Eclipse Folklore

Before the cause of solar eclipses was understood, many cultures worldwide held beliefs that eclipses were caused by something – whether a dragon, demon, frog or dog – trying to eat the sun.

Although the cause of solar eclipses – the moon passing between the sun and Earth – is now well understood and eclipses can be predicted years in advance, myths and superstitions remain.

In advance of the Aug. 21 eclipse, NASA outlines several old notions that have survived:

  • Eclipses are omens that something very bad is about to happen – false. NASA calls this a case of “confirmation bias,” where people tend to remember occasions when two things happened together but forget all the times they didn’t. Historical records are much more likely to mention eclipses that coincided with other major events.
  • Total solar eclipses produce harmful rays that cause blindness – false. During a total solar eclipse is the one time that it is actually OK to look at the sun without special eye protection. The light of the corona is a million times fainter than the sun itself, NASA says. However, if you look too early or too long, you may see the sun directly, which can cause eye damage.
  • Pregnant women should not watch an eclipse because it can harm the fetus – false. This is related to the previous idea that harmful radiation is emitted during a total solar eclipse. There is no radiation present during an eclipse that isn’t present on any other day.
  • Solar eclipses foretell major life changes or events about to happen, and solar eclipses on or six months after your birthday are a sign of impending bad health – false and false. These are more cases of confirmation bias.
  • Animals act strangely during a total eclipse – true! NASA says there are reports from several eclipses of many different animals being startled and changing their behavior as if twilight had arrived.

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