10 Apr

World Cultures: Cultural Traditions around the Solar Eclipse

By Thomas Jang

Solar eclipses are astronomical phenomena occurring every 18 months, with approximately two each year. Throughout history, for different civilizations and cultures, solar eclipses have been events that are feared, reviled and admired with awe. Certain knowledge systems view them as omens of death and rebirth or as harbingers of creatures from the underworld. Regardless of their cultural perceptions, solar eclipses nonetheless illustrate Earth’s place in our solar system and the universe beyond. 

🌎 Shared by many peoples who have lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans, the Diné, who reside in what is today northeastern Arizona, have a holistic view of the universe. One Diné tradition regards eclipses as one cycle within a cosmic order and the end of evil and phases of life, a moment when prayers and reverence are expressed. These prayers focused on the birth and renewal following the end of the eclipse. The Diné term for solar eclipse is “jóhonaa’éí daaztsą́.” Others interpret the solar eclipse as the male Sun and the female Moon mating. That ending marks the rebirth of the universe and all creation. The sun in Diné culture surveys the deaths of those who have died traumatically during daytime or those who have not valued life, while the moon surveys those who died during the night or those who died compassionate deaths. 

🌎 Another cultural tradition comes from the Ojibwe people, representing six of 12 organized tribal nations who live in the Great Lakes region. To the Ojibwe, the solar eclipse represented the sun becoming extinguished. To reignite the sun, flaming arrows would be shot up, with one reaching high enough to bring light back into the world. In the Ojibwe language, solar eclipses are called “makadewaabikizi a’aw giizis.” 

🇰🇷🇰🇵 Alongside the earliest records of solar eclipses dating back to the year 700, Koreans once regarded the phenomena as the arrival of mythical fire dogs. Known as “bulgae” or fire dog in Korean mythology, these creatures would emerge from the kingdom of darkness known as Gamangara and chase the Sun and Moon. The bite they leave behind from attacking the celestial bodies is represented as the solar eclipse. The Korean term for total solar eclipse is “개기 일식” (gaegi-il-sik).