Unusual or startling natural events, especially those that we observe in the heavens, seem to have been interpreted as an omen or portent for thousands of years. They were, and sometimes still are, viewed as an indicator that a momentous happening is about to occur on the earth. We find numerous examples in mythology, legend and history. Best known in the West today is likely the account of the appearance of a "Star of Bethlehem," widely interpreted as a positive sign. However, before the eclipse phenomenon was understood as a cyclic event, when the moon, but especially the sun, started to dwindle before our very eyes, what could have been more terrifying?
Buddhist Practice is Emphasized
The word, eclipse, comes from a Greek word that means "failure to appear." The connotation is that what is expected -- what is necessary -- has not arrived. In this case, the reference is to light, which is essential to life. From most ancient cultural perspectives, the very existence of beings, seen and unseen, is felt to be at risk during such an event. In the view of the traditional medicine of Tibet, China, and India, the subtle energies of the body are diminished and so, out of compassion and concern for our world and all other beings, seen and unseen, we do what we can to help sustain them. It is for this reason that the merit of practice is greatly multiplied during an eclipse.
Kinds of Eclipse
When the moon is obscured, we experience a lunar eclipse. This is the most common and observable kind, but when the sun is obscured, that is a solar eclipse. It is the most dramatic, for not only can darkness fall at noon but it becomes very still, "and no birds sing." Don't forget to protect your eyes if you intend to observe any solar eclipse.
During a lunar eclipse, the earth blocks out the rays of the sun which normally cause us to say that the moon is shining. The darkening of the usually bright moon is due to Earth's shadow covering it. The sun, earth and moon are aligned in such a straight path that only the rays of light coming from the sun that make it past the earth get to shine on the moon's surface. These are filtered through our atmosphere which is full of tiny bits of matter. As in the case of a beautiful red sunset, it is because of this pollution that we may see the light, which is bounced back to our eyes by the particles, as red.
During a lunar eclipse, people familiar or not with the facts of astronomy and optics, tend to say that the moon has "turned red."
According to Tibetan Buddhist practice, effects of actions are multiplied by a factor of 1,000 during a lunar eclipse.
People have been able to predict eclipses for thousands of years. For example, according to the Book of History or Chou King of China, two astronomers were executed for having failed to announce the eclipse of October 22nd, in 2136 BCE.
They may have made an error in calculating the Saros cycle, a period of 18 years 11 1/3 days known even in Babylonian times. The Greeks used that cycle to predict the eclipse of May 28th, 585 BCE [the Buddha's father would have been born around then, according to one tradition].
Since a solar eclipse lasts for only around 8 minutes, those who knew that one was in the offing could use this to their great advantage. Columbus did that in the 15th century convincing the native people of Jamaica that their decision not to provision his ship would lead to incredibly dire consequences.
Some Buddhist practitioners say that the effects of actions are multiplied by 100,000 on days with a solar eclipse. When the eclipse of Jan. 21st 2000 fell on the 15th day of the lunar cycle, a day dedicated to Amitabha, the Snow Lion calendar reminded us that during a lunar eclipse the effects of actions, positive or negative, are multiplied, "Therefore practice is emphasized."
In many traditions when the moon is eclipsed entirely, that is, it is not visible at all, it may be believed that the moon has been swallowed up by some mythological creature. The Maya of central America believed it was a jaguar and that it could descend to earth to devour people, too.
In the Chinese tradition, there is a Three-legged Toad who lives in the moon. (Its digits stand for the three lunar phases.) During a lunar eclipse, people may say that it has swallowed the moon.
The Buriats and southern Slavs used to pray and yell, drum, throw stones and shoot in an attempt to drive away an encroaching demon.
In many parts of the world, a dragon or naga is thought to be responsible for this event which is generally thought of as a bad omen. The Mongols know him as Alkha.
In the astrology of south Asia, two "planets" called Rahu and Ketu are thought to play a role in this type of event. In Western astrology, these are referred to as the moon's nodes. The northern one corresponds to Rahu.
The recurrence of eclipses in a regular pattern is explained by one Hindu myth which tells how Rahu stole Amrita, the Water of Life [Nectar of Immortality] from the gods, but the sun and moon were witnesses. Lord Vishnu punished the thief, Rahu, by cutting off 2 of his 4 arms and Rahu, in his anger, stalks back and forth across the heavens from the moon to the sun.
Another version has his decapitated body searching for his missing head.
The Tibetan Buddhist version is The Chakdor Legend:
Vedic astrologer, Joravani Jyotish, also tells us that Rahu is a rakshasa, a trickster-deity sometimes described as a demon or ogre. However, this category of being also includes some anti-gods ("titans") that can function as protectors.
In Wisdom's Tibetan Art Calendar 1998, ed. A. Loseries-Leick says that, to Tibetans:
If you recall the details of the life of Siddhartha Gautama [Buddha Shakyamuni], you will remember that the epithet* used to designate his son, is Rahu-la, "obstacle". This is alludes to one view prevalent in Indian culture -- that responsibility to family and emotional attachments stand in the way of spiritual attainment.
Egyptian mythology attributes an eclipse of the moon to Seth's having stolen the Moon Eye of Horus. Thoth, god of learning and mathematics, searched in the darkness and restored it to its place in the heavens, thus becoming a lunar deity himself.
Two weeks or so before a solar eclipse, the priests of Ra, the sun deity, would admonish the people of Egypt saying that they were sinners. People would then contribute to the temples and offer sacrifices in hopes of appeasing Ra, but of course, their devotion was not rewarded. During the unsettling moments of the eclipse, people would redouble their efforts and then see that the priests were true links to the will of Ra as generosity and obedience were rewarded with the re-emergence of light.
Eclipses were often associated with outbreaks of illness. There was a widespread fear, also, that the earth itself could get sick and die. In Babylon, the priest would bathe the King [source of fertility and all good] in a preparation of cedar oil and myrrh in hopes of preventing this greatest of catastrophes.
~ acknowledgements to M. Moreau .
*An epithet is the sort of nickname that refers to someone's role/personal qualities. Many names in mythology and religion are, in fact, epithets. For example, the seductive Jezebel of the Old Testament might have been called something quite different at home as it is unlikely her parents called her J-zbl which is Hebrew for "island of garbage." There are nice epithets too, of course.