Episode 67: Solar Eclipse of the Heart

Shea teaches us how different cultures dealt with the sun going out. Aaron tells patrons about the do’s & don’ts of “stairing” into the sun.

Welcome to Interesting If True, the podcast that…

I’m your host this week, Shea, and with me is my buddy ol’ pal, Aaron!

I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that most eclipse totalities are only a few minutes, but the longest possible duration of totality is 7 minutes 31 seconds according to math.

That is, apparently, a true.

This Week’s Beer

Kokanee – It’s from a Glacier!

What can I say, we were in a bit of hurry. Regular beer reviews will resume next week!

  • Aaron: 7
  • Shea: 10

Learning about ancient cultures has always been a hobby of mine, especially their myths and legends. I was surfing the net the other day and kept coming across stories about natural phenomena and I really wanted to know how ancient cultures would have dealt with these seemingly terrifying events. So today I give you…

Solar Eclipse of the Heart

As the Earth and moon sweep through space in their annual journey around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. Observers then witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon’s disk – a spectacular celestial event.

But until astronomers were able to explain this phenomenon, a solar eclipse could be a terrifying event. In many cultures throughout human history, the sun was seen as an entity of supreme importance, crucial to their very existence. It was regularly worshipped as a god – Amun-Ra to the Egyptians and Helios to the Greeks – or as a goddess, such as Amaterasu for the Japanese and Saule for many Baltic cultures.

One reason the sun served as a god or goddess in so many cultures was its awesome power: Looking directly at it would severely damage the eyes, a sign of the sun deity’s wrath.

The idea that the sun deity could be temporarily extinguished in a total eclipse inspired a number of imaginative explanations. Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it.

Several East Asian cultures believed the eclipse was caused by a giant frog eating the sun, and in China, myths tell of a dragon doing the deed.. In Norse mythology, the eclipse was the result of two sky wolves, Sköll and Hati, chasing and finally eating the sun, leading to its temporary disappearance. Ancient civilizations often created their own imaginative explanations that fit into their established mythology. Some ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks and Chinese, already had the advanced ability to predict eclipses, but this knowledge did not always pass down to the common people, leaving much room for superstition and speculation.

The ancient Greeks believed that an eclipse was a punishment and abandonment; the English word “eclipse” is derived from the Greek “ekleípō”, meaning disappearance. The Greeks (or at least those who were uninvolved in the scientific community) believed that an eclipse foretold the gods punishing the king. In the days leading up to an eclipse, they rounded up captives to substitute for the king, hoping that the real king would escape the cosmic punishment. After the eclipse, they executed the captives as a cautionary protection.

Chinese astronomers were able to predict eclipses by 206 AD, but the explanation for eclipses remained mythical for many centuries. In Ancient China, solar and lunar eclipses were regarded as heavenly signs that foretold the future of the Emperor. The ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses occur when a celestial dragon devours the sun. They also believed that this dragon attacks the Moon during lunar eclipses. In the Chinese language, the term for eclipse was “shi” which also means “to eat”. One ancient Chinese solar eclipse record describes a solar eclipse as “the sun has been eaten”. It was a tradition in ancient China to bang drums and pots and make loud noise during eclipses to frighten the dragon away. The Chinese Imperial Emperor Chung K’ang (B.C.E. 2159 – 2146) learned of an eclipse when he heard much noise in the streets as his subjects tried to drive away the dragon that was eating the sun. They were successful, but the Emperor’s two court astronomers, Hsi and Ho, were reportedly beheaded for failing to predict the event.

The Norse (or Viking) civilization believed that the sun and moon were pursued by two wolves, Hati and Skoll. Skoll and Hati tried to catch and eat the sun and moon, respectively. If Hati and Skoll both succeeded, it foretold Ragnarok, or the end of the world. As they did in China, the Viking people made noises to frighten the wolves and hasten the return of the sun or moon.

The Inuit civilization believed that the sun and moon were siblings. When the world was created, they fought amongst themselves and the sun, Malina, deserted her brother Anningan, the moon. Anningan pursued her, and when he caught her, he eclipsed her light. His pursuit also explained the cycles of the moon, as Anningan lost weight when he chased his sister.

In the Hindu pantheon found in much of ancient India, the demigod Rahu is responsible for eclipses. In a daring heist, Rahu took the nectar of immortality from the god Vishnu. Vishnu decreed that Rahu would lose his head. Rahu’s head (still filled with the elixir) remained alive while his body did not. Angry with the sun and moon who had told Vishnu to chop off his head, Rahu pursued them across the sky. When he caught them, he would eat them, but only temporarily as he had no arms to catch them and no stomach for them to rest in, and thus began the chase once again.

In the Mayan tradition, “star demons” were responsible for eating the sun and moon during eclipses. Mayans believed that the planets were the star demons, since they were visible in the sky during total eclipses. Imagery and stories depicted the demons as insects or snakes. The Lacandón, a people whose descendants live in the Mexican state of Chiapas, believed that eclipses would cause the earth to split, releasing jaguars that would devour people and lay waste to the land.

