July 9, 2010 -- It is said that the great eclipse of 585 B.C. took place as the ancient Lydians were locked in battle with the Medes. They settled their differences on the spot.
Today we're more scientific about it all -- or at least we think we are. We know that a solar eclipse, like the one that will be seen Sunday in the southern reaches of the Pacific Ocean, is a routine -- albeit spectacular -- product of orbital mechanics. It happens when the moon passes between the earth and the sun.
Still, 85 percent of teachers in India surveyed by the Women's Studies department of Barkatullah University in Bhopal last summer admitted they were uneasy about letting pregnant women go outside to see an eclipse.
Tamra Andrews, in "A Dictionary of Nature Myths" (Oxford University Press, 1998) wrote that almost all ancient cultures were frightened if the sky went black at midday. "Though some Australian tribes described an eclipse as the moon and sun kissing or making love," she wrote, "the heavens were supposed to act in an orderly fashion, and an eclipse was an introduction of chaos."
It made perfect sense to fight back with drums or arrows shot into the sky, she wrote, because, after all, they seemed to work -- the eclipses ended.
"I think one reason why people are eager to ascribe special powers to such an interesting event," said Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, "is because it makes them feel like they're part of something important, and that they're doing something about it."
So beliefs continue today, even if they make a scientist's teeth hurt.
"When there is an eclipse, a lot of electrical and magetic energies are released," said Rakesh Kumar, who describes himself as a Vedic astrologer in Queens, New York. "Eclipses prevent those energies from entering the earth, even for a few minutes."
In an online post, Kumar wrote, "The New Moon and the total Solar eclipse will create some disturbing Cosmic energies and will affect many countries around the world....
"Financial situation in America will be worst affected and the Wall Street will be hit. There would be serious differences in the leaders of the government. Whatever the country tries to do to make up for the financial deficit, it would end up spending huge amounts due to other losses. Floods, storms will also take its toll. Oceans will be rough, rivers will overflow, and the sea life would also get affected."
The Stars Align: Total Eclipse on Sunday
"It's a little like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy," said Michael Shara, an astrophysicist at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. "People love myths. It's part of our collective consciousness, and science won't make it go away."
"It's not our job to try to disabuse people of their religion or folklore," he said. "What is our job is to predict what will happen, to explain it, and to predict its effects -- in this case, nothing."
The moon's shadow on Sunday, if you happen to be sailing the Pacific in the right places, will race along a narrow path starting west of New Zealand, cross French Polynesia and Easter Island, and end, just at local sunset, in the southernmost reaches of Chile and Argentina. Passengers on a ship in the right spot will see the sun blocked out -- a total eclipse -- for a maximum of five minutes and 20 seconds.
As eclipses go, this one is a dud for skywatching enthusiasts. No large cities, and very few small ones, will get to see it as a total eclipse, with that familiar halo of the sun's corona, or glowing atmosphere, around the black disc of the moon. The next total eclipse visible in the lower 48 states of the U.S. will be on Aug. 21, 2017; totality will be visible in a narrow path roughly from Portland, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina.
But astronomy being what it is, scientists can tell you with precision that there will be at least two and no more than five solar eclipses visible somewhere in the world every year. But the path of the moon's shadow is so narrow that for any given spot, a total eclipse is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
If you can hang on until July 16, 2186, Fred Espanek of NASA and his colleagues predict there will be an eclipse along the northern coast of South America with maximum totality of seven minutes and 29 seconds.
Solar Eclipse, and the Myths Surrounding It
Kumar, the astrologer, said he has no quarrel with scientists, but sees his function as helping people get through the complexities of life.
"In today's times, it's not enough to connect people to spirituality, which is essential, but also to offer them practical help to overcome their stresses, their challenges," he said. He claimed to have predicted Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 tsunami, and the outcomes of the last three presidential elections, all months in advance.
"People have gotten a lot of relief -- mental, psychological and practical as well."
Shara, the astrophysicist, sighed. "The stock market may go down Monday whether there's an eclipse or not. And if it crashes six months from now, he can say, 'Well, I was off by a little....'"
"Science should make people feel empowered because they understand the forces at work around them," Shara said. "When it comes to eclipses, we can predict them centuries into the future, and that's a triumph of the human mind."