David Carlson: Finding meaning in the eclipse


In just a few days, we will experience one of the great differences between the ancient and modern worlds. I’m referring to the solar eclipse, which will bring thousands of sun-gazers to our part of the country.

On a recent drive through one Indiana city, I saw signs of how we modern and scientifically educated people are dealing with the coming of darkness in the middle of the day. Glasses that allow us to safely observe the phenomenon are available, and portable toilets are being set up at numerous places near downtown. Restaurants and other businesses are anticipating big sales, and it’s clear that as a community and region, we’re looking forward with excitement to the experience. The eclipse has all the feeling of a major sports event, a bit of April Madness to add to March Madness.

Eclipses were experienced very differently by our ancient ancestors. First, the eclipse wasn’t expected. The closest we can come to their experience would be if an eclipse happened not on April 8, but, say, right now when you’re reading this column. Even if that happened, we’d turn to scientists to explain the phenomenon, an option our ancestors didn’t have.

Second, we know that our ancient ancestors, in being surprised by an eclipse, tended to see it as an omen. It must have struck many of them that the sun was dying in front of their eyes. Darkness for minutes in the middle of the day would undoubtedly have led many of our ancestors, especially farmers, to panic, which probably caused a run on the ancient equivalent of portable toilets.

Third, the relief that our ancestors experienced in seeing the sun “reappear” out of the darkness was likely muted by a lingering feeling of unease. If our ancients couldn’t count on the sun being predictable, what else in nature could go wrong? Farmers might fear a freeze destroying crops in July or their herds refusing to feed.

Given that humans have always wanted to find meaning in events, it isn’t surprising that many of our ancient ancestors assumed that God or the gods had darkened the sun for a particular reason.

In other words, our ancestors took an eclipse as a sign, a message.

If so, they likely turned to the priestly caste in their communities to interpret the eclipse. The priests might decide the eclipse represented the anger of the gods, a warning to change behavior or social conditions in some way. Or, the priests might interpret the eclipse as a portent of something good to happen in the near future.

What seems clear is that few of us on April 8 will be envying the anxiety our ancestors felt in seeing an eclipse.

But there is one response that some of our ancestors had to the phenomenon that I wish we had. It seems that some of our ancestors saw an eclipse as a sign that a war they were engaged in should end.

I’m all for that.

So how about it, Mr. Putin, Hamas and Mr. Netanyahu?

If an eclipse is a celestial ceasefire — the fiery sun ceasing to shine — can’t we embrace a ceasefire?

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].