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Eclipse as Sign or Symbol

Photo Courtesy of Perry Ground


In about 10 days, New Yorkers will look up as the moon swallows the sun in a total solar eclipse. They’ll wear their funky special glasses, and maybe get some popcorn. But these are markers of modern life. And eclipses come with centuries-old traditions. Giulia Leo brings us an ancient story, from the Haudenosaunee people, and shares other early accounts from across the globe.


For centuries, part of what some of us now call New York State was inhabited by five Native American tribes at war with each other. But then, as the story goes, the Creator sent a messenger to teach the tribes the Laws of Peace.


A man, we call him the peacemaker, joined the five different tribes together into this confederacy that we call ourselves Haudenosaunee.


Perry Ground is an Indigenous storyteller and a member of the Onondaga Nation. That’s one of those five tribes. The others were The Mohawk, the Oneida, the Cayuga, and the Seneca.

The five tribes lived where they do now, around the shores of Onondaga Lake – today, the city of Syracuse. Their territory included miles and miles of agricultural lands, and farming is part of their culture still today.

Ground says an eclipse was key to their unification. He tells the story as he turns to look at a brown and purple blanket hanging on the wall behind him. It has four rectangles…


...that represent four of the nations that joined together. They're all connected by a line running through them. And in the center is a tree.


According to the story, three of the tribes were easily convinced to make peace. But two were holdouts. The first, the Seneca, were skeptical. And to persuade them, the messenger sent by the Creator told them to search the sky for a sign. And that’s when it happened.


The sun disappeared. There was a total eclipse.


That was the sign the Seneca needed. And, once the last tribe agreed, there was peace.

Since the very first documented eclipse, around 3340 B.C, people have built stories to try and make sense of them.

Author David Bentley Hart writes about the history of eclipses in a new anthology, Eclipse and Revelation. He says stories about eclipses were rarely as positive as the one of the Great Peace.


All the ancient and medieval and early modern accounts of eclipses I have read were more often than not, descriptions of something terrible.


For example, when a total solar eclipse crossed Britain in 1133 BC it was considered a bad omen. The event coincided with the death of King Henry I. And immediately afterwards, the country was thrown into chaos and civil war. People blamed the eclipse


Occasionally it might be an omen of success in battle, but only because it was read as a dark harbinger of disaster for the other side.


John Steele is a professor at Brown who studies science and antiquity.


It's a fundamental response, I think, to this really rare and dramatic occurrence. And we see this also in animals–animals behave differently during eclipses.


They think it’s night. Farm animals return to their barns to go to sleep, and crickets start chirping.

But, with time, the human response to eclipses has changed. According to David Hart, the scientific revolution of the 17th century liberated us from that feeling of doom. However, among other Native American tribes, eclipses were and still are connected to a sense of fear.

For example the Cherokee people in northeastern Oklahoma. Ground says they interpret eclipses as a giant frog trying to eat the sun.


When that animal goes and tries to eat the sun, it indicates to them to go out and make noise to try to scare that animal away. And back in 2017 that’s exactly what they did. When it got dark, they BAH! And they were making the noise and, you know, trying to scare the big frog away. And it worked because the sun came back.


Other communities across the world had similar beliefs. In China, people believed a dragon was trying to eat the sun. In ancient Babylonia, there are accounts of people breaking pots and making noise to scare away demons they believed responsible for the eclipse.

These stories do not surprise Perry Ground.


And to hear the similarities in the story, it really reminds me that it's a very human experience.

LEO 10

Ground says despite their differences, these stories are all born from the human need to make sense of the world.

So get ready to gaze up at the sky and figure out what this brief darkness means to you.

Giulia Leo, Columbia Radio News


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