Why We Love Eclipses

Two perspectives on the astronomical phenomenon that has fascinated humans for as long as we’ve been watching the skies

Illustration by Emily Lankiewicz/NASA/Carla Thomas/Getty/LeoPatrizi

Eclipses have been a subject of fascination throughout human history, and the fact that we now have a clearer understanding of what they actually are—at least in the celestial mechanics sense—than we did in centuries past has not made them any less exciting. With the North American total solar eclipse just days away as we’re releasing this episode, and the next one visible from the contiguous United States not due until 2044, we’ll learn about the eclipses from astronomy obsessive (and Smithsonian science correspondent) Dan Falk and hear from Indigenous astronomer Samantha Doxtator about how the Haudenosaunee people have observed and interpreted these mysterious daylight darkenings of the skies over many centuries.

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Chris Klimek: Dan Falk’s home in Canada is full of eclipse memorabilia.

Dan Falk: I have some T-shirts. I think at one time I had a can of eclipse beer and a bottle of eclipse water, which is just silly, right? The water is just a bottle of water that somebody put an eclipse label on it. The beer is obviously just beer, and since I’m not even a beer drinker, I think I either gave it away or—heaven forbid—I think I might’ve poured the beer down the drain and just kept the can.

Klimek: It wasn’t brewed during an eclipse or anything; it was just some branding opportunity?

Falk: No, I probably only got it like maybe at the airport when all the festivities were over and I was looking for souvenirs.

Klimek (narration): Dan is a journalist, author and eclipse chaser. He’s written about some of his past eclipse experiences for Smithsonian magazine. This week will mark his sixth experience within a path of totality. When the moon blocks the sun from our view, everything goes dark, and the stars come out in the middle of the day.

Falk: If money was no object, we’d all be eclipse chasers, wouldn’t we? Generally, you do have to travel unless you’re lucky enough and it comes into your backyard. But yeah, it is what it is. I suppose that would be the same with “Star Trek” conferences or attending Super Bowls in person or things like that.

Klimek: Is it possible for you to say briefly what you find so profound about experiencing a total solar eclipse?

Falk: I think it’s the uniqueness of it. So you’ve got the sun disappearing from the sky in the middle of the day. It’s just not something that normally happens. As I look back at some of the videos that I shot in 1991 and in 2017, just listening to people’s reactions, you could just hear it in their voices, right? This hooting and hollering and applauding and the oohs and the ahs.

Klimek: On April 8, the path of totality will cross through more than a dozen U.S. states. It’s estimated that millions of tourists will flock to eclipse viewpoints across the country. People like Dan have been making plans about where they’ll be on April 8 for a few years now. That’s because today’s eclipses, while miraculous, are also predictable. But just think about what an eclipse must have been like for people in ancient times.

Falk: I think it’s safe to say that in ancient times, a solar eclipse was frightening, awe-inspiring and probably seen as an omen. You’ve got the sun disappearing from the sky, and until roughly the time of the ancient Greeks, people didn’t really understand the mechanics of what was happening. Now you might say, well, wouldn’t there be an old person who remembered the previous eclipse, and so they know that the sun is coming back? But it’s not quite that simple, because it’s a long time between eclipses, so it’s actually quite unlikely. Think how high the stakes are. If you’re not sure that the sun is coming back, that’s a pretty intense thing to worry about.

Klimek: From Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions, this is “There’s More to That,” the show where you don’t have to put on special glasses to get an up-close look at the latest news in history, science and culture. In this episode, we learn about ancient interpretations of eclipses and hear how some people honor those ancient traditions even today. I’m Chris Klimek.

Klimek: There are many historical accounts of eclipses. Some date back thousands of years.

Falk: I think the oldest one where there’s a textual record is from China. The thing is from around 1200 B.C. give or take—these were people who observed an eclipse using a terminology that’s still used in China today for that phenomenon. So we know what they were referring to. But what’s really interesting is that there are a lot of ambiguous cases. There are people who say that these spiral patterns on the stones at Newgrange in Ireland or other prehistoric sites in northwestern Europe or in the southwestern United States—petroglyphs, different kinds of circular patterns associated with the ancient peoples of the Americas—claims have been made that these have some association with the sun or possibly with eclipses or supernovas. Lots of ideas have been put forward, but it’s very hard to prove any of that.

