Apoc-Eclipses of the Past: An Incomplete Compendium

We’re starting to see if the expected eclipse-related chaos in Oregon regarding traffic, waste management, food shortages, emergency preparedness, and other apocalyptic sentiments were worth worrying about. Sure, adding an extra 1 million people to the state and squeezing them into a 70-mile-wide band sounds crowded, but this isn’t the first time that’s happened. 

In 1924, an eclipse passing from Minnesota to Rhode Island attracted 20 million people – one sixth of the nation’s population. In New York alone, hundreds of thousands travelled into the path of totality that ran through Queens and upper Manhattan. As a rush of cold wind blew over the crowded streets at peak darkness, everyone became silent. But it was short lived as murmurs became shouts and applause. Some cried. Some spun in circles. Horns were honked and church bells rang. The howler monkeys, our cousins, also howl during eclipses. Maybe it’s something that just needs to happen.

Some cultures have encouraged noise to scare away whatever demon or animal had swallowed the Sun. Tibetans have described it as a dragon, Egyptians as a serpent, and for the Cherokee, it was a frog. European alchemists depicted a lion eating the sun. Among Hindus, the severed head and torso of the demon Swarbhanu did the swallowing.

Connections between death and a solar eclipse are also quite common. A 5th century BCE Babylonian prediction read, “The Sun will be eclipsed on the twenty-ninth of Iyyhar… there will be a revolt in Akkad: son will slay his father, brother will slay his brother, the king will die, and there will be fighting in the temple of Bel.”  

That sounds like a good reason to howl.

More often than not, it has been rulers who have been the subject of these predictions.  When Alexander the Great retuned to Babylon from India, astrologers warned him he would die if he entered the city before a solar eclipse. Alexander entered anyway and found a convict on his throne dressed in his clothes. The priests had placed the convict there as a scapegoat and advised Alexander to kill him after the eclipse. Unfortunately, Alexander still came down with a fever and died soon thereafter.

Eclipses have also been linked to mass deaths. 

On observing the course of a 1762 cholera epidemic that killed tens of thousands in the Bay of Bengal, James Lind – who had introduced citrus as a treatment for scurvy – wrote, “This fever was so general on the day of the eclipse that there is not the least reason to doubt it’s effect.”

More recently, the June 1918 solar eclipse that stretched from Washington to Florida was followed that fall by a global influenza epidemic that infected 450 million people and killed more than 50 million.

Even sex hasn’t escaped the ill effects of eclipses. 

In Ancient Rome, Pliny the Elder wrote that “Congress with a woman at such a time being noxious, it would end with fatal effects to a man.”  

But among Pacific Islanders, eclipses reenacted the creation of the universe, and everyone was encouraged to join in by having sex. So maybe it’s not all bad.

For more stories of past eclipses, check out John Dvorak’s Mask of the Sun: The Science, History, and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses.

by Andy Hahn