CHINA: Solar Eclipses in History and Mythology

Discover History and Mythology of Solar Eclipses in China and how it makes us connect to what our ancestors might have felt and experienced.

On July 22, 2009, we where visiting the Three Gorges Dam, a hydroelectric gravity dam that spans the Yangtze River by the town of Sandouping, in Hubei province, China. It is the world’s largest power station in terms of installed capacity and a good place to watch the total solar eclipse – the longest of the 21st century. It lasted up to a maximum of 6 minutes, 39 seconds according to NASA.

It is a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon: we grab our darkened glasses, following reminders that viewing with the naked eye could damage our eyesight.

The light of day begins to fade in the middle of the day. Looking up, we catch a glimpse of what looks like a disk of pure blackness sliding across the face of the sun. Soon the blackness has almost completely covered the sun, and dusk is falling over the land. The air cools. The birds are silent and still. Streetlights are turned on. Fireworks lighten up the darkness, silence is broken.

Feelings as the light drops away- Is an eclipse frightening? Beautiful? Or both at once?

The Solar Eclipse of 22nd July 2009

As the Earth and moon sweep through space in their journey around the sun, the three bodies align in such a way that the Earth passes into the shadow of the moon. We witness a sun that is gradually covered and uncovered by the moon’s disk, without the sun’s light, the sky darkens enough for stars to be seen and the sun’s corona makes a halo around the moon– a spectacular celestial event.

The word eclipse comes from a Greek word meaning “abandonment.” Quite literally, an eclipse was seen as the sun abandoning the earth.

The eclipse travelled half the globe and was visible along a roughly 250 km-wide (155 miles) corridor. The phenomenon began at dawn over the western coast of India, it moved east across Nepal, Burma, Bangladesh and Bhutan and then along China’s Yangtze river valley.

Eclipse Path. Nasa

Monsters try to devour the Sun- worldwide

Eclipses of the Sun are awe-inspiring phenomena. It is no wonder that in many early cultures they were believed to be the end of the world or bad omens. Seeing one makes me connect to what our ancestors might have felt and experienced.

In China, India, southeastern Asia and in Peru there were beliefs that dragons or demons attack the Sun during eclipses. In North America, dogs and coyotes; in South America, big cats like pumas; in Vietnam, a very large frog tries to swallow the sun.

The ancient Egyptian myth of the snake Apep that attacks the boat of the Sun god is believed to refer to solar eclipses.

The Ch’orti’, indigenous Mayas, believed an eclipse of the sun that lasts more than a day will bring the end of the world, and the spirits of the dead will come to life and eat those on earth.

The Florentine Codex, a ethnographic study of 16th-century Aztecs in Mexico, described a solar eclipse in particularly vivid terms:

There were a tumult, and disorder. All were disquieted, unnerved, frightened. Then there was weeping. The common folk raised a cup, lifting their voices, making a great din, calling out shrieking. People of light complexion were slain as sacrifices; captives were killed. All offered their blood. They drew straws through the lobes of their ears, which had been pierced. And in all the temples there was the singing of fitting chants; there was an uproar; there were war cries. It was thus said: “If the eclipse of the sun is complete it will be dark forever. The demons of darkness will come down. They will eat men!”

The Chinese and the Incas tried to frighten these monsters away, by banging pots, chanting or shooting into the air.

But the Indians have a different attempt by immersing themselves in holy water, the Ganges. They performed this religious ritual to help the Sun struggle against the decapitated head of a Hindu demon, Rahu.

The god Vishnu, warned by the sun and the moon, caught Rahu drinking the elixir of life and as punishment sliced off the demon’s head before the elixir passed through his throat. The immortal head takes his revenge on the celestial bodies by devouring them, but because he has no body, they re-emerge after he swallows them.

Muslims pray five times daily, but during eclipses they specially perform the “eclipse prayer”. This is one of the traditions of Prophet Mohammad, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH). The purpose of this prayer is to remember the might and gifts of Allah the Creator.