In a departure from most eclipse myths, the Batammaliba people of Benin and Togo believed that the eclipse represents a time to bring peaceful resolution to disputes. Foremothers Kuiyecoke and Puka Puka were so furious with squabbling villagers, they extinguished the sun and moon to frighten them. Contrite, the people stopped fighting and gave one another offerings as a token of peace. Benin and Togo are located in West Africa between Ghana and Nigeria.

In the ancient Aztec civilization, an eclipse presented the possibility of the end of the world. If the solar eclipse (with an earthquake) ever fell on the date 4 Ollin, it would herald the end of the world. Since the Aztecs were skilled astronomers, they knew that an eclipse would not occur on 4 Ollin until the twenty-first century. If the eclipse was complete, they believed that demons of darkness would destroy the Earth. In Aztec myth, blood sacrifices were necessary to ward off disaster. Aztec myth also holds that eclipses are dangerous for pregnant women, a superstition that persists in some parts of the world today.

So the Aztecs had two separate calendars, one with 365 days that was used day to day and one with 260 days for religious ceremonies and divination. Well when the 365-day and 260-day cycles meshed, like a smaller wheel within a larger one, they created a fifty-two-year cycle called the Calendar Round. At the end of a Calendar Round, the Aztecs put out all their fires. To begin a new Calendar Round, priests oversaw a ceremony in which new fires were lit from flames burning in a sacrificial victim’s chest. Nahui Ollin or 4 Oliin literally translates to “4 movement” and was a specific day on the Aztec Calendar and any more information than that started to confuse the hell out of me.

Hugh Lenox Scott, who at the time was a member of the U.S. Cavalry and later a superintendent of West Point, recorded his observations of the Cheyenne tribe during the solar eclipse of 1878. “They became very much excited when the eclipse began, shooting off guns and making every sort of noise they could to frighten away the evil medicine which they thought was destroying the sun,” he wrote.

Most of the records of the eclipse speak only about what happens during the celestial event, but usually the record ends there. As we all know, the sun returns after its short time away. Or, at least, it has up until this point in history.

In light of the dread that an eclipse induced, perhaps people from several centuries past felt a certain sense of relief when it ended. As Scott wrote of the Cheyenne’s noisemaking: “Their treatment was highly successful—the sun recovered.”

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Blinded By The Light

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Since Shea talked about eclipses, I thought I’d do the same. Initially, I wanted to find some woo-woo nonsense to talk about like eclipse-sunning your butthole or harnessing your inner werewolf, but those searches returned way, way too many results.

Apparently, celestial events bring out the crazies. Who knew?

Everyone. Everyone knows and I should have too.

So, while I sat vacantly staring at my text editor it occurred to me, sometimes people stare at the sun. And occasionally, it’s because of an eclipse.

I think our (read: America’s) most notable recent eclipse was in 2017. The totality — the shadow of the moon — crossed right by our doorstep… well, in a “state” kind of way. My wife and I watched it from our back yards with little glasses we got from Shea I think. Whereas then President Trump stared directly into the sun, with no protection, on national television. It was good for a laugh but also super dumb.

Turns out staring into the sun, even if it’s partially obscured, is super bad for your eyes.

I think we all know how it goes: get special glasses or poke a hole in a shoebox to view the sun. Otherwise, Shea will have to give you mobility-stick training. And unlike Daredevil’s Stick, he’ll drink all your beer, which is definitely worse…

The box, a pinhole projector, allows a small amount of light in through a tiny hole in the end facing the sun. You can then look at the same-facing interior surface to see your subject all natural-movie style.

This is, basically, a tiny Camera Obscura. You’ve likely seen these, or this idea, described as a pitch-dark tent with a very small hole in one of the walls, opposite which, you can see the exterior landscape, albeit upside down and reversed.

Luckily, the sun is a ball so flippy-flopping it doesn’t matter a ton.

The effect the Camera Obscura uses is old. Like, way old. One source I found, a photography history trivia site so, ya know, grain of salt here, said that the first records of a pinhole projection were from Mozi, a Chinese philosopher from the 5th century BCE. Apparently he also founded Mohism, I dunno about that.

All the usual Greek and Roman suspects wrote about it. Euclid, the mathy-shapes guy, he wrote about it at Alexandria.

The first recorded creation of what we would now call an eclipse box was Alhazen, or Ibn al-Haytham, in the 11th century. He literally wrote The Book of Optics, so, props. Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta, added a lens to the pinhole for focus. Johannes Kepler, of orbiting rock fame, coined the term “camera obscura”. Eventually, as more portable boxes were made, mirrors were added to flip the images that were projected onto a more easily visible surface. Indeed, it was the basis for early cameras. Exposing film was, literally, shining pinhole light onto a surface long and precise enough to indelibly etch the subject’s likeness therein.

Make One Yourself!

