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How 5 Ancient Cultures Explained Solar Eclipses

Solar eclipses have been fascinating—and often terrifying—humans throughout the course of history.

Solar eclipses have been fascinating—and often terrifying—humans throughout the course of history. For the first time in nearly 100 years, a solar eclipse’s path of totality, where the entire sun is obscured by the moon, will cross a wide swath of the United States on August 21, 2017. As millions prepare to witness the phenomenon, find out how some early cultures and religions tried to explain and understand a solar eclipse.

1. Ancient China and the Sun-Eating Dragon

One of the first accounts of an eclipse—though one should note that this might be an old wives tale—dates back to 2136 B.C. Legend has it that the Emperor Chung K’ang executed his royal astronomers, Hi and Ho, for failing to predict an eclipse. While the ancient Chinese might have been able to predict eclipses, their explanation for them was based in lore. They believed that giant beings—either a dog or a dragon—were eating the sun. In fact, the Chinese word for eclipse includes the character “shi,” which means “to eat.” To scare the beast, the ancient Chinese would bang on drums and make enough noise to chase it away.

2. Vikings and the Wolf Siblings

As in ancient China on other early cultures, the Vikingsbelieved the sun was being eaten during an eclipse. Their legend involves two wolves, Hati and Skoll, who sought to eat celestial bodies. Skoll sought out the moon, and Hati the sun.  When one caught up to its prey, the lights would go out. The Vikings also would make loud noises to scare off the wolves and return the light of the sun or moon. They believed that Ragnarok, or the apocalypse, would occur when the wolves truly devoured the sun and the moon.

Partial solar eclipse on January 04, 2011 in Locon, northern France. (Credit: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

Partial solar eclipse on January 04, 2011 in Locon, northern France. (Credit: Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images)

3. Inuits and the Squabbling Siblings

The indigenous Inuits of Greenland, Alaska and the Artic used the legend of two celestial beings, moon god Annigan and his sister, sun goddess Malina to explain both eclipses and the lunar cycle. It all began when Anningan chased Malina after a fight. As he repeatedly pursued her, he forgot to eat and lost weight (symbolized by the moon’s waning phase), finally disappearing completely when he stopped to regain his strength—becoming the new moon. A solar eclipse occured when Anningan finally reached Malina, just as the moon caught up with the sun.

4. The Batammaliba and the First Mothers

The Batammaliba people of Benin and Togo regard eclipses as a time to make peace with family, friends and neighbors. Their legend tells of the first two women in the world, Kuiyecoke and Puka Puka, who eventually became the matriarchs of a village. As the village grew, its inhabitants became more argumentative, quarreling with each other frequently. Kuiyecoke and Puka Puka tried to stop the fighting, but no one would listen, so they darkened the sun and the moon to threaten the villagers. Frightened, the villagers stopped fighting, listened to the women, and made peace offerings to each other to bring back the light—a tradition that continues during eclipses today.

5. Hinduism and the Disembodied Demon

One of the more graphic eclipse legends can be found in Hindu mythology, where gods and demons worked together to create an elixir of mortality. The demon Rahu, however, was determined to taste of the nectar himself. He donned a disguise and crashed a banquet, but the sun and moon told the god Vishnu of his plans just as he took a sip. Vishnu had Rahu beheaded, but his head (with the bit of elixir) remained immortal while his body died. Rahu’s severed head lived on, perpetually chasing after the sun and moon in anger. Occasionally he catches up to them and eats them, but the sun and moon re-emerge quickly because he has no arms to hold them, and the chase begins again.

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