The ancient Chinese believed eclipses were caused by giant animals

A mystical dragon or celestial dog in the sky eating up the Sun explains the Chinese word for eclipse, which is 日食 (re shi), meaning ‘sun eat’.

LEGEND: The Sun-eating Dragon


The ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses occur when a legendary celestial dragon devours the Sun. They also believed that this dragon attacks the Moon during lunar eclipses. It was a tradition in ancient China to bang drums and pots, use firecrackers or even shoot arrows into the sky, all in an effort to frighten away the dragon. Even more recently, in the nineteenth century, the Chinese navy fired its cannons during a lunar eclipse to remember the old custom.

LEGEND: The Sun- eating Dog- Tian Gou

The Sun- eating Dog- Tian Gou

Another tale tells us, that ancient Chinese believed that solar and lunar eclipses were caused by a hungry dog called Tiangou or Tian Gou (“heaven dog”), trying to devour the sun or moon. Luckily, Tiangou was always stopped by the god of childbirth, Chang Xian, an expert archer.

Since eclipses were omens of great change, fending off sun-eating dogs was serious business. As such, royal astronomers at the emperor’s court were charged with shooting arrows, banging pots or even used firecrackers and making whatever noise they could to scare off this eclipsing canine.

Despite their efforts, the tale of the heavenly dog has persisted. 20th century Chinese poet Guo Moruo wrote on Tian Gou:

I am a heavenly dog!

I eat up the Moon,

I eat up the Sun.

I eat up all the planets, I eat up the universe.

I become what I am!

Originally seen as an animal that can counter evil, Tian Gou somehow became the synonym to comets which are seen as bad omen in ancient China.

Chang Xian the archer and fertility

There is another story concerning how Zhang Xian or Chang Xian (an immortal in Chinese lore) shot the Heavenly Dog. In this story, the Heavenly Dog was obstructing the constellations from going to the mortal realm as children. When Chang Xian shot the Heavenly Dog and made it run away, the people were then able to get children and as a result, Chang Xian was known as “the children-giving Chang Xian”.

In China the belief that

eclipses herald change

coexisted with the scientific explanation.

COSMOGONY:  P’an Ku 盘古

The most conspicuous figure in Chinese cosmogony is P’an Ku or Pan Gu.

He it was who chiseled the universe out of Chaos. According to Chinese ideas, he was the offspring of the original dual powers of Nature, the yin and the yang (to be considered presently), which, having in some incomprehensible way produced him, set him the task of giving form to Chaos and “making the heavens and the earth.”

Some accounts describe him as the actual creator of the universe—“the ancestor of Heaven and earth and all that live and move and have their being.” ‘P’an’ means ‘the shell of an egg,’ and ‘Ku’ ‘to secure,’ ‘solid,’ referring to P’an Ku being hatched from out of Chaos and to his settling the arrangement of the causes to which his origin was due. The characters themselves may, however, mean nothing more than ‘Researches into antiquity,’ though some bolder translators have assigned to them the significance if not the literal sense of ‘aboriginal abyss,’ or the Babylonian Tiamat, ‘the Deep.’

Pan Ku holding the sun and the moon

In some of the pictures of P’an Ku he is represented, as holding the sun in one hand and the moon in the other. Sometimes they are in the form of those bodies, sometimes in the classic character.

The legend says that when P’an Ku put things in order in the lower world, he did not put these two luminaries in their proper courses, so they retired into the Han Sea, and the people dwelt in darkness. The Terrestrial Emperor sent an officer,  with orders that they should come forth and take their places in the heavens and give the world day and night. They refused to obey the order. They were reported to Ju Lai; P’an Ku was called, and, at the divine direction of Buddha, wrote the character for ‘sun’ in his left hand, and that for ‘moon’ in his right hand; and went to the Han Sea, and stretched forth his left hand and called the sun, and then stretched forth his right hand and called the moon, at the same time repeating a charm devoutly seven times; and they forthwith ascended on high, and separated time into day and night.

