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Looking Back: When Day Turns to Night


John Kinnear

Apr 3, 2024

When Day Turns to Night
“With a finger on your lips,
Watch the solar eclipse.”

Oh my goodness, there has been quite the hoopla going on, as of late, with regards to the impending concealment of Sol. The time of its occultation by la bella Luna is drawing nigh and there has been much hand wringing and media coverage  about it all.  Perhaps a glance backwards in time, as I am want to do, is in order here.  Sort of put a bit of perspective on things.

Before I do that, try and imagine yourself, just for a moment, being way back in time and living in a somewhat primitive culture that takes its celestial bodies pretty seriously. Most civilizations did, by the way, back then. Then, contemplate what it must have been like to watch the sun disappear, the skies go dark mid-day and the birds go quiet.  It would have been terrifying. These are the moments that legends and some religious dogma were built around in many early cultures.  

I searched around in Google and Wikipedia a bit on the subject and came up with some pretty interesting folklore, myths and superstitions.  The Chippewa, who are an Anishinaabe people, were driven by fear of the Sun’s disappearance to shoot flaming arrows into the sky to try and rekindle the Sun.   Certain tribes in Peru apparently did the same thing but it was, in their case, with the hope that they could scare off the beast attacking the sun.  In many cultures the spectre of a consuming beast attacking the sun during an eclipse can be found.  In China, Mongolia and Siberia it is beheaded mythical characters that chase and consume the Sun and Moon and thus there is the eclipses.  The East Indian  belief is similar but somewhat more sophisticated and involves the demon spirit Rahu.  Rahu steals and consumes the nectar of immortality but he is beheaded before he can swallow it.  It was the Sun and Moon that warned the gods as to his theft so Rahu takes revenge on them. When he swallows an orb it is an eclipse, but because he has no body the orb returns into view.   Also in India many believe that a dragon is trying to seize both orbs during an eclipse, so they immerse themselves in rivers up to their necks. There they stand and implore the Sun and the Moon to defend them against the dragon. 

In Transylvanian folklore, it is believed an eclipse happens because an angry Sun turns away and covers herself with darkness in response to men’s bad behaviour. Well, from what I have read about Transylvania aka. vampires and such, I can understand why.  

There is a romantic aspect in some cultures with regard to the eclipse.  A case in point is the Australian Aborigines.  To them the Sun was seen as a woman who carries a torch and the Moon, by contrast, is regarded as male.  Because of the association of the lunar cycle with the female menstrual cycle the Moon was linked to fertility.  So a solar eclipse is interpreted as the Moon-man uniting with the Sun-woman. 

In several cultures this female Sun and male Moon identification can be found. The West Africans of Benin (never even knew this country existed) have the gender roles of the Sun and Moon switched around and they suggest that the orbs are very busy, but when they do get together, they turn off the light for privacy!

As far as superstitions go, many ancient people worried that an eclipse caused pregnancy issues like blindness, cleft lips and birthmarks. The misconception that the solar eclipse can be a danger to pregnant women and their unborn children still persists in many cultures and young children and pregnant women are asked to stay indoors during an eclipse.  Some of these baby superstitions go back as far as the Aztecs who believed that a celestial beast was biting the sun and the same thing could happen to a pregnant mother if she watched the eclipse.  

People recorded the motions, positions and appearance of the Sun and the Moon all around the world, long before telescopes. The Aztecs and Babylonians were obsessive enough about it that they could make astoundingly  accurate observations. This ultimately gave the priests the power of prediction.  

Getting back to other cultures, in Inuit folklore, the Sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with the Moon god Anningan and a solar eclipse happened when  Anningan managed to catch up to his sister.  I think my favourite legend is how the Batammaliba people, who live in Benin and nearby Togo, use the eclipse as a teaching moment. According to their legends the Sun’s eclipse means the Sun and the Moon  were fighting and that the only way to stop them from hurting each other was for people on Earth to resolve all conflicts with each other. A John Lennon wish. “Give Peace a Chance”!

Not everything is gloom and doom though. In Italy it is believed that flowers planted during a solar event are brighter and more colourful than those planted at any other time of the year. Of course most of the claims about the eclipse have been debunked by astronomers and scientists around the world. But there is one point that they are all quick to emphasize and that is that anyone watching a solar eclipse MUST protect their eyes properly.

It goes like this. The retina may translate light into an electrical impulse that the brain understands, but one thing it can’t translate to your brain is pain. So even if you’re excited about the eclipse and think one brief glimpse at the sun before it completely hides behind the moon is worth it - it’s not. There’s no internal trigger that is going to let you know that you’ve looked at the sun for too long. Any amount of looking at it is too long.

Even the smallest amount of exposure can cause blurry vision or temporary blindness. The problem is, you won’t know whether it’s temporary.

The narrow path of totality (full covering of the sun) runs through the south half of  Newfoundland, just misses Nova Scotia, through the middle of New Brunswick and along the very south east sides of Ontario and Quebec.  Here in Alberta the sun is only partially occulted  because the further away you get from the path of totality the smaller the occultation is. The website- lists just about every community in Alberta and as an example, in Coleman it will start at 11:45:15 MDT. The first bite out of the sun will appear at the 5 o’clock position and at 12:41:03 MDT the maximum amount of the disk will be covered, about 39%.

There is so much information out there it boggles the mind. They have pegged the exact start and duration of the eclipse for cities all the way from Gander to Hamilton on one particular website. It has come to my attention that a former resident of the Crowsnest Pass is travelling to Sherbrooke, Quebec to meet with family to experience this rare moment. There the eclipse will start at exactly 3:27 p.m. Eastern Standard and last 3 minutes 26 seconds, the longest eclipse of any of the Canadian cities along the totality route.

It is one thing to watch the sun disappear on TV or on your devices on sites like the NASA live on-line coverage but it’s another to stand and safely look up at that moment in time. The time when the Sun hides behind the moon and a shadow rolls across the landscape you are standing on. That has to be magical.

The news the last few days has been rife with stories about emergency preparations ahead of the event. The Americans have been planning in earnest for some time now, to be prepared for the huge impact this eclipse has on its roadways.  Here in Canada the Niagara Region has proactively declared a state of emergency out of caution ahead of the eclipse. The Niagara Falls mayor says they expect up to a million people for the event. This in a place that has 14 million visits over the course of an entire year.

One research site, the Tory Trauma Research Program, has statistics on highway accidents and fatalities during the 2017 eclipse in the US and it was stunning to learn how many there were. In the 2017 event 1,878 individuals were in accidents, 741 of which were in fatal crashes over the three-day eclipse exposure interval. That’s 10 people per hour! Increased traffic, travel on unfamiliar routes, speeding to arrive on time, driver distraction by a celestial event, drug-or-alcohol impairment from related celebrations or eclipse viewing from unsafe road locations. So many ways it can get deadly.

So remember to be properly equipped visually if you decide to watch the moment the Moon blocks off the Sun. Even the darkest sunglasses are not sufficient protection.  The two planets align for about 3 minutes, about the length of the song of Lennon’s plea. Sing it as it happens.

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