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Child Psychiatrist /Adult Psychiatrist

The Many Meanings of Solar Eclipses

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS


Solar Eclipses

Today is E-Day, Eclipse Day, an event of historical lore and meaning over millennia. Though many hope to see the total eclipse of the sun by the moon, certain expectations may be dashed with cloudy weather that obscures and eclipses what we see.


Religious


One set of reactions and meanings are religious and generally developed before current scientific information, such as the following:


Christianity: There are some who believe this eclipse heralds the second coming of Christ and the “end times,” when Jesus will return to Earth, when the wicked will be judged and the righteous rewarded.


Islam: It is generally felt to be a time to turn to God and pray, confirming that the occurrences of the whole universe are in God’s hands.


Judaism: In the Talmud from hundreds of years ago, a total eclipse is “an ill omen for the world,” with the Orthodox recommending prayer, introspection, and a desire to do better.

Hinduism. There are legends that incorporate the eclipse, which is generally viewed as a bad omen, so praying, meditating, and chanting are recommended to ward off evil.


Buddhism: Buddhism can be put under the spiritual rubric perhaps more than religious given the absence of a God figure and views it as an auspicious day for spiritual practices like chanting mantras.


Psychology


Before scientific understanding, the eclipse seemed to elicit a primal fear, followed by relief, awe, and euphoria when the sun returned.2 People seem to care and cooperate more in its wake. Some, though, become obsessed with such solar eclipses, doing everything possible to see them.


Social


Being part of it tends to elicit a collective sense of wonder, inspiration, and reconciliation. A study after the last total eclipse in the US in 2017 found that individuals became, at least for a time, more oriented to their collectives.3 There is an accompanying sociological term called “collective effervescence.”


Folk Beliefs


Outside of formal religious beliefs, some common folk beliefs emerged in history. One is that a total eclipse is a disruption of the natural order and thereby a bad omen. Another is the common idea and image of the sun being eaten, such as by dragons, wolves, or demons. Human sacrifice could be a form of expiation, but alternatively, as with the Tlingit tribes, that the sun and moon were having more children. With a nod toward modern psychology, there is the interpretation of solar fighting with the moon, with the evolving expectation that everything would be worked out, just what we need for current polarizing times.


Some have noticed how the pathway of this eclipse as well as the one in 2017, crosses in Carbondale, Illinois. Not only does that evoke Christ, but the famous legend about the blues great from the 1930s, Robert Johnson. At a crossroad in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in a combination of religious, folk, and sociological beliefs, it is said that he made a deal with the devil to obtain his great skill, then was poisoned by a jealous woman after a short, but great, career.


The United States Today


Coming into the midst of such a unique event makes analyzing it difficult. Certainly, there is much interest and plans to try to see the totality for the last time in 20 more years, even if by now the cloud cover is a concern. Many areas in the totality will have business benefits, including alcohol sales (which may boom if there is disappointment).


Perhaps the biggest controversy and divisiveness now has been what to do with going to school—or not—for kids, sort of a mini version of what to do during COVID-19. While I have not found any major survey, many schools, with parental support, are operating from “an abundance of safety” and closing down for parts of today, providing e-classes at best. That leaves the parents to handle the watching process. Sometimes this is called an era of “safetyism” and helicopter parenting, too much of a good safety and security thing, but that also prevents necessary book and practical living learning. Perhaps we will get a better perspective on this strategy after the eclipse.


Concluding Thoughts


In general, most who view a total solar eclipse live are left with a sense of awe, though for how long is unclear. We also do not know much about the potential disappointment of not seeing it due to cloud cover, paralleling so many dashed expectations in life. The hoped for collective effervescence can certainly fizzle out. Perhaps the Robert Johnson legend reminds us of moral priorities. Conspiracy theories, which are common for this eclipse, evoke such moral questioning.

Keeping any sense of spiritual awe alive is important for eclipses and other similar events. That can be done by deliberate memory recalls and searching for awe-inspiring events. The benefits of awe are both positive for mental and physical health.


This article originally appeared on Psychiatric Times


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