Total eclipse rekindles ancient cosmic awe

Darkness falls: A near-total eclipse, as seen from the Earth’s stratosphere.

Millions across the world are marvelling at one of the most breathtaking events the sky can produce. But the solar eclipse raises the question: should we celebrate the sun more often?

‘The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world’. The Ancient Greeks saw eclipses as bad omens, according to an Ancient Greek epic poem, but much has changed since then.

This morning, millions across the UK watched in wonder as the UK plunged into darkness. It was the first partial solar eclipse for 16 years. Eclipses occur when the moon passes directly between the earth and sun, blocking out most of its light. Some parts of the world will even see the sun completely covered.

Today is also the spring equinox, marking one of two days in the year when day and night are of precisely equal length. The equinox has been celebrated throughout history as a time of new beginnings, while the sun has long been an object of worship.

The sun has been worshipped since humans discovered agriculture, as farmers depend on sunlight to grow their crops. Throughout history, people worshipped sun gods. The sun features heavily in several pagan religions, where many festivals are linked to solar movements.

At Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, archaeologists have discovered pits thought to have been used in sun worshipping. People still gather there now to celebrate the solstices. Most of the Roman gods had solar qualities, and all of our solar system’s planets get their names from Roman and Greek mythology.

One theory states that Christmas is on 25th December because that was the day Romans celebrated their sun god. Egyptians worshipped the sun god Ra — the ‘ruler of the heavens’. The Greeks honoured Helios, and are rumoured to have celebrated him (at Rhodes) with a yearly ritual involving a giant chariot pulled by horses over a cliff and into the sea. Today, however, the Chinese may be the biggest sun worshippers, with their lunisolar calendar that determines traditional holidays.

The solar and lunar calendars help dictate when Easter falls each year in the UK. Otherwise, though, our Gregorian calendar has moved on since ancient sun-worshipping days. Many of our holidays — Mothering Sunday and Valentine’s Day, for example — are not determined by the sun, and it has more limited significance in most mainstream religions.

Solar power

Of course the earth revolves around the sun, others say, but for most of us, life revolves around other priorities. Our holidays are there for cultural, historical and sentimental reasons, and they’re much more fun than worshipping some faraway star. Why change things now?

We should worship the sun, others retort, rather than the arbitrary, meaningless celebrations we have now. Being more in touch with the cosmos would make us have more respect for our planet, and the star that keeps us all alive.

You Decide

  1. Why do you think we find space so fascinating?
  2. Do you think the UK should have a lunisolar calendar like China?

Activities

  1. Pick a point in history and research that population’s relationship with the sun. Did they have sun gods and festivals? Plan an essay on your findings.
  2. Write a short science fiction story imagining what would happen if the moon remained in front of the sun, and the earth stayed in complete darkness. Would we learn to cope? Would we send astronauts up to try and fix it?

Some People Say...

“Inner space is so much more interesting, because outer space is so empty.”

Theodore Sturgeon

What do you think?

Q & A

I thought you weren’t supposed to look at the sun?
You’re not, it can damage your eyes — and the eclipse is definitely not an exception! There are ways to see it, though. One way is to make a pinhole projector. Poke a small hole on one side of a cardboard box or piece of paper, and during the eclipse, hold it in the sunlight and you will see a projected image of it on the ground.
Is this the only eclipse I’ll ever see?
No, the UK will see a partial solar eclipse in August 2026, so there isn’t that long to wait. We will see a total eclipse, where the moon completely covers the sun, in 2090. As you can tell, they are very rare.

Word Watch

Epic poem
The Odyssey and the Iliad are major ancient Greek poems, epic by metre and subject, attributed to Homer; believed to have been composed towards the end of the 8th century BC, they deal with the stories of the Greek heroes Odysseus and Achilles.
Some parts of the world
People in Europe, North/West Africa, North/East Asia and the Middle East will be able to see the partial solar eclipse. A full eclipse will be visible in the Faroe Islands in Denmark and Svalbard in Norway.
Solstices
Solstices occur twice a year, when the day and night are the same lengths.
Day
The Romans called this day the ‘birthday of the Unconquered Sun’, otherwise known as Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god.
Lunisolar calendar
The Lunisolar calendar is one of the oldest calendars in modern use. It arranges the year around the astronomical date, and is based on the sun’s longitude and the moon’s phases. Months begin and end on the first phase of a new moon.
Gregorian
The UK has a Gregorian calendar, which is the most popular calendar internationally. It was first introduced to some European countries in 1582.

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