Anyone can watch the sun stand still twice a year, at the summer solstice, occurring between June 20 and 22, and again at the winter solstice, between Dec. 20 and 23 (it’s the 21st this year). The word comes from Latin solstitium, a compound of sol/sun (as in SOLar) + sistere/stand (as in STATionary), and means literally “the sun STAnding straight up.” At each solstice the sun reaches a point farthest from the earth’s equator where it appears to stand motionless, high in the sky, before seeming to reverse its seasonal path.
In the northern hemisphere the June date marks the beginning of summer and bestows on us the year’s longest period of daylight - nearly 14 hours here in the Sunshine State! On the December solstice, marking the onset of winter, the sun shines least, giving us only about 10 hours of its light to bask in - time to get out the Vitamin D!
Right in the midst of those daylight hours and maybe just once or twice in an average person’s experience, we may witness not simply the sun’s standing still, but its sudden and complete disappearance. Total solar eclipses (from an ancient Greek word meaning “abandonment”) occur every 18 months or so at different places on the planet, including this coming August 21 in North America. But given that any particular spot on earth will be darkened by a total eclipse only every 350 to 400 years, and without the trusty Apalachicola Times or other media to provide advance notice, one can easily understand how primitive folks were terrified when they saw their sun at midday gradually diminishing and then utterly eclipsed, plunging them into the darkness of night.
Not understanding the science of this dramatic astronomical event, ancient cultures crafted myths to explain the phenomenon’s cause. Among the ancient Chinese the culprit was an invisible dragon attempting to devour the sun; for the Vikings it was a wolf; for the Vietnamese a toad; and in the imagination of the Native American Choctaw tribe, a curiously mischievous black squirrel. Banging drums and pots and otherwise creating a noisy commotion was a common means of frightening off the beast. In Hindu legend the immortal head of the decapitated demon Rahu rushed through the heavens, attempting to consume the sun, but to no avail, as the solar orb fell out of the creature’s bodiless throat and daylight returned.
In one legend the Chinese king Zhong Kang, ca. 2100 B.C., executed two astronomers for failing to predict a solar eclipse that had panicked the country’s population. Some scholars believe a mention in Homer’s Odyssey of “the blotting out of the sun” refers to an eclipse. But the earliest reliable records of solar eclipses date to later, 13th to 8th-century Oriental and Near Eastern texts.
The 7th-century Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “Zeus, father of the Olympians, made night from mid-day, hiding the light of the shining Sun, and sore fear came upon men.” Among several solar eclipses recorded by the 5th-century Greek historian Herodotus was one that the philosopher Thales of Miletus had reportedly foretold. The event, dated by some scholars to 585 B.C., interrupted a battle between the Lydians and the Medes, and led immediately to a peace treaty ending their six-year war. Though the story of Thales has been challenged, the ancients did ultimately come to understand what caused eclipses and how to predict their occurrence.
The phenomenon figured prominently in Roman legend. Ancient sources relate the tradition that Rome’s founding father Romulus and his twin Remus were conceived by the god Mars and the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia during a total solar eclipse. Another eclipse of the sun mystically occurred on the day the teen-aged Romulus began construction of the city, and yet again on the day of his mysterious disappearance years later, followed by his transformation into the god Quirinus. Cassius Dio reports a solar eclipse at the death of Augustus, and the New Testament Gospels record another on the day Jesus was crucified.
The upcoming total solar eclipse (check out eclipsewise.com) will be the first in the contiguous 48 states since 1979 and the last until 2024. The one full eclipse I’ve experienced was March 7, 1970, in Norfolk, Virginia, where I was on duty with my Naval Air Reserve unit. As the darkening of the sky began, it seemed to advance ever so slowly; but the first instant of totality was startlingly abrupt, and those few minutes of night in day were utterly astonishing.
In Apalach, where the sun nearly always shines, you won’t see a total eclipse until 2045, so next August 21 you need to head north, to Charleston or past Atlanta a ways. But don’t be as ostentatious about the trip as that cocky guy with the apricot scarf in Carly Simon’s 1972 hit, “You’re So Vain,” who, the songstress sneered, “flew [his] Learjet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun.”
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Feras Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.