It’s a fun experiment to do with kids. Especially if Delta traps us all inside again! https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/box-pinhole-projector.html

The other option for staring directly into the sun I mentioned are Solar Viewers, or the weird little paper glasses that weren’t up to the challenge of being yee-oldie 3D glasses.

I think I’m settling on everything pre-broadband being “yee-oldie”…

The glasses are essentially single-use (actually, they’re good for some time) sunglasses on steroids. Where a normal pair of shades will block 10 to 50% of light, depending on how blind you want to be, these babies will protect your peepers from 99.999% of the solar radiation they would otherwise absorb.

Eclipse glasses are thousands of times darker than ordinary sunglasses and block almost all the sun’s ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light. […] They are made of special materials that absorb and/or reflect the Sun’s radiation at all wavelengths that could potentially harm our eyes.

Rick Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society

This next part is for Steve.

According to the American Astronomical Society, to be considered safe for eclipse viewing glasses need to be ISO 12312–2 compliant. The standard applies to all afocal (plano power) products intended for direct observation of the sun, as is the case in solar eclipse viewing. This standard does not cover sunglasses.

The AAS stresses that it’s important to get certified-safe eyewear as the glasses are easy and cheap to counterfeit. Eclipse.aas.org has a list of reputable vendors on their website, whose banner uses your geo-location to tell you when your next eclipse is, because the predictive power of science is fucking magic.


This was actually a huge deal for the aforementioned 2017 eclipse. Amazon had to start requiring proof of certification, eventually recalling and refunding a ton of bogus glasses.

Fortunately, from Andrew Lund, an eclipse glass maker, some of the bogus glasses he tested used Quartz filters, which suck, but do block enough harmful light that you probably won’t be left blind.

Testing them is not a normal DIY kind of deal either, you need a spectrophotometer and some idea of how to use it so…

Speaking of going blind, at least we know Shea didn’t just stare into the sun.

The worry that all of this story was to prevent, is solar retinopathy, not cerebral achromatopsia. So I guess I’ll just have to fall back on jack’en it jokes…

That said, apparently, it’s rare for solar retinopathy to permanently blind you. Per B. Ralph Chou, professor emeritus of optometry at the University of Waterloo in Ontario,

You end up possibly getting enough damage that you can no longer see things that are really, really fine in detail.

Chou told Live Science.

The problem is, overly simply, that you eyes can get sunburned too. Normally, “our brains are wired to avoid looking at very, very bright things like the sun,” Chou said. However, when we’re aware that something super spech is happening, humans are dumb-capable enough to force ourselves to stair at the sun.

Most creatures are naturally averse to looking at the sun because it’s uncomfortable at best. But that’s all it is because there are no pain receptors in your fovea, the bit of the eye light is focused on. So you can hurt yourself without noticing until hours later, or “the next morning — that’s when you suddenly realize that part of your retina has been injured,” Chou said.

During an eclipse there is, seemingly, less light so it’s easier to make yourself look at the sun. Unfortunately, unless you’re directly in the totality, that’s not true and your eyes are getting a… well eye full.

The cells that translate light into electrical signals to your brain get damaged and shut down, causing temporary blindness. If you push it, they can die, causing what I’m going to call self-inflicted eye-death.

If you’re a space nerd and use a telescope to look at an eclipse you can also cause thermal damage by effectively treating your eye like an ant on a particularly hot summer day.

While the blindness this may induce can be temporary, a 1976 study from Turkey estimates 10% of people will suffer some permanent visual degradation, typically around detail clarity.

Disappointingly, perhaps morbidly, but still, I couldn’t find any real hard numbers on how many people have been blinded staring at an eclipse.

A 1999 paper linked by Live Science gives estimates from a survey after the 1999, major European eclipse.

It says that in the weeks following the eclipse the British Medical Journal found 14 confirmed cases during an inquiry with eye centers. The most serious case being a Scottish bloke who stared directly into the sun for 20 minutes.

All in all, Live Science found what they rounded or estimated to 100 cases and I couldn’t do any better. So, as far as “if you look at an eclipse you’ll go blind” goes, perhaps it’s not the guarantee we were told it is — but it’s still a terrifically bad idea that can have serious, life-long, negative consequences.

At the very least it’ll blitz your biz for a few days or weeks.

So, make a pinhole box or get some certified glasses — which, btw, if you’re worried about being able to find or afford, public libraries stock and distribute safe glasses freely — before you go staring at the sun all day or you will, very much, regret it.

  • http://www.photographyhistoryfacts.com/photography-development-history/camera-obscura-history/
  • https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/eclipse-questions-reader-answers
  • https://www.iso.org/obp/ui/#iso:std:iso:12312:-2:ed-1:v1:en
  • https://eclipse.aas.org/resources/solar-filters
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_viewer
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1116382/
  • https://www.livescience.com/59663-how-solar-eclipses-make-people-go-blind.html


I’m Shea, and this week I learned that Albert Einstein was actually a real person. I thought he was a theoretical physicist. Before we go I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts, Aaron

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