Mo Tzŭ 墨子and Creation

In the philosophy of Mo Ti (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.), generally known as Mo Tzŭ, Mu Tzŭ, Mozi or “Master Mo,”we find the idea of creation. “It was”, he said, “Heaven” (which was anthropomorphically regarded by him as a personal Supreme Being) who “created the sun, moon, and innumerable stars.”

Mythology of Solar Eclipses: The Sun and  the Moon

The Chinese use a calendar system based on the phases of the moon (measured through observing the position of the stars in the twenty-eight mansions) and the time of the solar year, or season.

Over generations of observation, astronomers discovered a relationship we now know as the Saros cycle, a cycle in which sun, moon and earth are aligned in a particular way approximately every 18 years, 11.3 days. This enabled them to predict solar and lunar eclipses with some accuracy but it was not an infallible system.

The sun and moon have always had a special significance in Chinese folklore and various symbolism and myths surround them. The mid-Autumn, or  Moon Festival is perhaps the second most important traditional festival in China after Chinese New Year. It is held on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month when the moon is said to be at its largest, roundest, and brightest of the year.

The shape of the moon is said to represent completeness and perfection and its celebration is an important family occasion each year. Special round cakes, called moon cakes, are made to eaten during the festival.

The sun and moon have developed a particular iconography in China.

The red sun is often pictured with a three-legged crow and the moon features a white hare or rabbit, pounding a pestle and mortar, or holding an egg or running.

moonrabbit- jade rabbit- moon-hare
Once you see it, you will never forget.

The Rabbit and the Moon

The association of the hare and the moon is common to folklore in Asia.

One Buddhist jataka – stories about the Buddha in his earlier lives – tells that he was once a hare and sacrificed himself to the god Indra who was suffering from hunger. As thanks for his selflessness, Indra then immortalized the hare by placing his image on the moon for all to see.

Another story tells of a white hare/rabbit serving Chang E, the Queen of the moon.

Chang E 嫦娥

Closely related to this story is the legend that when Chang E stole the immortal pills rewarded to her husband Hou Yi for shooting down nine Suns (and thus only leaving one sun in the sky), Hou Yi’s hunting hound chased her all through her ascent up to the sky.

Hearing its bark, Chang E hid herself in the Moon. Meanwhile, all the hair on the hound’s body stood up erect and its body kept on expanding. Then in one motion, it leaped up and swallowed the Moon. When the Heavenly King and Queen heard about this event, they sent the Heavenly Guards to apprehend the black dog. When it was brought forth, the Heavenly Queen recognized it as Hou Yi’s hunting hound and gave it the title of Heavenly Dog and the responsibility of guarding the Southern Heavenly Door. As a result of the honor given to it, the hound spat out Chang E and the Moon.

Thereafter, Change E made the Moon her home.

The Archer and the Moon Goddess

O nce upon a time, there were ten suns that took turns to circle the earth each day of the lunar week (10 days in the Chinese lunar calendar) – the suns took the form of black crows which rose in a mulberry tree in the east and landed in a mulberry tree in the west, before travelling home each night through an underground valley. The suns were the children of the Jade Emperor but they were lonely in their work and one day, all ten of the suns came out together, scorching the earth and causing panic. The emperor of earth prayed to the Heavens for mercy and in anger, their father the Jade Emperor ordered them to behave. When they would not, he asked the great archer Lord Houyi 后羿 to reason with them and gave him leave to punish his sons. When Houyi saw the damage they had done he was very angry. He tried to reason with the children but when they would not listen to him, Houyi shot down nine of the ten sons in desperation, leaving one behind to serve alone as the sun. The Jade Emperor was very angry when he learned of the death of his sons. In a rage, he summoned Houyi and banished him and his wife Chang E to live on earth as ordinary mortals on earth.

