Darkness is coming. And I’m not referring to the shortening of the days, nor crying out about the current political situation in my country. On August 21, 2017 the contiguous United States will be treated to its first full solar eclipse since 1979. The track of the eclipse will begin off the Pacific coast at Lincoln Beach, OR at 9:05 am PST. It will end off the Atlantic coast near Charleston, SC at 2:48 pm EST. This means that the eclipse will be visible in the contiguous U.S. for less than three hours as the moon slips quickly between the earth and the sun. And though the eclipse will span from coast to coast, the area where viewers will be able to witness the moon completely covering the sun will be a strip of land a mere 70 miles wide. The eclipse outside of this belt will be partial. The next full solar eclipse in the U.S. will occur in April 2024 from Texas to Maine.
If you live in or near a town along this pathway you have probably already been inundated by news about this upcoming occurrence as well as anticipated celebrations, festivals, and educational solar eclipse-watching events in your area. If you don’t live near the pathway but want to see the full eclipse, my advice is to start planning immediately because many hotels and flights are already booked, and it may become difficult to find proper protective eyewear. I will be traveling to Columbia, SC with my family on Amtrak because by happy coincidence the East coast train corridor which runs near my town meets the belt of the eclipse at just this location.
Solar eclipses have been major events throughout the history of humankind, and thus bear a special link to paganism. The earliest recorded mention of an eclipse comes from China, when around 2137 BCE two of the emperor’s astronomers purportedly failed to predict an upcoming eclipse because they were drunk. By good fortune, the sun survived being eaten by the great mythical dragon in the sky, despite the fact that mankind didn’t have sufficient advanced warning to gather drummers and archers to fend it off. The astronomers weren’t as fortunate when the emperor turned his wrath on them:
“Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hsi
Whose fate though sad was visible,
Being hanged because they could not spy
The eclipse which was invisible.”
Other eclipses over time have been attributed to sky wolves (Vikings), a black comet-like dog (China), fire dogs (Korea), a frog or toad (Vietnam), Zeus (Greece), celestial flames (China), the mouth of heaven (Kwakiutl peoples of Canada), and the shame (Mesopotamia) or death of the sun itself (many cultures). A recurring theme is clearly the consumption of the sun, often by a canine. In fact, the original Chinese word for eclipse was “shih,” which means “eat.” Many cultures embraced the practice of using noise such as banging pots and pans or firing ranged weapons to scare off the mythical consumer, much as their citizens probably did in everyday life to chase hungry animals, like wild canines, from their food stores.
Eclipses have been associated with earthquakes, rushing waters, and the deaths of monarchs. They have been viewed as bad omens and as signals for new beginnings. Herodotus tells how in 584 BCE the Lydians and the Medes ended a six year war after an eclipse occurred during the midst of a battle, causing both sides to petition for peace. Many battles throughout history have reportedly been interrupted by solar eclipses, frequently an invention of historians seeking to embellish their favorite tales in order to explain the defeat of one kingdom at the hand of another. Babylonians believed eclipses foretold bad times for kings, so they used their predictive astronomy skills to determine when the sitting king should be replaced by a temporary king who would deceive the sun and receive the anticipated bad fortune instead.
Today we can predict the exact time and location of eclipses, like many of the cultures that predate us. Yet we have the advantage of fully understanding why the sun suddenly turns dark in the middle of the day. But science and logic shouldn’t preclude us from celebrating this event on August 21 and using it as an opportunity to mark important milestones in our lives. The end of summer and the beginning of autumn often herald important changes. In my family, my oldest son is moving away to his first year of college only three days after this eclipse. The coincidence seems too poignant to ignore.
What changes are you anticipating at the end of August? Are you beginning a new job or educational venture? Are you moving to a new home? Is a family member transitioning into a new phase of life? Or perhaps there is a self-made change you would like to mark during a celebration of the eclipse, such as a healthier lifestyle, a renewed love of life, or a recommitment to a relationship. Embrace an uncontrollable change or create a change that you’ve been desiring. Use the fleeting moment of this year’s eclipse as a rite of passage to usher in the next portion of your adventure.
The following prayer is a companion to the one I wrote for the full lunar eclipse of 2015.
Pagan Prayer for the Solar Eclipse
In you we see our potential,
Beamed down from your energetic, brilliant surface.
Leave us, as you must, at this sacred moment.
Transverse the entire cycle today
Then return to us in your full glory
To illuminate our paths once more.
(Repeat the following as a chant)