to view the corona in wavelengths of light that are otherwise blocked out. But, at the same time, there are more spiritual, communal questions this eclipse can answer.”

Also joining the program was Janice Stillman, editor of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, who has researched myths an lore surrounding total solar eclipses.

“Some folks feared that the end of the world was at hand, because the sun is a constant in our lives,” Stillman said of ancient cultures’ reactions to the eclipse. “For example, Chippewa people used to shoot flaming arrows into the sky to try to rekindle the sun. People in Peru did the same thing for a different reason: they hoped to scare off a beast that was attacking the sun. There are a lot of myths and folklore of animals taking a bite out of the sun, beheaded characters chasing and consuming the sun in China, Mongolia and Siberia. … there’s also some delightful romance about the eclipse. Some folks thought the sun was a fighter with its lover, the moon, and this was a conjugal meeting.” 

Listen to the full, fascinating discussion of science and folklore below:

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.