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Totality of doom

Who ate the sun? 5 variations on ancient solar eclipse myths

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APTOPIX Russia Europe Solar Eclipse

The moon blocks part of the sun during a solar eclipse as seen over a statue at the one of the city landmarks, the General Staff Headquarters in St.Petersburg, Russia, Friday, March 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

Over the course of history, the frightening and mesmerizing total eclipse of the sun has caused humans to invent myths, legends and superstitions about the event. Even today, an eclipse is considered a bad omen in many cultures. 

Here's a look at several stories that have been used to explain eclipses over the years. Most of our worries fall into just a few categories.

1. Mythical figures are eating or stealing our sun.

China: According to Griffith Observatory director E. C. Krupp in an interview with National Geographic, the earliest Chinese word for eclipse is "shih," which means "to eat." It then seems appropriate that according to Chinese lore, eclipses are caused by a dragon living among the stars who tries to eat the sun (because dragons love fire, of course).

Vietnam: Vietnamese legend explains that eclipses occur when a giant frog trying to escape his master, the Lord of Hahn, eats the sun. The Lord is the only one who can then convince the frog to release the sun. An alternate version is that an evil spirit in the form of a toad swallows the sun. A similar story is used to explain lunar eclipses as well.

Norse cultures: Norse legend doesn't have animals eating the sun, but they do attack it. In this story, a pair of sky wolves try to chase down the sun or moon. When one of them finally reaches it, an eclipse occurs.

Korea: In a very similar story to the Norse version, Korean legend says that a pack of fire dogs under orders from a king try to steal the sun. They get close enough to grab a bite, which causes an eclipse.

Various cultures: Numerous cultures have an eclipse story about some sort of demon or animal trying to steal the sun. The typical response is to bang pots, pans or drums to scare away whatever entity is behind the theft. 

2. It's our fault. Woe!

Ancient Greeks: The ancient Greeks believed that eclipses occurred when the gods became angry with humans. It was predicted that disaster and destruction would soon follow.

Tewa tribe, New Mexico: After becoming angry, the sun decides to leave the skies for its home in the underworld. Thankfully, the sun always reconsiders its retreat and returns to the skies.

3. The gods (or other heavenly bodies) are quarreling.

Inuit of the Arctic: The sun goddess, Malina, walks away after a fight with her brother, the moon god, Anningan. Anningan chases after her but becomes so obsessed with his pursuit that he forgets to eat. He becomes smaller and smaller (the waning phase), and eventually has to stop to replenish (the new moon). Occasionally he catches up to Malina and everything goes dark, causing a solar eclipse.

Batammaliba of Africa: The Batammaliba people in Togo and Benin, Africa, see each eclipse as an opportunity to end old feuds. The myth is that an eclipse is caused by fighting between the sun and the moon. When an eclipse occurs, the Batammaliba come together as a community and try to end their own fighting as a way of encouraging the sun and moon to do the same.

4. Omens: The good, the bad and the ugly.

Good: Some Italians believe flowers planted during a solar eclipse are brighter and more colorful than flowers planted at other times.

Bad: Many people in India fast during the day of a lunar or solar eclipse due to the belief that any cooked or processed food will become poisonous during that time. Some say even water is off limits. Others decide to fast for spiritual reasons while they pray for the release of the sun god.

Ugly: One of the most persistent myths is that an eclipse can harm pregnant women and unborn children. In some cultures, it's believed that unborn children will be deformed or killed by the eclipse, so pregnant women are told to stay indoors. According to Krupp, the Griffith Observatory still receives calls before each event about whether eclipses are harmful for pregnant women (answer: they're not).

Many others around the world still see eclipses as evil omens that bring death, destruction and disasters.

5. A celestial soap opera?

National Geographic describes possibly the most complex and gory eclipse myth. The Hindu demon Rahu disguises himself as a god in order to steal an elixir that grants immortality. The sun and moon see what Rahu is up to, and they call him out to the god Vishnu. Vishnu slices off Rahu's head before the elixir can slide past his throat. Thus Rahu's head turns immortal, but his body dies. So the demon's head continues to orbit the sky, spitefully chasing the sun and the moon.

Once in a while Rahu catches one or the other and swallows them. But Rahu has no stomach, so the sun and the moon fall out of the bottom of his head. This conveniently explains both solar and lunar eclipses. 

The cold dark truth

There is no scientific evidence that solar eclipses can affect human behavior, health or the environment.

One belief is no myth, however: Don't look at a partial eclipse with the unfiltered eye. You could go blind.

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