Aug. 21 presented Greensboro with a once in a lifetime chance to see a total solar eclipse. While we aren’t directly in the exact path of the eclipse, we did see a near 93 percent covering of the sun at about 2:42 p.m. While total solar eclipses aren’t extremely rare in general, a single area on the earth’s surface only experiences a visible total solar eclipse on average every 375 years, making seeing one in the flesh from the ground an extremely rare, once in a lifetime experience. Depending on where you spend your time, seeing one in person may never even occur to you, while certain places on earth might experience two in less than 18 months like the 40 mile stretch of Atlantic coast line off of Angola, north of Lobito, did in 2001 and 2002.
In fact, total solar eclipses from any potentially inhabited planet in the entire galaxy are extremely rare occurrences because it is so uncommon for one of a planet’s moons to be nearly the exact same size in perspective as the star that planet orbits. Scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center even state that due to our Moon’s slow orbital increase of 1.5 inches per year, in 600 million years, our planet will cease to experience total solar eclipses completely. This is due to the moon finally drifting far away enough from us that its perspective view will become smaller than our perspective view of the sun.
While there will be many more eclipses in our immediate future, they will likely only be annular solar eclipses. Annular solar eclipses are eclipses in which the sun is not fully obscured from any point on the surface of the earth. This differs total solar eclipses, in which the sun is completely covered by the moon visibly from the surface of the earth.
Annular solar eclipses come about because of our moon’s slightly elliptical orbit around the earth and our earth’s slightly elliptical orbit around the sun causes the relative distances between all three celestial bodies to differ slightly. It is the complete covering of the sun which results in the characteristically striking total solar eclipse, leaving some areas of the world directly underneath the moon’s path utterly dark in the middle of the day. While many find this phenomenon to be something miraculous and celebrated, its rarity and middle of the day darkness caused people from some cultures in years past to fear the coming eclipses.
Multiple cultures tell rich tales of their interpretation of the shocking total solar eclipse. A 1500s Aztec record describes terrified screams of the people filling the temples as the eclipse occurred, and how human sacrifices were performed to feed the sun blood as it battled demons. Several ancient cultural stories from the Chinese and Vikings speak of great beasts attempting to or succeeding to eat the sun whole, only to be chased away by loud noises and performances. Ancient Hindus speak of an immortal demon’s severed head consuming the sun in an act of revenge against Vishnu, only for the sun to reappear after sliding down and out of his throat. Some of the earliest eclipse lore is found on cuneiform tablets dating back to 2250 and 1800 B.C., a time in which the eclipse was considered an omen for a king’s death. To avoid what was seen as fate, the kings of these Mesopotamian societies would step down from the throne within a hundred days of the eclipse, replaced by a criminal marked for death to be assassinated in the King’s place. The King would then ascend the throne once again.
Ancient peoples around the globe often came to worship the sun, either literally as a deity or as a sign of life, and to have its seemingly unbreakable cycle disrupted and darkened was often seen as disastrous and upsetting. However, much of this changed as science spread around the world and people came to understand the scientific mechanics behind eclipses.
Almost 2000 years ago the Greeks began to predict eclipses, and multiple cultures learned to do so as well as the years marched on. While solar eclipses still evoke unpleasant emotions for some, the general perception of what it is today, is a beautiful and rare spectacle.