Houyi was very much in love with his wife Chang E. Seeing that she was miserable as a mortal, Houyi set out to find a way back to the Heavens and to immortality. Travelling far to Kunlun Mountain, Houyi visited the Queen Mother of the West who gave him a vial of elixir to share with his wife. The vial contained enough elixir for both Houyi and his wife to become immortal but was the last of its kind, and the Queen warned Houyi that it must be shared between the archer and his wife as it was the last elixir for thousands of years. On his return home, Houyi was obliged to pay his respects to the emperor of earth, but first he went straight home to give the vial to his wife for safekeeping. Chang E had been so miserable after losing her immortality that she could not control her curiosity and opened the bottle. Raising it to her lips she considered what would happen if she took the elixir all for herself. Chang E decided to summon a fortune-teller. Reassured that she should take the elixir for herself, Houyi returned home to find his wife floating out the window and up into the sky. Seeing the empty vial, Houyi was angry and heartbroken at her betrayal and raising his bow to the sky aimed to shoot her down. But he could not bring himself to do so.

Chang E floated all the way up to the moon where she settled to live. She missed her husband terribly although she had two companions on the moon. One was a jade rabbit that pounded a pestle and mortar day and night to find the elixir of everlasting life. The other was woodcutter Wu Gang吴刚 who had offended the gods and was banished to the moon. He was only allowed to leave if he managed to cut down a tree that grew on the moon. He spent his time doing this, but each time he cut the tree down, it would grow back again, therefore condemning him to live on the moon forever.

Left alone on earth Houyi was later honoured for his bravery and protection and welcomed back to the Heavens. Some versions of this tale say that Houyi built himself a palace on the sun as Yang (the male principle), while Chang E is Yin (the female principle).

Once a year, on the 15th day of the full moon, Houyi is able to visit his wife and on this night the moon is especially full and beautiful.

Omens for the emperor

In ancient China, the solar and lunar eclipses were regarded as heavenly signs that foretell the future of the Emperor- predicting eclipses were of high importance for the state.

Eclipse from Space. NASA

An eclipse was also an omen linked to natural disasters or deaths in the imperial family, it was a warning —for the Sun was the symbol of the Emperor according to traditional astrological theories. When an eclipse occurred, the Emperor would normally eat vegetarian meals, avoid the main palace, perform rituals to rescue the Sun and, sometimes, issue imperial edict to take the blame on himself.

The belief which linked celestial activity to that on earth is illustrated in an description of lunar behavior by a court astronomer, Shishen 石申, in the fourth century B.C. :

When a wise prince occupies the throne, the moon follows the right way.

When the prince is not wise and the ministers exercise power, the moon loses its way.

When the high officials let their interests prevail over public interest, the moon goes astray toward north or south.

When the moon is rash, it is because the prince is slow in punishing;

when the moon is slow, it is because the prince is rash in punishing.

In 2136 BC there was an unpredicted eclipse. Documentation about this event dates it as the earliest recorded eclipse in history but it also tells us about the fate of the court astronomers Xi and He who failed to predict it in advance. Given the belief that such celestial events reflected events on earth and should be predicted by the emperor, complete accuracy was expected of court astronomers, and failure meant – execution.

The Chinese have been hailed as some of the best astronomers and most detailed record-keepers; they would meticulously chart the courses of the celestial bodies and, in fact, did it so well that Astrology refers to their records to this very day.

Lunar and solar eclipses in ancient Astronomy

The ancient Chinese astronomer Shi Shen (fl. fourth century B.C.E.) was aware of the relation of the moon in a solar eclipse, as he provided instructions in his writing to predict them by using the relative positions of the moon and sun. The ‘radiating influence’ theory for a solar eclipse was opposed by the Chinese philosopher Wang Chong (27-97 C.E.), but he admits in his writing that it was nothing new. The Chinese astronomer and inventor Zhang Heng (78-139 C.E.) wrote of both solar eclipse and lunar eclipse in the publication of Ling Xian, 120 C.E.:

The sun is like fire and the moon like water. The fire gives out light and the water reflects it. Thus the moon’s brightness is produced from the radiance of the sun, and the moon’s darkness (pho) is due to (the light of) the sun being obstructed (pi). The side which faces the sun is fully lit, and the side which is away from it is dark. The planets (as well as the moon) have the nature of water and reflect light. The light pouring forth from the sun (tang jih chih chhung kuang) does not always reach the moon owing to the obstruction (pi) of the earth itself—this is called ‘an-hsü’, a lunar eclipse. When (a similar effect) happens with a planet (we call it) an occulation (hsing wei); when the moon passes across (kuo) (the sun’s path) then there is a solar eclipse (shih).