Klimek: The first time someone successfully predicted an eclipse, at least according to surviving records, was 585 B.C.

Falk: This is one that was predicted by a guy named Thales of Miletus, and I’m a big fan of this guy. So from that point on, they come to be something that’s better understood. The only other element to that is that there was a war going on. These two warring parties had been battling for a number of years, and they were so amazed by the eclipse that they put their arms down and signed some kind of peace treaty.

Klimek: What was the Greeks’ understanding of astronomy like in Thales’ time? Do we know anything about what their beliefs were?

Falk: Astronomy was at a somewhat advanced state by then. Some astronomers had mapped the part of the sky that was visible from Greece to the northern sky. So how good was their astronomy? Yeah, they named the constellations. They certainly tracked the planets, so they could tell you when was Jupiter going to be in Capricorn next, they could probably work that out. The important thing here is that Copernicus wouldn’t be born for another millennium. You don’t have to know that the planets are orbiting the sun. You just have to know that they’re doing something. So you look at the positions of the planets in the sky, they follow patterns. If you study that for long enough, you’ll be able to make predictions about where stuff is going to be.

Klimek: Moving forward in history, there were also literary references to eclipses.

Falk: If you’re reading Romeo and Juliet because your teacher told you to, or you’re lucky enough to go see some of these plays performed, you notice that Shakespeare does talk about comets, eclipses, sunrises and sunsets. The eclipse of the moon is mentioned in Macbeth, and then it crops up again in King Lear. Shakespeare was very interested in this, so he’s using it as a dramatic device.

Klimek: Well, it’s like when you say lovers are “star-crossed,” it means something. It sounds poetic, it feels resonant, but does that mean they’re actually doomed because of the astronomical conditions into which they were born? I don’t know.

Falk: Absolutely. And another really fun one is in Hamlet: The ghost of the late king appears, and Prince Hamlet is talking to the guards at Elsinore and asking for a description of what happened, and they say it happened late at night when that “yond star was westward from the pole.” Scholars have been wondering, what was the star westward from the pole? What the heck is that? There’re a lot of theories. And as I got into this—nothing against Shakespeare scholars; they know a lot more about Shakespeare than I ever will—but some of them don’t know that much astronomy, necessarily.

Klimek: Dan says the most intriguing theory comes from a forensic astronomer named Donald Olson.

Falk: He suspects that the star “westward from the pole” was actually the supernova of 1572, a star that suddenly appeared in the sky that was recorded by Tycho Brahe in Denmark and also by English astronomers. And it shone very brightly. It was brighter than Venus for a little while and then lingered on in the winter sky for a number of weeks and then eventually faded away. When I read that for the first time, I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.”

Klimek: Outside of literature, other cultures developed religious beliefs around eclipses.

Falk: And I think this is associated with the Korean Peninsula, but it may also be the case in Japan and China, which is that the sun starts to disappear from the sky during a total solar eclipse. And so legend suggests this is a dragon taking a bite out of the sun. And why not? The idea of the sun being devoured or just in general, that it’s an act of God or the gods, the gods are doing something because it’s up there in the sky. There’s nothing that mortals could be doing that would be causing this. It must be the doings of the gods.

Klimek (narration): Not all of these religious beliefs and traditions reside in the past. That’s why we reached out to Samantha Doxtator. She’s a Haudenosaunee astronomer from the Oneida Nation who studies both scientific and cultural understandings of the universe.

Klimek: Samantha, I’m excited to talk to you. For listeners who are not familiar, what is Indigenous astronomy?

Samantha Doxtator: Indigenous astronomy, from our understanding, it’s everything. It’s our calendar, our birth ceremonies, our death ceremonies, our planting ceremonies, our harvesting ceremonies, our hunting ceremonies. Astronomy is part of all of those things and our way of life.

Klimek: Can we say how it differs from the field of astronomy outside of the Indigenous community?

Doxtator: Indigenous people, we’re naturally scientific in our way of life, but our science is like a natural science. It’s a way of life that we were born with. It’s just an understanding of our connections to everything in creation, and all of that is really scientific.

