Superstitious Nonsense

We may scorn superstitions such as eclipses, but few people are not afflicted by some irrational belief. The atheist may gesture at religion as a case in point. A baseball player may always put on his left sock first, or insist on being the last out of the tunnel onto the diamond. Professors of logic may avoid walking under ladders or look askance at black cats. Recognizing that superstitions exist can lead to personal advantages: if you must enter lotteries, choose among your numbers 13 and multiples thereof, because relatively few others will do so, and so you would not have to split any prize you won.

The same is true of eclipses. They will bring you luck, either good or bad, if your personal belief system veers in either direction, or if you understand the superstitions of others and act accordingly.

One oft-told tale is of a pair of Chinese astronomers who were brought bad luck by an eclipse. No one is quite sure which ancient society should be accorded recognition as having provided our oldest eclipse record. There are several possible claims for Babylonian and Hindu observations between 1400 and 1200 B.C., but if the story of the Chinese astronomers Hsi and Ho is based on fact then old Cathay possesses the earliest instance. This pair were joint royal astronomers, but they spent too much time studying alcohol and not enough following the Sun and Moon. Solar eclipses were imagined to be the result of the Sun being devoured by a dragon. It was thought necessary to know about such an event in advance so as to organize teams of people to beat drums, yell, and shoot arrows into the air, such a commotion reckoned essential to driving off the dragon. The inebriated duo failed to predict the eclipse, and the emperor was much displeased. Hsi and Ho were even less happy with the outcome: they lost their heads. Our back-calculations show that in the epoch in question, the twenty-second century B.C., several eclipse tracks crossed China, making at least the core of the tale feasible. The favored date is October 22, 2137 B.C., but we cannot be certain on such flimsy evidence.

One might imagine that such a superstitious belief—that eclipses are signs of divine displeasure—must surely be a thing of the distant past. But that is not the case. The first eclipse of the third millennium came eight days after its proper dawning, on January 9, 2001. This was a lunar eclipse that was total as viewed from most of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the eastern seaboard of North America. In Nigeria, much of which has recently come under the influence of Islamic fundamentalists, the eclipse caused great consternation, its advent blamed on sinners. In the northeast of the country there were a rampages by gangs of youths, with more than 40 hotels and drinking houses burnt down in the city of Maiduguri. Similar destruction took place in other towns. "The immoral acts committed in these places are responsible for this eclipse," explained one of the leaders of the riots.

Five months later, on June 21, 2001, the first total solar eclipse of the new millennium was also witnessed in Africa, but further to the south. As the track passed over Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and finally the southern part of the island of Madagascar, thousands of international tourists watched the spectacle they had traveled so far to see. Likewise many millions of local inhabitants gazed skywards in awe, having been briefed by their governments to expect this natural event and warned not to look directly at the exposed Sun. Others, however, were not so confident of the outcome. Some huddled in their mud huts with doors and windows tightly barred, convinced that any light glimpsed from the eclipsed Sun would strike them blind. Elsewhere much wailing and gnashing of teeth accompanied what was regarded as the "rotting of the Sun," from which the world would never recover. It did, of course, quite promptly.

That is not to say that superstitions regarding eclipses are restricted to such places. Take a look sometime at the astrology columns in sundry daily newspapers and weekly magazines, avidly consumed by many millions of readers in our "scientific" Western countries.

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