During the total solar eclipse, the Moon will turn off the ionosphere’s source of extreme ultraviolet radiation: The ionosphere will go from daytime conditions to nighttime conditions. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Katy Mersmann

Furthermore, the later Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (1031-1095) used the models of lunar eclipse and solar eclipse in order to prove that the celestial bodies were round, not flat (which promoted spherical earth theory and went against flat earth theory). He wrote of this in his Dream Pool Essays of 1088 C.E., relating back when the Director of the Astronomical Observatory had asked Shen if the shapes of the sun and moon were round like balls or flat like fans. Shen Kuo explained his reasoning for the former:

If they were like balls they would surely obstruct each other when they met. I replied that these celestial bodies were certainly like balls. How do we know this? By the waxing and waning of the moon. The moon itself gives forth no light, but is like a ball of silver; the light is the light of the sun (reflected). When the brightness is first seen, the sun (-light passes almost) alongside, so the side only is illuminated and looks like a crescent. When the sun gradually gets further away, the light shines slanting, and the moon is full, round like a bullet. If half of a sphere is covered with (white) powder and looked at from the side, the covered part will look like a crescent; if looked at from the front, it will appear round. Thus we know that the celestial bodies are spherical.

When he asked Shen Kuo why eclipses occurred only on an occasional basis while in conjunction and opposition once a day, he wrote:

I answered that the ecliptic and the moon’s path are like two rings, lying one over the other, but distant by a small amount. (If this obliquity did not exist), the sun would be eclipsed whenever the two bodies were in conjunction, and the moon would be eclipsed whenever they were exactly in position. But (in fact) though they may occupy the same degree, the two paths are not (always) near (each other), and so naturally the bodies do not (intrude) upon one another.

Historical observations of Solar Eclipses

woodcut solar eclipse

Solar eclipses have been observed throughout history. Recent research has demonstrated that solar eclipses had been depicted in the fascinating mythology of ancient Egypt, and produced evidence that the ancient Egyptians observed solar eclipses over 4,500 years ago.

Ancient eclipse records made in China and Babylonia are believed to be over 4,000 years ago.

Beginning as far back as 2400 B.C., and especially during the Shang dynasty (1600 B.C. to 1046 B.C.)—a thousand years before the Chinese began to use paper—oracle bones were commonly used for divination.

Questions were posed, and animal bones or shells were then heated until they cracked into patterns that expert diviners were believed to “read.” The bones or shells were then inscribed with the interpretations and predictions.

Many astronomy-related inscriptions survive in these objects, but they are often cryptic and difficult to comprehend, sometimes lacking even the dates of the eclipses to which they refer.

“Because of the nature of the subject matter, oracle bones are not necessarily meant to be literal descriptions,”

Odenwald explained.

Accuracy aside, the bones are the earliest known evidence of an interest in tracking eclipses.

Ancient China‘s eclipse record keeping steadily improved over the centuries thanks to continued refinements in the calendar system driven by a search for signs that might tell the emperor’s future.

Systematic, dated eclipse records began in China in 719 B.C.

Astronomical computations enable astronomers to calculate the dates and paths of future and past eclipses with great accuracy. Some ancient eclipse records have been particularly significant to astronomers and historians as they enabled certain historical eras and events to be dated accurately. Astronomers can also examine ancient eclipse records to measure the rate of Earth’s spin about its axis over the past millenniums.

Astronomers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) used Chinese observations of five solar eclipses that occurred between 1161 B.C. and 1226 B.C. to study the rate of Earth’s axial rotation over the past 3,200 years. These eclipses were scratched on oxen shoulder blades in the Chinese city of Anyang.

