Chasing the Total Eclipse: Myth and Meaning in the Shadow of the Moon

As you may have heard, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the United States on Monday, August 21, for the first time since 1918. Skies will darken from Oregon to South Carolina along a swath 70 miles wide, called the “path of totality.”

The prime location for eclipse viewing on August 21, according to NASA, will be in southern Illinois, where the length of totality (the amount of time the sun will be completely covered) will last two minutes and 40 seconds. If you’re not in the path of totality, but somewhere in the continental US, you’ll still see some form of the eclipse. The dark shadow of the moon, or umbra, will arrive on the coast of Oregon at 10:15 am local time, and travel to the the east coast in just 94 minutes.

On this map, you can enter your zip code to find out what you’ll see and when. 

Of course, staring at the sun isn’t a good idea. Use solar filter sunglasses, which block harmful rays. NASA has a list of safe, standardized glasses for viewing. Alternately, there will be live streaming galore.

Viewers will see unique astronomical features. As totality approaches, the moon’s shadow (or umbra) will race across the landscape. Other effects include the diamond ring (a bright circle behind the moon with a diamond shape attached); Baily’s Beads (dots of sunlight around the moon caused by the bumpy lunar crust); and threads of light (the solar atmosphere itself), also called the sun’s corona. This is an ideal moment for NASA to study the corona, which is usually hard to observe.

The sight will be spectacular, but I’m interested in what it will feel like. During totality, experienced viewers say, the temperature drops, birds stop chirping, pets (and humans) grow fidgety.

Micah Mortali, Director of the Kripalu Schools, leads workshops during winter and summer solstices. Says Micah, “I once saw a lunar eclipse without knowing it was going to happen. I walked inside a building at night and was looking at the full moon. I came out two minutes later and the moon was gone. I panicked! It was a crazy and terrifying experience. I kept looking for the moon. Where did it go? Suddenly it began to reappear and I felt a great sense of relief. Can you imagine how it must have been for people living long ago?”           

I want to imagine, so online I find E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. Says Krupp, “If you do a worldwide survey of eclipse lore, the theme that constantly appears is disruption of the established order. People depend on the sun's movement. It’s regular. And then, all of a sudden, Shakespearean tragedy arrives and time is out of joint. The sun and moon do something that they shouldn't be doing.”

Several cultures have explained solar eclipses as animals consuming or stealing the sun, says Krupp. Vikings saw wolves. In Vietnam, a frog ate the sun. The earliest word for eclipse in Chinese, shih, means, “to eat.” The Pomo, an indigenous group of people who live in the northwestern United States, say a bear fought with the sun and took a bite. In fact, the Pomo name for a solar eclipse is “sun got bit by a bear.” In Korean mythology, fire dogs hid the sun away.

In order to stop this, eclipse viewers made noise to scare the creatures, said Nancy Maryboy, president of the Indigenous Education Institute on San Juan Island, Washington. “They banged pots, pans, and drums to get whatever was swallowing the sun to go.”

Others see the eclipse as an opportunity to create balance. According to the Batammaliba people in Togo and Benin in Africa, the sun and the moon are fighting. Viewers below can encourage the sun and the moon to come to peace. The Navajo, too, see an eclipse as a time to resolve old grievances. Some Navajo still observe traditions by staying inside with their family, singing songs, and fasting. 

In astrological terms, a solar eclipse presents a turning point or “cosmic reboot,” according to an astrologer who uses just her first name, Marina, on her site, Dark Star Astrology. In addition, a solar eclipse shows us imbalances. “It’s as if you’re on one leg in tree pose and the solar eclipse pokes you in the side,” Marina writes. “The amount of wobble shows how much centering you need to do. A solar eclipse aims to balance out left and right brain hemispheres.” We function best when both hemispheres are unified.

Micah expands upon this notion: “The sun and moon correlate with our rational and animal selves, and are represented in the term ‘hatha yoga.’ An eclipse triggers a very deep and primal part of us, even when we understand the science behind it. In many ways, it provides an experience of death and rebirth. We can benefit by bringing our practice of compassionate self-observation to these profound moments in time.”

Put another way, “it’s mind-blowing,” says David Baron, author of American Eclipse: A Nations Epic Race to Catch the Shadow of the Moon and Win the Glory of the World (about the 1878 total solar eclipse). Baron made his hotel reservations three years ago for August 21. He’ll go to Jackson, Wyoming, which sits in the path of totality. “Everyone in his or her lifetime should have the opportunity to see at least one,” he says.

One may not be sufficient. So-called “eclipse chasers” travel great distances to be in the path of shadow. Slovak astronomer Vojtech Rusin has seen 18 total solar eclipses, the most memorable being his first one in Africa in 1973. “It was like my first love. Everyone remembers their first love! I traveled through the Sahara from what was then Czechoslovakia to Niger. The eclipse lasted six minutes and 45 seconds, one of the longest durations ever observed.”

My informal Facebook survey reveals that several friends plan to travel from the Berkshires to reach southern totality regions, covering 800, 900, 1000 miles. One says she’ll simply travel to her Massachusetts backyard. A partial solar eclipse is good enough for her.  

Author Annie Dillard, in her stunning essay “Total Eclipse,” writes, “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”  Dillard witnessed a total solar eclipse in 1979. “What you see is entirely different from what you know,” she writes. “It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and 15 years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory.”

Says Bob Berman, host of WAMC Northeast Public Radios Strange Universe show, “Totality alone is an unforgettable experience.” He refers to the forthcoming eclipse, but his words apply to any immersive experience (snorkeling, parachuting, yoga). However briefly, the normal parameters are missing. In this moment, we are jolted awake.

Lara Tupper teaches, writes, and sings in the Berkshires. Here’s her suggested playlist for the eclipse.

“One People” by Bobby Sweet (“One moon come up, one sun go down.”)
“King of Pain” by The Police (“There’s a little black spot on the sun today.”)
“Eclipse (Dark Side of the Moon)” by Pink Floyd
“Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers
“Moon Shadow” by Cat Stevens
“Sunshine (Go Away Today)” by Jonathan Edwards
“Keep on the Sunny Side” by The Carter Family
“Ring of Fire” by Johnny Cash
“Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by Elton John
"Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
"Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles
“You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon (“You flew your Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun.”)
“Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.