Things That Fascinate me: Total Eclipse From the Start

1927 map of eclipse pathways
In 3340 BCE, a bunch of Neolithic Irish Priests documented a series of celestial events onto a pile of rocks. The Loughcrew Cairn stands as the oldest recorded total solar eclipse in human history. These petroglyphs mean that people have been chasing eclipses since about 160 years before the wheel was invented.

Ancient cultures saw the total eclipse as a religious experience, usually a bad omen, a premonition of destruction, or in the case of an ancient Chinese emperor who wanted to know what had caused the sudden darkness - the imminent beheading of some hapless astronomers who didn’t know. What ancient Chinese records DO say about the event in October of 2134 BCE is that “the Sun and Moon did not meet harmoniously.”

Rahu swallows the sun
Whether it was a Chinese dragon, a South American Jaguar or a Scandinavian sky wolf, most early people had some theory about the creature that consumed, and promptly regurgitated the sun in the middle of its daily course. In India, the floating head of the demon Rahu occasionally caught the sun and moon in his mouth, but, lacking a body, they slipped out shortly after, according to legend. Ancient documentation on clay tablets found in a Syrian cave reference an eclipse that experts say took place in March of 1223, BCE. The Holy Bible itself makes note in the book of Amos, chapter 8 verse 9, of an 8th century Assyrian (now Iraq) eclipse that took place: "And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day."

Fast forward a few hundred years and people started getting wise to the repeating pattern of the eclipse. It probably helped that they started traveling more too (now that they had wheels) and discovered that the once-in-a-lifetime event happened fairly routinely, just not often in the same place. By the time that humankind had graduated into the Anno Domini they were predicting when and where the next total eclipse would be and all making up all kinds of theories that had nothing to do with giant mythical creatures. Less dramatic? Hardly, considering the vastness of the cosmos that were just beginning to make sense to astronomers.

The first photograph of a total solar eclipse in 1860
But what is it about a total eclipse that is so captivating to human audiences? Rarity seems like an unlikely motivator when the event occurs every 18 months somewhere in the world, and yet more than seven million people are expected to make the trek to experience the totality in August of 2017.

Dubbed the Great American Eclipse for the sweeping course it cuts across the entire nation like a beauty pageant sash, the August 21 path of totality makes its first all-American appearance in Lincoln City, Oregon where local law enforcement have issued preparedness warnings that residents should stockpile and prepare to shelter in place before the hordes of eclipse chasers descend upon them.  The shadow will move east/southeast across the country, leaving a path of partiers that some brilliant website analyst describes as “ 20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across the nation”, before finishing the visit along the beaches of  South Carolina.

Unlike comet-tracking cults and celestial doomsday believers, eclipse chasers appear to be cut from a completely different cloth. You won’t find end-of-the-world gibberish on - rather, the community is a scientifically driven, curious group hailing from every imaginable background who all agree on one thing: there’s nothing like it in the world.

“The feeling of the eclipse when it happens, you can't describe it, it's like magic.” 30 year old Latvian IT consultant Agnese Zalcmane told the Daily Mail in 2015, “One minute the sun is shining then it starts getting darker but it doesn't get dark like it does in the evening or at dusk - it goes dark very, very fast. Within half a minute it's completely black and it is something that is very strange to experience.”

Seasoned eclipse chaser Rhonda Coleman tells the Bend Bulletin, “We depend on our sun for everything. You can’t help but feel a little dread when it starts to lose strength, when it starts to lose power, when it starts to dim in the middle of the day — when it’s not supposed to...For just the short period of time, everybody’s just looking up at once. It’s this beautiful connection to the family of man.” The experience seems to draw strangers together into intimate throngs with one purpose. Author, eclipse chaser and psychologist Kate Russo describes the experience in one of her books on the subject.

You can literally feel the ominous shadow before it arrives.  The temperature drops.  The wind picks up speed.  The Sunlight slowly dims, bathing the surroundings in an eerie twilight that produces colours with shades rarely seen in the natural world.  Then it is time. Moments before totality a wall of darkness comes creeping towards you at speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour – this is the full shadow of the Moon.  You feel alive.  You feel in awe.  You feel a primitive fear.  Then – totality.” Something akin to the ghost story your older brother told you late at night in a shadowy tent, the total eclipse haunts the experienced viewer with tenacity.

Hotels, campgrounds and resorts that were booked more than a year in advance are facing scandal after they scratched all reservations and jacked the price up to meet demand. The Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville, Tennessee, falls directly in the path and is hosting an Eclipse Party on the day of the event, showcasing country stars (pun intended) and celestial-themed food and drinks. Google is rife with websites featuring eclipse chasing tips that range from where to get your eclipse glasses ahead of time (or better yet, make your own!), to the best weather pockets along the path of totality. Granted, it’s the first total eclipse in the United States since 1979, but the good news is if all of the eclipse glasses are already sold out and your favorite central Oregon resort is booked up, you’ll likely have another shot on April 8,  2024 when a total solar eclipse will climb the U.S. from Texas to Maine on a northerly route.
For more info, check out this article from Forbes magazine.

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