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Eating the sun: How solar eclipses changed from terrible omen to tourist draw

Now people flock to see the sun's light swallowed by the moon, but solar eclipses were long viewed with terror and awe — until humans learned to see them coming.

Millions are flocking to see the sun disappear Aug. 21, but solar eclipses have a long history of terrifying

A statue of Houyi, a Chinese legendary hero who shot down nine suns with his bow and arrow, is silhouetted against a partial solar eclipse in the Shanxi province on July 22, 2009. (Reuters)

As we prepare for the moon to swallow the sun, cast your mind back 4,153 years ago, give or take.

Without warning, people in central China saw their familiar sun disappear and become a ring of fire, in what today is called an annular eclipse.

It only lasted two minutes and 52 seconds, but stories from that day — believed to be Oct. 22, 2137 BC — were told for millennia, said Xueshun Liu, a lecturer in Asian studies at the University of B.C. who has studied early Chinese eclipse records.

People ran around beating pots and pans, and musicians banged drums, trying to scare away whatever had stolen the sun.

"They thought maybe something was eating the sun," said Liu, noting the Chinese character for eclipse means "to eat."

"They were very scared."

Across cultures, stories of solar eclipses took different forms, with a common thread: fear at the sudden loss of light from our star.

But as predicting eclipses grew first possible and then precise, what was once seen as a terrible omen has become a draw for joyful crowds.

An annular eclipse seen through the ceilings of Chinese ancient buildings in Kaifeng, in central China's Henan province, in 2010. (Alexander F. Yuan/Associated Press)

Beheadings and boomerangs

In the history of eclipses, there's a jarring disconnect between modern astronomy's precision — which can assign milliseconds to events 4000 years ago — and records of human behaviour, which drift into legend.

There is a story, for example, of Indigenous Australians from the Ngadjuri tribe hurling boomerangs in the four cardinal directions to avert the evil of an eclipse.

But since that account was written by an outsider anthropologist more than 100 years after the eclipse happened, it's hard to know how to interpret it.

"Aboriginal societies are extremely complex and exist in a framework that is foreign to most Westerners," wrote cultural astronomer Duane Hamacher in a recent paper on the topic.

A combination photo shows the different phases of the total solar eclipse as it occurred over Svalbard, Norway in 2015. (Jon Olav Nesvold/NTB scanpix/Reuters)

Even one of the most famous eclipse stories, about the Chinese court astronomers Xi and He, was written centuries later, said Liu, making it hard to discern between history and parable.

Xi and He failed in their duty to predict an eclipse, and were put to death — or so the story goes.

"Xi and He ... have allowed their virtue to be subverted, and are besotted by drink," reads a translation of the Book of Documents.

"Let them be put to death without mercy."

The tale is noted by NASA and the New York Times, but we'll never know whether the drunken astronomers truly lost their heads over an eclipse. 

People watch and take pictures of the solar eclipse at the beach on Ternate island, Indonesia, in 2016. (Beawiharta/Reuters)

Power of prediction

What is clear is the kind of power that came from knowing when an eclipse was coming, especially when others didn't. 

Ancient Babylonians are credited with early predictions, thanks to careful record keeping that helped them recognize the so-called Saros cycle, when solar and lunar eclipses take place.

Early skywatchers may not have understood what was happening, but just being able to forecast it was a big deal, said UBC astrophysicist Jaymie Matthews.

"That represented tremendous power, because people were in awe and fear at the prospect of losing their sun."

A clay tablet, similar to this one which records later eclipses, is believed to hold the earliest human record of a total solar eclipse, seen May 3, 1375 BC in Ugarit, in modern-day Syria. (NASA)

Knowledge of an imminent eclipse has given advantage on real-world battlefields,  and in pop culture.

Fans of the comic Tintin may remember how the intrepid reporter once escaped a death sentence by requesting his execution for a particular time when he knew an eclipse was predicted — and his captors did not.

At the stake, as the moon covered the sun, Tintin acted as though he was in charge, asking the god of the sun to "hide thy shining face."

His captors begged for mercy and when the light came back, he was freed.


'A primal feeling'

The ancients couldn't have accomplished Tintin's theatrical timing.

But by 1715, when a total solar eclipse passed over London, astronomer Edmond Halley was only off in his forecast by four minutes and 18 seconds.

"That of course changes our entire view," said science historian John Dvorak,  author of Mask of the Sun: The Science, History and Forgotten Lore of Eclipses.

"Are things happening randomly up in the heavens, or can we predict them with a lot of precision?"

Today, the fear may be gone, but understanding eclipses has not removed their awe.

Dvorak, who has travelled from Hawaii to Oregon for Monday's eclipse, says even a boisterous crowd will grow quiet when the moon completely blocks the sun and totality hits.

"People start acting sometimes in a peculiar way ... spinning, and jumping, it's not unusual for people to start crying," he said.

"It really is a primal feeling that happens."

Which is why millions are assembling now in the path of totality, braving crowds and traffic experience, in anticipation of two minutes of darkness.

Tourists watch the sun being blocked by the moon during a solar eclipse in the Australian outback town of Lyndhurst, located around 700 kilometres north of Adelaide, in 2002. REUTERS/David Gray (David Gray/Reuters)