The Eclipse as Dark Omen

America’s skies are set to dim at a strange hour of its history.

Olga Dar / ostill / Shutterstock / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

To experience transcendence during a solar eclipse is a privilege of modernity. I know a man who once sailed to a remote island in the South Pacific to see an eclipse, and having caught the bug on that trip, later flew to see another in Svalbard, where local law required him to keep a shotgun handy, lest he end up a warm meal for a polar bear. If I had to compress his field reports from these far-flung eclipse viewings into a single word, it would be wonder. In that, he’s no outlier. Wonder is the dominant theme of recent eclipse accounts, whose general spirit is captured by a 1925 article in The New York Times that described an eclipse as “the most magnificent free show nature presents to man.”

These breathless reports of “magnificence” represent a radical break with the historical literature on eclipses. For Shakespeare, an eclipse was a “stain on the sun that portended no good.” Milton compared the eerie light of the eclipsed sun to the tarnished glow of the fallen Lucifer. And these are relatively recent accounts. The eclipse myths of antiquity were more unsettling still.

It’s no surprise that eclipses used to trouble us. One behavior that distinguishes humans from animals is the considerable energy we devote to observing the sky. Some form of stargazing likely took hold among other species, especially the Neanderthals, who shared our upright-ape body plan, a natural advantage for looking at the sky. Several of our fellow creatures respond to the moon’s phases—and much else, I’m sure, given that our understanding of animal consciousness is so impoverished. But humans are a special case. We are obsessed with the sky, in part because we recognize its dangers.

Other creatures may fear thunder and lightning, but only a species with written records can remember the devastation that follows in an asteroid’s wake. And only humans feel philosophical dread when looking at the sky. Whether you’re gazing up at the blue, sunlit vault of noon, or peering through a telescope into a dark, galaxy-filled vista, the sky always conceals deeper recesses. It always confronts you with a vision of the unknown.

To ease this psychic pain, we have filled our skies with gods, including Sumer’s Anu, Greece’s Zeus, Rome’s Jupiter, and Hinduism’s Shiva. Even the God of the Hebrews behaved conspicuously like a sky god. In the Sinai desert, he assumed the Zeus-like form of clouds marbled by lightning. When he wanted to judge humanity, he emptied the sky onto the Earth, and when the cleansing deluge was complete, he stretched a rainbow from horizon to horizon, to signal a new covenant with the survivors. Sometimes, he even spoke from the sky, as when he thundered replies to Job “out of the storm.”

This is the first thing to understand about the prescientific experience of an eclipse: It happened against this unnerving backdrop, this existential realm where the gods displayed messages of great import, messages that could be read only by the highest and most learned priests. We get a clue as to how this singular message from the sky was received from our English word “eclipse,” a descendant of the Greek “ékleipsi,” which has, among its roots, a word meaning “abandonment,” that potent psychological state that animates the very worst of our childhood fears.

What could be more traumatic than the abandonment of the sun? This is the energy source that powers Earth’s photosynthetic food chains, the ball of fire that anchors and warms us as we twirl around in the cold cosmic void. The sun is the giver of life. It is also the giver of light, the ethereal stuff that illuminates the world, making it manifest to the mind. Philosophers have often likened sunlight to consciousness itself. In Plato’s cave, it is sunlight that awaits those who throw off their chains. And in Descartes’ dark forest of metaphysical confusion, enlightenment comes only when sunbeams break through the canopy.

You can imagine what it would suggest about your own fate, were you to see the white-hot center of your sensory world vanish, with no promise that it would return. The sun is the most robust of all physical phenomena. Even today, our scientific end-times tales involve its death. In deep antiquity, a few minutes without the sun would have felt like an eternity, or like a stepping out of time altogether. It would have felt as though some dark new chaos had dawned. The ancient Ojibwe peoples of the American Midwest felt this distress acutely: They tried to reignite the blacked-out sun by firing flaming arrows into it.

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.

It took time for eclipses to be demythologized. To the naked eye, it isn’t obvious that the sun is obscured by the moon, which by cosmic coincidence, is 400 times smaller than the sun and also 400 times nearer to Earth, so that they cleanly overlap. Our oldest surviving eclipse records date back to the Chaldeans of Babylon, who were pressing them into clay tablets in 626 BCE, if not earlier. But the first written account of an eclipse prediction, with all the understanding that entails, didn’t happen—if it happened at all—until decades later, when the Greek philosopher Thales warned that the sun would soon go dark.

The natural philosophers of ancient Greece took inspiration from Thales. They devised a sophisticated cosmology of rotating celestial spheres, and multi-geared machines that represented the movements of these spheres, including the movements that brought the moon directly in front of the sun. The ingenuity of these machines would not be surpassed until Medieval clocks appeared more than 1,000 years later. And the celestial spheres would reign, more or less untouched, until Copernicus and Galileo dislodged the Earth from the center of the universe, and in doing so ushered in the Enlightenment.

In their disdain for Caesars of every kind, America’s founders conceived of themselves, and their political experiment, as the full flowering of the Enlightenment. They traced their intellectual heritage back to the Greeks. They made their capital city an open-air tribute to Athens. Their republic is an idea borrowed from Plato. Now, the “Great American Eclipse” is scheduled to darken this country’s skies at a strange hour of its history, when the occupant of its highest office expresses admiration for strongman-like kings, and sometimes acts as though he, too, would like to be king. He should heed the signs. An eclipse sometimes bodes ill for a king.

Science hasn’t completely defanged the eclipse, after all. A solar eclipse still makes the stock market drop, and some are preparing for this one as though it will bring Armageddon. Even in our literary accounts of eclipses, one still finds the odd apocalyptic aside. Annie Dillard, who wrote the most beautiful such account, compared the experience of seeing totality to a mushroom cloud.

But despite the cultural detritus of previous millennia, the primary emotion most of us now feel upon glimpsing an eclipse is wonder. In just the last century, astronomers have watched light from distant stars bend as it moved through the distorted space surrounding the eclipsed sun, and in doing so learned that space warps wherever there is a large mass, just as Einstein said. They have since searched out larger such masses, whose surrounding pockets of distortion magnify the cosmos beyond them, like natural telescopes, through which astronomers have peered to the far end of the observable universe.

Our robots have watched Phobos, the Martian moon, eclipse the sun from the red planet’s dusty surface. Phobos is too small to blot out the whole solar disc, but observatories are now looking for “exomoons” that circle planets in other star systems. And given that nature has manufactured untold numbers of these planets, it’s a safe bet that someday we’ll find one with a moon that’s just the right size to block its sun. Maybe we’ll even find members of another intelligent species who have also watched, in astonishment, as their local star vanished at mid-morning.

A solar eclipse still exerts a pull on the dark side of the human imagination, but it weakens with every century. No one need fear bloody revolution on August 21. But nor should anyone forget that some of us harbor no nostalgia for the age of superstition. Or the age of kings.