From the wrath of God to an abbreviated workday, humans have attributed some unusual meanings to eclipses over the years. Other members of the animal kingdom aren’t too far behind when it comes to strange reactions.
With today’s eclipse just a few hours away, we thought it’d be fun to take a look at a few of the unusual situations eclipses have created for both humans and animals.
Hysteria and The Sublime
Since perhaps our beginnings, eclipses have had an impact on the human psyche. Eclipses have inspired everything from awe and bewilderment to fear and confusion to even human sacrifice. As our understandings of eclipses changed throughout the ages so to have our reactions to them.
Records suggest that ancient Babylonians and Chinese were able to predict eclipses as early as 2500 B.C. However the knowledge of how to predict an eclipse, or what one even was, was not understood by the common person throughout much of history.
When a solar eclipse hit London shortly after sunrise on May 14, 1283 A.D., it caused a great deal of confusion.
12th Century historian Roger of Wendover wrote, “…an unusual eclipse of the Sun took place very early in the morning, immediately after sunrise and it became so dark that the labourers [sic], who had begun their morning’s work, were obliged to leave it, and again returned to their beds to sleep; but in about an hour’s time, to the astonishment of many, the Sun regained its unusual brightness.”
In Europe it wasn’t until the invention of the printing press in the mid-1400’s that information on eclipses became widely disseminated.
Knowledge and Power
At times individuals who understood eclipses have used that knowledge against those who didn’t.
On June 25, 1503, Christopher Columbus beached his fleet on the north coast of Jamaica. Columbus and his men would spend the next six month forcing the local Arawak Indians to trade their food for trinkets such as tin whistles. Growing tired of this arrangement (and the occasional murder perpetrated by Columbus’s men), the Arawaks said no more.
Armed with detailed astronomical tables, a reference which had become crucial for seafarers, Columbus knew they would soon witness a lunar eclipse. Columbus met with the Arawak chief and told him that his Christian god was greatly displeased with the Arawaks’ treatment of his men. In three day’s time, he told him, the moon would disappear shortly after sunset as a sign of the coming wrath that God would inflict upon the Arawaks if they did not continue to supply the Spaniards with food. The Arawaks were terrified upon witnessing the eclipse and conceded to Columbus’s demands.
When the moon began to reappear, he announced that God had pardoned the Arawaks as long as they remained faithful to their promise. Columbus would spend another four months on the northern coast of Jamaica, exploiting the natives.
Although most of us today have at least a basic understanding of what an eclipse is, it’s perhaps telling that the human mind can still remain fascinated with something that has been reduced to a mathematical equation.
The Animal Kingdom
Humans aren’t the only ones who have exhibited strange behavior during eclipses. During solar eclipses, birds have been known to drop from the sky. Bats and mosquitos come out. Dairy cows have been observed returning to their barn for the night.
In Mexico, researchers observed orb-weaving spiders during a solar eclipse. Exhibiting normal behavior until the eclipse reached totality, they suddenly took down their webs, only to start rebuilding them a few moments later when the sun started reappearing.
Perhaps one of the most touching stories comes from how a captive group of one of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, reacted to a solar eclipse.
As the sun began to darken during an annular eclipse (a solar eclipse in which the moon appears smaller than the sun creating a ring of fire effect), females, some carrying babies, were observed moving to the top of a climbing structure. As the eclipse progressed more and more chimps congregated on the top of the structure, orienting their bodies toward the sun and moon. The group had never been observed exhibiting similar behavior during normal sunsets.
While gazing at the sight, a juvenile stood upright and gestured at the sun and moon.
A Moment to Reflect
Although our scientific knowledge has detached us from the animal kingdom in certain ways, it seems plausible that we continue to be affected by the world we inhabit in manners we don’t clearly understand. And, in some cases, it appears that we are not the only ones who possess a sense of wonder of it.
Whether or not you find yourself somewhere where you can witness today’s special event, we hope you have a moment to appreciate the beauty and wonder of the universe around us. Despite what we know (or don’t know) about it, it continues to captivate the human spirit.
Wishing you the best,