Why eclipse meant bad omen

“Human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gave us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.” Karen Armstrong

And where’s a better space to make constellations of stories and meanings than the evening sky that is glittered with distant stars and galaxies? Almost every ancient civilizations in the world, from the Greeks to the Mayans, imagined the sky as a heavenly plane with gods and deities, and impose moral meanings into normal astronomical events, such as meteor showers and eclipses. In Cosmos, Carl Sagan wrote an enormous piece of awe and wonder that earliest human tribes might felt as they leisured underneath the majestic evening dome. The sky provoked our imaginations, and we slowly thread meanings out of it, collectively and over time.

Yet thousands of years later and now we look back at these myth, often times grappling with their meanings. What used to be rich treasures of sophisticated storytelling is now mostly remembered as little rituals devoid from any understanding.

In Indonesia, Lunar or Solar Eclipse used to mean that a monster swallowed either of these two celestial beings. Ibu-ibu will rushed outside, pans and spoons in their hands and began making noises, believing that the noise will stop the monster from swallowing the Moon. In some remote villages, this tradition persisted even though a broader understanding of science is accepted and has gently moved this mythological rationale aside. Yet, this practice is only the remnants of what was an epic Hindu mythology piece that unveils stories of revenge, lust, and a thirst for immortality.

The Indian Hindu mythology follows Rahu, a demigod with supreme power and hunger, who was reigned by his desire to achieve immortality. He tricked an entire group of gods, including the Sun and the Moon, by wearing a mask and sit together to drink the elixir called Amrita. By the time Rahu drank it, the Sun and Moon saw him and immediately called Vishnu who then beheaded Rahu. Since the elixir had reached Rahu’s head, his head stayed alive—immortal—while his half bottom fell to Earth and according to some sources, became the pan.

Rahu is one of the nine major astronomical bodies and one of the two shadow planetary entities, exactly because it covers up the largest organ in the sky. The eclipse that we see is Rahu chasing the Sun and the Moon for revenge. But since Rahu doesn’t have a body, the Sun and Moon fall out of him.

In Java, Rahu is familiarly called Batara Kala, the god of Time and Destruction who is the lifetime enemy of the Moon and Sun. He is an ogre, an abandoned son who was sent to Earth to punish humans from evil deeds. People fear him for his destructive quality, the god who prevents the life-giving Sun or Moon from shining upon Earth.

Like all else, mythologies cross geographical boundaries. As they are brought by travelers all over the world, then widely adapted and practiced and used, their stories are transformed to the local languages and you’d find a thousand different variations on the same myth.

In Java, the response to make so much loud noises by banging pots and pans didn’t seem to come from India, but from China, where they, too, saw eclipse as a bad omen. And even though the Indians developed elaborate astrological relationships between Rahu and other planetary bodies, this didn’t seem to be a shared understanding in neither Java nor Bali. As a nation which, for hundreds of years tolerate multiple religions and nations, from Hindu to Christian, Indians to Chinese, it makes absolute sense that our myths are concoctions of stories from around the world.

Today, as science takes over our understanding of the natural world, this little Rahu myth isn’t just slowly forgotten, but becoming irrelevant. But beyond the growing impact of science, there is a prevailing challenge in understanding centuries-old myths, and we’re having difficulties in transforming their meanings so they remain to be relevant today. They’re old and they’re not renewed, and we distance ourselves from infusing these myths with refreshing perspectives on history. I guess, it’s no wonder that what we remember best from this myth is the festive noise of banging pans and pots, and nothing more.



P.S. I write children’s story for adults about the moon. See it here. Or email me to purchase

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