Understanding a Solar Eclipse: Then and Now

Thanks to scientific observations with telescopes, satellites and mathematical calculations, we not only understand what happens during a solar eclipse but we can also predict when they will occur and where they will be seen well into the future. 

That hasn’t always been the case. 

Take, for example, the origin of the word eclipse. It’s derived from the ancient Greek word ekleipsis, meaning "abandonment." You get the idea. The folks back then thought the Sun had just turned off. It had, in effect, abandoned the Earth. 

Far north from the Greeks, the Vikings thought solar eclipses were the work of Sköll, a wolf pursuing the Sun god Sol. The more of the Sun that disappeared, the more of it that was being eaten. To save the Sun, the Viking folks made a lot of noise to scare off the wolf. 

As it turns out, the "Sun-eating" concept wasn't unique to just the Vikings. 

During solar eclipses, the ancient Chinese thought a dragon was eating the Sun. They too made a lot of noise to scare off the beast. The Incas, similarly, thought giant creatures were eating the Sun and made a lot of commotion to save it. 

As astrophysicist David Dearborn notes, "In many ways it makes sense that eclipses would be seen as bad omens. For most early cultures, the Sun was seen as a life-giver, something that was there every day, so something that blots out the sun was a terribly bad event, filled with foreboding.” 

The ideas of cultures past provide interesting points of view, and show us just how far we've come in understanding solar eclipses.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog! 

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