What Your Ancestors Thought About Solar Eclipses

By Diane Haddad

1918 solar eclipse

The solar eclipse on Aug. 21 is the first total eclipse in nearly 40 years that’s visible from the continental United States. The “path of totality” also crosses the lower 48 from coast to coast, so it’s kind of a big deal. (Including here at Family Tree headquarters, where we’re not far north of totality.)

We have clocks and artificial lighting, so we don’t have to plan our lives around the availability of sunlight. Our ancestors, though, had to rely on the regular cycles of the sun and moon. A solar eclipse casting a vast shadow that darkened the earth at the wrong time of day was a disruption in the natural order of things and a cause for concern.

Eating the sun

The first recorded reference to an eclipse is a 5,000-year-old depiction of an aligned sun, moon and horizon carved into a stone monument at Loughcrew in County Meath, Ireland. It likely represents a solar eclipse on Nov. 30, 3340 B.C.

Many ancient cultures explained solar eclipses with legends involving mythical figures eating or stealing the Sun. In southeast Asia, a giant frog or turtle eats the sun. The Vikings believed it was a wolf named Sköll. The Chinese thought it was a dragon.

Hindu mythology holds that the demon Rahu stole an elixir that would make him immortal, but the god Vishnu beheaded him before he could swallow it. His head, as a result, still floats around and occasionally devours the sun.

Read more on eclipse mythology.

Bad omens

Other cultures believed an eclipse was a bad sign. The ancient Greeks believed an eclipse meant the gods were angry and foretold disasters and destruction. In Babylon, a stand-in king would sit on the throne during an eclipse to prevent harm to the real king.

King Henry I of England died in 1135, two years after an unusually long solar eclipse, but observers still linked the two events. A 14th-century European astrologer, Geoffrey of Meaux, predicted a plague after an eclipse in 1345. The Black Death struck Europe not long after.

Natural phenomena

“The Greek philosopher Anaxagoras from about 2,500 years ago … he was really the first person that we can identify from Western culture that quickly identified what caused eclipses,” says astronomer and physics professor Tyler Nordgren. That realization enabled Anaxagoras to understand the positions and relative sizes of the sun, moon and Earth.

Edmund Halley, for whom the comet is named, wrote in 1715 that people shouldn’t fear eclipses. “An Eclipse of the Sun,” he wrote, “proceeds only from natural Causes; and is nothing else but the direct [i]nterposition of the Body of the Moon between our Sight and the Sun.”

Solar eclipses in our ancestors’ newspapers

The first known photograph of a total solar eclipse is a daguerreotype Johann Julius Friedrich Berkowski took July 28, 1851. By then, newspapers explained eclipses and carried maps of their predicted paths.

“As long as the total eclipse lasts, there appears about the sun and moon a luminous corona, and beyond this brilliant prominences, mostly of a rose tint,” reported the Daily Kansas Tribune (Lawrence, Kan.) in 1869, six days before an Aug. 7 eclipse.

In 1889, The Monroeville (Ind.) Breeze included an illustration to show how an eclipse happens:

solar eclipse illustration

The Altoona (Pa.) Tribune published the map at the top of this post in 1918, before the last solar eclipse to cross America.

Even today, though, some still see an eclipse as a sign from above or as an evil omen, blaming it for poisoned food and birth defects. Scientists, though, say all you have to fear from a solar eclipse is damaging your eyes if you look right at it.

See my tips for using social history to “fluff out” your family tree and learn more about your ancestors’ lives.