By determining exactly when each of these eclipses was seen and where the Moon’s shadow fell on Earth in each eclipse, the scientists found that the day in 1200 B.C. was 0.047 second shorter than the present day.

By 20 B.C., Chinese astronomers realized the true nature of solar eclipses, and by 206 C.E., they were able to predict solar eclipses by analyzing the motion of the Moon.

Astronomy flourished in Mesopotamia, the plain between the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in the dawn of civilization. Like the Chinese and Egyptian astronomers, the Babylonian astronomers observed the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets carefully and kept records of the celestial events. They are also credited with remarkable contributions to ancient astronomy.

A fragment of a lost poem by Archilochus (ca. 680 B.C.–645 B.C.), who was a Greek poet and soldier, seems to clearly depict a total solar eclipse:

Nothing there is beyond hope,

nothing that can be sworn impossible,

nothing wonderful, since Zeus,

father of the Olympians,

made night from mid-day,

hiding the light of the shining Sun,

and sore fear came upon men.

Herodotus, the father of history, who lived in the 5th century BC, cited that Thales (ca. 624 B.C.-547 B.C.), the Greek philosopher, predicted the solar eclipse of 28 May 585 B.C. that put an end to the conflict between the Lydians and the Medes.

Herodotus wrote:

… day was all of sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it took place. The Medes and the Lydians when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed on.

Claudius Ptolemy (ca. 87-150 C.E.) wrote about eclipses in his epic work Almagest. His writings show that he studied the lunar orbit carefully and had a sophisticated scheme for predicting both solar and lunar eclipses.

One of the most important historical solar eclipses is that of the annular solar eclipse of 27 January 632. It was visible in Medina during the lifetime of Prophet Mohammad, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH), and coincided with the death of his little son Ibrahim. The Prophet stated explicitly and definitely that the eclipses of the Sun and the Moon are not bad omens, but are cosmic spectacles that demonstrate the might and knowledge of Allah the Great.

The Egyptian astronomer Ibn Yunus (950-1009), who was regarded as one of the greatest observational astronomers of his time, made important, precise observations of lunar and solar eclipses in Cairo.

Excerpt from:

The Herd  Boy and the Weaver Girl or how the MILKY WAY was created

Eclipse drawing from “The Circle of the Sciences”, by James Wylde, (London Printing, London). Many observers noted the remarkable rayed pattern of the corona. ©nasa

This story, of which there are many versions, goes back to the sixth century BC and can be found in the first known book of Chinese poetry, The Book of Songs (Shijing 诗经).

A very long time ago, when the King of the Sky created the heavens, he decorated it with stars and asked his beautiful daughter to help him by weaving the clouds and mists. It was a long task and when the king noticed his daughter looking tired and drawn, he ordered her to take a break and go out to play among the stars.

The princess headed down towards the Milky Way to bathe, whereupon she came across a handsome herd-boy grazing his water buffalo by the banks of the stream. Distracted by the boy the princess lost track of time and returned home to her work long after the curfew her father had set. The King, upon discovering the reason for her late return was very angry and forbade her to visit the boy again. In case she disobeyed him, the King poured thousands more stars into the Milky Way until it was no longer a stream but a flowing river that the princess and the herd-boy could not cross. Without a bridge, the two were stranded on opposite sides of the Milky Way forever more.

The Princess, who had fallen in love with the herd-boy, was distraught, and cried until her father relented. The King and his daughter reached an agreement that he would allow her to spend one day of each year with her herd-boy if she worked hard all year round.

To this day, on the seventh day of the seventh month of every year the King sends a flock of magpies over the Milky Way to form a bridge. The weather must be clear on this evening or the lovers cannot cross the celestial river to meet each other. If it rains the pair must wait another year. On a clear night you can see their two bright stars together in the sky. If it rains it is said that the drops falling to earth are the tears of the Weaver Girl Princess.

~ ○ ~

Works Cited & Multimedia Sources