The Role Of Solar Eclipses In Religion : NPR

Throughout human history, solar eclipses have been seen as having great religious significance, often as omens or signs of divine warning or punishment. Major and minor religions alike have their own understandings.


Our fascination with solar eclipses like the one coming up Monday is thousands of years old. It was thought that the sudden disappearance of the Sun was one of those mysteries that only the gods could explain. Science eventually provided the answers, but for religious believers, a solar eclipse remains an occasion of special significance. Here’s NPR’s Tom Gjelten.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Imagine you’re a Plains Indian on a perfect summer day, hunting buffalo under a cloudless prairie sky. Suddenly, for no reason, the sun begins to go dark.

ANTHONY AVENI: You go through a twilight like you’ve never seen. You see shadows like you’ve never seen. You see colors like you’ve never seen. And then you see what looks like a hole in the sky.

GJELTEN: And you’re terrified. Anthony Aveni is a professor of astronomy and anthropology at Colgate University. In his new book, “In The Shadow Of The Moon,” Aveni tell stories of how cultures through the ages have related to solar eclipses. In some pre-modern societies, the sun was itself seen as a living thing. During a solar eclipse, some people figured the sun was being eaten and needed to be alerted to the danger it faced.

AVENI: People banging pans and making noise and pinching their dogs to make them howl at the eclipse. And an anthropologist asked them about this and said, you know, are you chasing away the demons with your noise? And one responded, said, no, we’re not chasing away the demons. We’re trying to get the sun’s attention.

GJELTEN: Those who believed in one God, like the Jews, didn’t see the sun as a cosmic player, but a solar eclipse scared them as well. They turned to their rabbis for guidance. Jeremy Brown has studied ancient…

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