Klimek: How did this subject become such a passion for you?

Doxtator: It’s an inherited project. My younger sister, she was in university in London, Ontario. One of her advisers asked her if she would be interested in taking an astronomy course. As Haudenosaunee people, we’ve always been connected to astronomy. She joined the course, and it was the Eurocentric version of astronomy, and it didn’t have the same connections that we did. But there was another professor looking to do Indigenous astronomy research. And so my sister applied for that position and she got the position. So for three years she interviewed different people across Haudenosaunee country, and she gathered all of that information and she presented it all from a Haudenosaunee perspective. And even though it’s a Haudenosaunee perspective, a lot of nations, we have similarities in our understandings with our creation stories. And so this information, it’s really universal.

My sister passed away in 2021. She had cancer. It took her really quickly. And before she passed away, she gave me all of her research and all of her work. And I remember asking her, “What do you want me to do with it?” And she said, “It’s yours now. You can do what you want with it.” And at that time, I couldn’t fathom the thought of doing this work without her. And now I can’t fathom the thought of not doing it for her. So I’ve really been continuing her research and her work in honor of her.

Klimek: Part of the work Samantha inherited from her sister Sasha was about how the Haudenosaunee marked time and location by observing the stars and planets.

Doxtator: Imagine living without the clocks we have today and the Google Maps we have today, how we have everything at our fingertips. We always had things at our fingertips, but it was that we looked toward the sky to guide us for those things. The sun would tell us what time it was. The constellations, they tell us what time of year it is. Understanding where the sun is during the day and how much daylight you have from winter solstice to summer solstice. When we have shorter days, the work we did on the contribution to our community and to our way of life, it would change. When we have longer days, we were outside more, and that was the time we would be planting and taking care of our gardens during that time. And in the wintertime, when it was cold, we would be inside more. And the wintertime was when we shared a lot of our knowledge with each other.

Klimek: What can you learn by observing the phase of the moon?

Doxtator: So the moon phase is … They really go from new moon to new moon. The full moon is in the middle of the moon phase. So the new moon phase, that’s when you’re going to set your intentions for things. Let’s just say for your garden. And then in the next quarter, that’s when you’ll start to plant your above-ground vegetables. And then on the third quarter, you plant your root vegetables. And then in the last quarter you don’t plant anything. You just rest. So that’s like the dark time. And then you come back to a new moon phase again, and the new moon phase is the best time for stargazing, because that’s when the sky is so dark.

Klimek: Was astronomy something that you and your sister discussed?

Doxtator: We were always stargazers our whole lives, but it was something you just took for granted. Our grandparents would tell us, like, “Oh, just go and look at the stars.” They would show us different constellations. So you have a certain way of life growing up with that connection. But the more research that Sash did and the more research that she shared with me, it just showed how connected we really are.

Klimek: Samantha says that eclipses are special because they relate to Haudenosaunee origins.

Doxtator: Our creation story starts in Sky World.

And there was a woman who we call Sky Woman. When she was in Sky World, she had a gift that one day she was going to go on to create something new, but she had to be at a certain age to do it. And so when Sky Woman became old enough, she found a partner, she became pregnant. And in Sky World there was this great celestial tree. And when Sky Woman was pregnant, she craved the roots of that tree. Her husband, he would get her those roots and the dirt around those roots. And so it weakened that tree, and that tree fell over and exposed a hole.

In our creation stories, we have this black hole that we talk about. Sky Woman, they say that’s the hole that she journeyed through when she left Sky World to come create Earth World. When you make your journey from Sky World to Earth World, you go from physical to spiritual form, and then you come back to physical.

How Earth was created in our creation story, this down here, what we now call Earth was like Water World, and we are still Water World, because Earth is still 70 percent water. There was a turtle floating on top of the water. And so Sky Woman came from the sky. There were water birds, and they saw her falling and they said, “What is that? I don’t think she can fly. I don’t think she has wings.” They caught her, and they lowered her down to the back of the turtle.

Sky Woman, when she came from Sky World, she brought seeds with her and plants with her. She brought the corn, the beans and the squash. She brought the wild strawberries and potatoes and sacred tobacco. And so she told the water animals that she needed dirt to plant it. And so those water animals, they got dirt for her. She planted those on the back of the turtle. And that’s why sometimes you’ll hear people refer to North America as Turtle Island: because it started on the back of a turtle.

