Man has always looked to the cosmos for answers, with delight, in fear, and for signs.
In August, the boldest sign the universe can bring — a midday midnight — will be on display for millions of people as a total solar eclipse paints a black ribbon coast-to-coast.
It is mechanical, an alignment predictable to the second, an event ripe for scientific study. Yet, it is also an apparition so profound that historically, and even today, a total solar eclipse is considered by some a signal from a higher power, or a harbinger of apocalypse.
“Total eclipses are so phenomenal and so overpowering and so amazing that some people have ascribed a ‘super spirituality’ to them,” said Dan McGlaun, a 12-time total solar eclipse viewer who runs the website Eclipse2017.org. “That’s why so many cultures have created stories and myths about eclipses throughout history.”
The Aug. 21 total solar eclipse is the first in 99 years to cross the U.S., traveling from Oregon to South Carolina. Everyone in North America will be able to see the eclipse, but only those in the 70-mile wide path of totality will witness a black hole open in the daytime sky as the moon envelops the sun.
The cross-country eclipse will take 90 minutes, beginning at 10:15 a.m. PST in Newport, Ore., and ending 4:10 p.m. EST in Charleston, S.C. For two minutes, 40 seconds, darkness will reign in the strip of totality where 12 million people live and millions more will journey.
In ancient times, mythical animals were often blamed for the darkness, eating the sun bite by bite to starve people of life-giving light. An invisible dragon swallowed the sun in China. India had a serpent head with no body munching on the bright star. Demon dogs did the deed in Scandinavia. The Mayans thought a giant Jaguar was the culprit.
Some Australian aboriginal tribes thought the eclipse was the joining of the moon and sun as man and wife, or the moon (man) pulling the curtains of the sky closed for privacy as they came together.
“That’s really the sweetest one I’ve heard,” said Lika Guhathakurta, NASA’s lead scientist for the eclipse. “Most cultures have regarded eclipses with great trepidation and fear, and you can understand why when all of a sudden darkness descends during the day and you don’t know why.”
Guhathakurta said in remote parts of India people hold onto folklore beliefs that food cooked during an eclipse is poison and people bang pots and pans together to frighten away the moon so the sun can shine again. There is also a misconception that solar eclipses can harm pregnant women, who are asked to stay indoors during the event.
As recent as 1995, Guhathakurta said she saw the pots and pans ritual in India. In 1998, she saw the same thing in Mongolia.
“Even in our country, there are all kinds of ideas,” said Guhathakurta, who fielded many doomsday questions in 2012 when some interpreted the end of a cycle in the Mayan calendar as a forecast for the end of the world. “I feel as citizens we need to do everything we can to dispel any notion that this eclipse is the sign of something catastrophic about to happen.”
Paul Begley, an Indiana pastor who hosts the Blogtalk Radio show “Coming Apocalypse,” has been researching the August eclipse for more than a year, according to YouTube videos he’s posted.
He’s not predicting the end of days on Aug. 21, but questions whether the eclipse is a spiritual message. In one video, he notes that the southern Illinois town of Carbondale is in the direct path of totality for the August eclipse and another total solar eclipse in April 2024 that will cross from Mexico to Nova Scotia.
Southern Illinois is nicknamed Egypt, or little Egypt, stemming from a severe winter in the 1830s where the only crops that survived were in the southern part of the state. According to one historical account, people who traveled south to buy food compared themselves to the sons of Jacob in the book of Genesis who were sent into Egypt to buy grain.
“Why all the weirdness in Carbondale?” Begley asks in one video. “Is there something going on? Something significant about these two solar eclipses. I’m not saying it’s the end of the world or that Jesus is coming back, I’m just saying is there something significant here?”
One writer for the evangelical Christian publication Unsealed told The Washington Post in March that he sees the August eclipse as one of several astronomical signs of the Rapture. Gary Ray said it’s possible the 2017 and 2024 eclipses could be the starting and ending of a seven-year period of tribulations for non-believers.
“Are you ready for judgment day or doomsday, or is this just another eclipse, a sign in the heavens?” Begley asks.
Astronomer Tyler Nordgren, who wrote the book Sun Moon Earth, The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Explorers, said people ascribing more than celestial mechanics to eclipses are looking for meaning in a chaotic world.
“To see totality, you are literally having the heavens align with you,” he said. “That is profound, and there are those who want to take it a little bit further.”
Prophecies aside, total solar eclipses can also cause modern secular society to question the skies.
Nordgren was 9 years old when the last total solar eclipse touched the continental U.S. in 1979.
But he didn’t see it. Inundated with tales of people going blind if they looked at the eclipse, he “hid indoors with the curtains drawn.”
“Unfortunately, I was a 9-year-old kid in America taking part in this worldwide, time-honored tradition of being utterly terrified of these kinds of events,” Nordgren said.
McGlaun said he hopes the August eclipse will be a unifying force for the country — an unprecedented occasion so momentous it will rival the 1969 moon landing.
“We really are in need of something that will bring us together,” he said. “The sky belongs to everyone.”