A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.
What Is a Solar Eclipse?
The goings on of the heavens have always drawn our interest. A solar eclipse is a rare and incredible event where the Moon passes across the face of the Sun in its orbit around the Earth. Our understanding of the solar system now explains this phenomenon, but in times past, an eclipse could be a terrifying thing. We look at some of the superstitions around such an event in this article.
Omens of a Swallowed Sun
Throughout history, solar eclipses have often been perceived as omens or portents of some doom to follow. Even in modern times, many consider a solar eclipse to mark the end of one phase in life and the beginning of another.
Naturally, it would have been a fearful thing for our ancestors to encounter when the sunlight was snuffed out and the world was covered in darkness. They took this quite literally; in the Bible when Christ dies on the cross, the light of the Sun disappears for three hours, then reappears . The Crucifixion took place during the festival of Passover, a religious period timed by the lunar calendar to fall around a Full Moon. As the Moon has to be in a "Dark Moon" phase during a solar eclipse, this event was not possible, and was considered by Christians to be a miracle. It is quite possible that the metaphor of Jesus being the "Light of the World" is combined with a solar eclipse event; the return of the Sun's light after the eclipse has ended representing the resurrection.
To the Norse people, the Sun and Moon were constantly being pursued by two wolves. The Sun is described as being a "shining bride of the heavens" named Sól who is pulled across the sky in a chariot. The wolf that chases her horses is named Sköll, meaning "Treachery" . The legend of Ragnarok, an apocalyptic event where good and evil forced met in a final battle, Sköll succeeds in his pursuit and consumes the Sun. It should be noted that in some accounts, Fenris features as the wolf that consumes the Sun, rather than Sköll . Witnessing a solar eclipse would surely fill people with dread, as it would be one of the signs that the time of Ragnarok was close.
Many cultures considered an eclipse to be a sign that the gods were displeased with them. The ancient Babylonians would seat a replacement king during an eclipse to take the ire of the gods, as an eclipse was a bad omen for a ruler. This superstition continued throughout history; on August 2nd, 1133, King Henry I died shortly after a solar eclipse.
Many people will pray or perform a ritual of some sort during a solar eclipse, with a wish to weaken the powers of any negativity that they believe is caused during the darkness of the event.
There are dozens of superstitions surrounding pregnancy. Eager to ensure the well-being of their unborn child, mothers are bamboozled with all sorts of old-wives' tales.
"Don't leave the house during an eclipse, or the baby will have abnormalities."
It is not uncommon for a child to be born tongue-tied, or with a cleft lip or birth mark. It was believed that the risk of these features appearing in a newborn were increased if the mother ventured outside during a solar eclipse. At the very worst, venturing out during this event was believed to increase the risk of the child being born blind.
"Wear something red during the eclipse, to prevent baby being born with a cleft lip."
Again, fear of abnormalities led to this custom. A red ribbon pinned to the clothing, red underwear, or other clothing against the body would reduce the risk of baby being born with a cleft lip.
"Wear a safety pin against the belly."
Wearing metal against the skin or belly also was thought to prevent the "mutating powers" of the solar eclipse. A safety pin was the easiest, but house keys are also featured in this superstition.
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"A child born during an eclipse will suffer misfortune during his life."
Many mothers used to try to delay giving birth until the eclipse had passed. This dangerous practice should be avoided at all costs, as delaying childbirth once labour has begun is dangerous to both mother and child.
Some people believe that during a solar eclipse, "bad radiation" is transmitted down to us Earth-dwellers. People stay indoors to avoid getting irradiated. Of course, we know this is utter nonsense. The only rays we really have to worry about, are the UV rays in sunlight that can cause skin cancer.
Another superstition involves food. The darkness of the eclipse is believed by some to contaminate food, causing "germs" to thrive and multiply. Anything cooked or eaten during this time will make you ill, so a fast is observed until the Sun re-appears.
A superstition from medieval times is that people should abstain from carnal activities, as the mother might become impregnated by a daemon!
Calm Down, Everybody
A solar eclipse does not herald the end of the world, although it is quite an eerie event. Birds will stop singing, and a certain quietness and stillness surrounds the affected area until the Moon has passed across the Sun. I have witnessed an eclipse in 1999 from a mountainside, where a cold windswept up from the valley, which gave us all quite a chill. No daemons followed it, nor did hordes of vengeful evil spirits.
The most damaging powers of a solar eclipse is to the eyes of those that observe them. Always make sure that you protect yourself with proper protective eye-wear, or even a glass from a welder's mask. Staring directly at the Sun can cause serious damage to your retina.
 The Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Mark
 The Poetic Edda, Codex Regius, "Grímnismál" (The Sayings of Grímnir) - ISBN - 978-0292764996
 The Poetic Edda, Codex Regius, "Vafþrúðnismál" (The Sayings of Vafþrúðnir)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Pollyanna Jones
Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on March 19, 2015:
Well I'm sure you'd do a better job than the current lot in charge! ;-) Thanks GrimRascal, glad you liked it.
GrimRascal from Overlord's Castle on March 18, 2015:
It's during solar eclipses when I gain tremendous power. Next solar eclipse, I will dominate the world. Hahaha...just kidding. This hub is very interesting!
Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on March 18, 2015:
Certainly. We really do tend to fear that which we don't understand. Some superstitions are useful, and have a meaning behind them; for example, walking under a ladder is silly in case something gets dropped on your head! But a lot of them really are just very bizarre, and sometimes dangerous.
FlourishAnyway from USA on March 18, 2015:
What an interesting collection of superstitions. Isn't it so easy to jump to conclusions when we don't understand why?
Pollyanna Jones (author) from United Kingdom on March 17, 2015:
Thank you, AliciaC. It is always enjoyable to explore superstitions.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on March 17, 2015:
Thanks for sharing these interesting superstitions, Pollyanna. This is an enjoyable and informative hub.