Sky Woman gave birth to a daughter, and then her daughter became pregnant with twin boys. Her daughter passed away at childbirth and her daughter was buried in the earth. And that’s why we call Earth our mother, because she was the mother of the twin boys who created everything on Earth. And because their mother passed away at childbirth, they were raised by their grandma, who is Sky Woman.

When she passes away, the twin boys, they fought over where to bury her. And as they were fighting over her, her body was flung into the sky, and she becomes the moon. We call her yunkhisotha. She is the grandma to all of us.

And then there’s different versions of our creation story on how the sun came to be. And some say the sun was Sky Woman’s older brother in Sky World, and some say that the sun was her partner in Sky World, but the common denominator is that they all represent that positive male energy.

And so when you have an eclipse, that’s the sun and the moon crossing paths to rebalance that energy. Because it’s a male and a female that are crossing paths. In Oneida, how we say an eclipse is watwatahnitasle. And what that means is that when their paths cross, they’re backing each other up. When you back each other up, you’re rebooting the system. And so when an eclipse happens, it’s like re-establishing that connection of balance.

Klimek: So having shared this creation story with us—and thank you for that—how does that knowledge that you are looking up at beings, when you look up at the stars and moons and planets, how does that change your interpretation of what you’re seeing?

Doxtator: That’s your Sky World family. The stars, really even scientifically, were made up of all the same elements. So we are stars, and stars are us, and they tell us that when our loved ones pass away, eventually they’re going to become a star. So when you’re looking up at the stars, you’re looking at all of your loved ones who have passed away and can still make that connection to you. The planets, they’re all like brothers and sisters. They’re all a family too. And so all of the elements in the universe, they’re all related and they’re just like us.

Klimek: The Haudenosaunee mostly reside in New York State, but there are also communities in other parts of the country and Canada. The nation comprises six groups that came together to form a democratic confederation. Its members include the Mohawk, Oneida, Seneca Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora nations.

Doxtator: So a long time ago, the Haudenosaunee people agreed to live by the Great Law of Peace, the oldest participatory democracy on earth. What that means is that we’re going to bury our weapons and we’re going to live with a good mind, with peace, and with understanding and respect for each other. It was a contributing influence on the American Constitution, because Benjamin Franklin had a great respect for the Haudenosaunee government system.

Klimek: The Haudenosaunee were originally made up of only five nations until the sixth and final nation agreed to the Great Law of Peace.

Doxtator: And they say that there was a great total solar eclipse that happened in the sky, and they were the last nation to agree. So that total solar eclipse that happened was a contributing factor to get everybody on board to agree to the Great Law of Peace. And so now this total solar eclipse, the path of totality is directly over our homelands. The last time we had a total solar eclipse over our homelands was in 1925, and the next time it’ll happen again will be in like 2144. So this is the only time we’re going to experience this in our lifetime, and total solar eclipses, they do happen every 18 months somewhere in the world, but over our homelands, that path of totality, the last time was 99 years ago. So it’s a big deal for us to give thanks to it and to ask for that reset.

Klimek: Samantha told us that while Haudenosaunee cultures observe eclipses, their tradition is that they turn their eyes away and give the sun and moon their privacy as they meet in the sky.

Doxtator: The elders, they tell us not to look at an eclipse, and a lot of it is because it’s harmful to your eyes, but there is an emotional part to that, because if you think about the sun and the moon, they’re family, right? They’re related and they haven’t seen each other in so long that when their paths cross, it’s really emotional for them. And imagine how if you haven’t seen somebody in your family for a long time and just leading up to it, you get real excited to see each other and then you just visit for that short time. But then in that same moment, you have to say, “See you again.” When we see somebody in our family and they get emotional, we tell them like, “Oh, we’re going to step out of the room and let you guys have this moment.”

