The sun is not the kind of thing you expect to need rekindling. The sun is fearsome. It can burn you, blind you, drive you to thirst or even madness. It can kill you and bleach your bones where they lie. The ancients warned against even approaching the sun, as Phaethon and Icarus did to their peril. Their sun gods weren’t cuddly. They were disapproving fathers, or birds of prey. They wielded symbols of strength and domination, like the beams of light hurled to Earth’s surface by the sun god Ra, which Egypt’s sculptors reconceived as obelisks, monuments to power that have lost little of their potency across 4,000 years. One still towers over the capital of the world’s most powerful country. It looks a lot like those that were hauled out of Ancient Egypt to stand in the piazzas of Imperial Rome. And then there is that other symbol of power, the crown, a golden ring made to look like a sunburst adorning the sovereign’s head.
This close identification with the sun might explain why kings have long feared eclipses. A surprising number of popes and monarchs have died in their wake. Louis XIV, the “sun king” who so loved decadent gold decor that he chose the solar sphere as his emblem, died just after an eclipse hung in the skies above Paris. Some ancient rulers, including Alexander the Great, executed a substitute king after an eclipse, as a kind of sacrificial hedge.
Of all the stories about earthly kings being laid low after an eclipse, my favorite comes from the psychedelic end-times text of Christianity, the Book of Revelation. In a dream, John of Patmos watches as the seals on the book of judgment rip open, each triggering a fresh calamity. After the sixth seal is torn, the sun darkens, as though in eclipse, and nature begins shedding its fundamental features. Stars drop to the Earth like fruit falling from the boughs of a tree. The planet’s crust shakes with unprecedented violence, displacing whole mountain ranges and islands. And all the world’s kings, princes, generals, and the rich slink away to hide among the rocks thrown off by the geological mayhem, or in caves, like Peter Thiel in his New Zealand bunker.
Kings are right to fear the blotting out of the sun. If you stake your political legitimacy on divine right—on the idea that your dominion was written, by god, into the very laws of nature—you have a big problem when the natural order begins to unwind, right before your subjects’ eyes, in the most dramatic way possible, such that it cannot be denied by royal proclamation—or by tweet. This is what gives eclipses their Dionysian edge, this sense, drawn from our collective cultural memory, that back in the mists of prehistory, a vanishing sun could unleash something primal and violent.
These lurid associations survive in the ancient stories that tell us the sun was eaten during an eclipse. Written by people for whom the experience of being stalked as prey was more immediate, these myths describe the sun being devoured by a dark and starry jaguar, or by a bear, snake, or dragon. In Ancient India, the demon Rahu ate the sun, or rather, it was his decapitated head, which was removed from his body as punishment after he posed as a god in order to steal a sip of the elixir of immortality. The torso-less Rahu had no stomach for the eaten sun to descend into, and so the fiery ball re-appeared shortly after he gulped it down.