Moira Marsh, Indiana University Bloomington – Celestial Creatures and the Mythology Behind the Solar Eclipse

On today’s Indiana University’s Total Solar Eclipse segment: Humans have long used stories to explain things we can’t understand, and an eclipse is no different.

Moira Marsh, researcher and folklore librarian, uses mythology to tell the story of the darkened daytime sky.

Moira Marsh is a folklorist and librarian at Indiana University Bloomington. She earned both her Ph.D. in folklore and M.L.S. from Indiana University and has published research on folklore and humor theory. Her book Practically Joking was published by Utah State University Press in 2015.

Celestial Creatures and the Mythology Behind the Solar Eclipse

In mythology, a total eclipse of the sun was something uncanny, an omen, perhaps the end of the world.

It’s been suggested that mythology was what people had to explain the cosmos before we had science, and that it often took the form of seeing natural phenomena as if they were living things. In myth, the sun and the stars were personified with human-like will, and they behaved like human beings.

In myth, solar eclipses happen when some celestial creature, maybe a demon, a celestial wolf or jaguar, even a celestial squirrel tries to swallow the sun. It never succeeds, and the sun always reappears.

In ancient Hindu myth, the demon Rahu is the sun-swallower.  The sun and moon saw him steal the elixir of immortality and told the Lord Vishnu about it. Enraged, Vishnu cut Rahu’s head off, but it was too late. He had already swallowed the elixir and was immortal. His head became Rahu and his body Ketu, and the two celestial bodies eternally pursue the Sun and Moon and try to swallow them. But since Rahu has no throat, the sun always emerges again after being swallowed.

They’re all very human kinds of stories but transported up into the heavens.

Today, a solar eclipse is science or spectacle—less mythology, more merchandise.  But even in our digital, artificially lit world, a solar eclipse is uncanny, because we know it is beyond our control. It remains a moment of genuine awe. 

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