So it’s the same thing with the sun and the moon. It’s that special that you don’t even have to stare at it. You can just feel the emotion and the energy of it. People can do whatever they want, but the cool thing about an eclipse is that a total solar eclipse is when the sky gets dark in the daytime, the stars are going to come back out. So that’s what I’m going to be looking for, is the stars. I’m going to let the moon and the sun have their time together. We need to restore certain things for within ourselves. Yeah, it’s just like, how do we respectfully observe the total solar eclipse, but also how do we re-instill the knowledge of the Great Law of Peace at the same time? Because Indigenous people, we’ve come through a genocidal apocalypse.

Klimek: What do you want people to take away from your lectures?

Doxtator: I want to help people heal. I want to help heal Indigenous oppression with astronomical knowledge and original ways of knowing. We’ve always been scientists and astronomers and engineers and doctors and lawmakers even before the institutions ever existed. So I just want my people, Indigenous people, different nations of people to remember how smart and innovative and creative that we have always been.

Klimek: If you don’t mind saying, do you know what you personally will be doing? Where will you be on April 8?

Doxtator: I will be in Seneca territory in New York at a gathering. I was at a gathering seven years ago the last time there was a total solar eclipse in the United States, and when we were at that gathering, we said we were going to reconvene on the next total solar eclipse that was over our homelands. So that’s where I will be.

Klimek: We reached out to some other representatives from different Indigenous communities for this segment, and what we heard back was that some prefer to keep their eclipse traditions private. So can I ask why you feel it’s important to share these beliefs and traditions with the broader world?

Doxtator: I understand that, too, and it is because our people had to hold on for dear life to keep our traditions. They’re just holding on by a thread, and then now you want us to tell the rest of the world? At the same time, the rest of the world needs to know how special we are, because if we don’t share that with the rest of the world, they’re not going to know that either about us.

Klimek: So during eclipses, people flock to the path of totality to observe the eclipse. What can they do to make sure that the visitors are being respectful to the lands they’re visiting and to the Indigenous communities that reside there?

Doxtator: I heard Niagara Falls is like the best place to view this total solar eclipse. I heard there’s going to be a million people going to view the eclipse there, so it’s going to be crazy, crazy busy there. That’s Haudenosaunee homelands, all of Niagara Falls. So it’s just being respectful of each other, of the time that you have there, of the space, of the land. Whatever you brought with you, take it home with you, and give thanks to the people whose land you’re on. Try to learn from the original people of the land, too. Find ways to find our understandings and our perspectives, too.

Klimek: Thank you, Samantha, for a fascinating and informative talk.

Doxtator: Thank you for the invitation. It was fun.

Klimek: To read Dan Falk’s full article about ancient eclipses and the rest of our eclipse coverage, head to SmithsonianMag.com. We’ll also have links in our show notes for more information about both of our guests.

Klimek: And now it’s time for the dinner party fact! We like to end each episode with a small factoid you can bring up at your next social gathering. This episode’s dinner party fact will be perfect for eclipse watch day and involves everyone’s favorite fictional archeologist: Indiana Jones.

Jo Marchant: Hi, I’m Jo Marchant. I’m a contributor for Smithsonian, and my dinner party fact is that the most recent Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, was based on a real Greek mechanism called the Antikythera mechanism that was found on a shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera. And it was a model of the cosmos, a little pocket universe, and you really could travel back and forward in time by turning a handle on the side, and the dials on the front would tell you everything you could see in the sky on that particular date.

It was full of gear wheels, like more than 30 bronze gear wheels, pointers, scales covered in tiny Greek writing, and it looked a bit like a clock, in a wooden case. You turn a handle on the side, and all the pointers move around the dials that showed you the position of the sun, moon and planets in the sky. It had a star calendar. It even predicted eclipses. It was really an expression of everything that they knew about their universe. A philosophical wonder, if you like.

Klimek: “There’s More to That” is a production of Smithsonian magazine and PRX Productions. From the magazine, our team is me, Debra Rosenberg and Brian Wolly. From PRX, our team is Jessica Miller, Genevieve Sponsler, Adriana Rozas Rivera, Ry Dorsey and Edwin Ochoa. The executive producer of PRX Productions is Jocelyn Gonzales. Our episode artwork is by Emily Lankiewicz. Fact-checking by Stephanie Abramson. Our music is from APM Music.

I’m Chris Klimek. Thank you for listening.

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