A full solar eclipse will appear over America on August 21 for the fist time in close to a century, and various religious groups have hailed it as a sign of great spiritual significance.
The eclipse, which will be sighted first in Salem, Ore., just after 10 a.m. PT and will enter the final stage of visibility from land right before 3 p.m. EST over Charleston, S.C., is the first total solar eclipse to be visible over North America in 99 years. Eclipses, both solar and lunar, are entirely predictable, but the timing and positioning of eclipses have led some people to question whether it is an instrument of divine communication.
For many religious groups, the answer is yes. The intended divine message, however, depends on who you ask. Here are some of the various answers.
Solar eclipses were a thing of terror for the ancient world. Day plunged into night. The sun, which some cultures revered as a god, disappeared; and the natural order, as humanity knew it, was totally subverted.
The ancient Mesopotamians believed a total solar eclipse signified the death of a king, while the Aztecs sacrificed people of fair complexion to stave off demons of darkness, whom they believed would come down and devour people, according to Live Science.
Several other ancient cultures believed celestial beasts or dark deities devoured the sun, according to Time And Date. The ancient Chinese claimed a heavenly dragon consumed the sun and had to be scared away by banging pots and pans. The Vietnamese blamed a giant frog, while Norse cultures said hungry wolves ate the sun.
Ancient Hindus claimed Rahu was the culprit. Rahu was the head of a demon, severed for stealing the nectar of the gods, who followed the sun as the personified form of one of the nine planets. Every so often, as the legend goes, Rahu would catch up to the sun and devour it.
Jews traditionally interpreted solar eclipses to be the result of human sin angering God, who would then hide the sun as a warning to his people, according to the Babylonian Talmud. Ancient Hebrews knew that eclipses could be predicted, but still believed they were a sign.
“When the luminaries are stricken, it is an ill omen for the world. To what can we compare this? To a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and set a lantern to illuminate the hall. But then he became angry with them and said to his servant: ‘Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness,’” – Talmud, Sukkah 29a
The text goes on to state that lunar eclipses are ill omens for Israel, since Jews follow the lunar calendar, while solar eclipses are ill omens for non-Jews, or Gentiles, as they followed solar calendars.
Modern interpretations of solar eclipses in the Jewish faith vary, but still depict the event as a negative thing or, at the very least, a time for contemplation of one’s place in the universe, according to the Rabbinical Assembly.
Whether or not one views the solar eclipse as a negative event according to their interpretation of the Jewish faith, the Rabbinical Assembly prescribed a particular blessing to be said over the eclipse.
“בָּרּוְך אַ תָּ ה יְיָּ אֱֹלהֵינּו מֶ לְֶך הָּעֹולָּם, שֶ כֹּחֹו ּוגְ בּורָּ תֹו מָּ לֵא עֹולָּם” (Blessed…Whose power and strength fill the world.)
Modern Christian interpretations of solar eclipses vary almost as widely as the denominations of the Christian faith.
One view, according to Religion News Service (RNS), is that while the heavens operate according to the design of God, who created them, solar eclipses do not foretell the end of the world or any lesser calamity.
“The term ‘fake news’ is very in vogue and overused these days. The end times stuff is kind of like ‘fake religion,’” Roman Catholic Rev. James Kurzynski told RNS. “It’s just the kind of stuff that’s spun in a way to try to get Christians scared when there’s nothing to fear.”
Gary Ray, writer for the Charismatic Christian publication Unsealed, presented a view from the other end of the spectrum of Christian interpretations of eclipses. Ray said he and those who follow a similar interpretation of the Christian faith do not believe the eclipse will announce the end of the world, but that it does communicate a warning about the latter days of history as we know it.
“We simply believe that God may be communicating a message through this eclipse about the general nearness of the rapture of the Church and Christ’s return,” Gary’s explanation reads. “In other words, we believe that these prophetic events will occur soon, but we don’t know the day or hour on which they will occur.”
Gary noted the timing of this eclipse presented certain numerical signs significant in a Christian context. The event will occur 33 days before another celestial event during which the constellation Virgo will be “clothed” in the sun, moon will be at her feet, and Mercury, Venus, and Jupiter will join the constellation Leo to “crown” Virgo with 12 celestial bodies. Some believe that this alignment is the sign referenced in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation, verses one through five, which appears to announce the second coming of Christ.
The eclipse also happens on the same day of the beginning of the Season of Teshuvah, a period of 40 days leading up to Yom Kippur. Jews view this season as a time to prepare one’s heart and get in right standing with God for the Day of Atonement. The period holds significance for Christians who view the eclipse from an eschatological (study of end times) perspective.
Muslims believe that eclipses are a sign from Allah that do not portend the death or birth of anyone in particular, but remind Muslims of the approaching Day of Judgement. One particular Hadith describes the Prophet Muhammed’s reaction to and explanation of a solar eclipse during his lifetime:
The sun eclipsed and the Prophet (ﷺ) got up, being afraid that it might be the Hour (i.e. Day of Judgment). He went to the Mosque and offered the prayer with the longest Qiyam, bowing and prostration that I had ever seen him doing. Then he said, ‘These signs which Allah sends do not occur because of the life or death of somebody, but Allah makes His worshipers afraid by them. So when you see anything thereof, proceed to remember Allah, invoke Him and ask for His forgiveness.’
The Hadith prescribes that two cycles of a prayer specifically recommended for the event of an eclipse be offered in a Muslim congregation, according to ThoughtCo.
Hindu tradition, according to the Vedas, or Hindu scriptures, states that eclipses are bad omens, as they are a reflection of the demon Rahu. Therefore the Vedas prescribe certain rules and activities before, during, and after an eclipse to purify Hindu faithful from the bad effects of the eclipse, according to Festivals of India.
The Vedas advise Hindus to fast from food during the day of the eclipse, refrain from sleeping during the event, chant certain purifying mantras throughout the day, and throw away any extra prepared food before the eclipse. Pregnant women are advised not to move during the eclipse and water imbibed must be infused with Basil or Tulsi leaves.
Hindu adherents are advised to bathe in their clothes after the eclipse and give to charity according to their means.
The umbrella of neo-paganism, which is the resurgence of different pagan belief systems updated for modern time, houses various interpretations of solar eclipses.
Wiccans, which worship various deities and nature spirits, believe it to be a time for personal transformation, when the sun and the moon work in union and allow for occult practitioners to “work with them to bring their magic down to earth” for the purposes of cleansing and inner spiritual evolution, according to the Wiccan community at Oak Spirit Sanctuary.
Occult practitioners in that community will perform rituals during the eclipse in for inner cleansing and worship of the goddess Nuit, who features prominently in the Wiccan tradition of Thelema.
Thelema is an occult philosophy founded in 1904 by the occultist Aleister Crowley.
Whatever your beliefs about the upcoming solar eclipse, people of all faiths should avoid looking directly at the full eclipse without special sunglasses, as doing so will cause blindness.