It is a god, a goddess, a healer, a trickster. It is a passenger in a chariot, a sailor in a boat. It can grant wishes, deliver justice, and empower kings. And when it disappears in the middle of the day — well, just remember to put on your eclipse glasses.
Today, we know that the Sun is a star and that eclipses aren't omens. A total solar eclipse happens when the Sun, Earth, and Moon line up just so, the product of an exquisite astrophysical coincidence that makes the Moon and the Sun almost exactly the same size on the sky. Every year or two, a total solar eclipse happens somewhere on Earth; dedicated eclipse chasers can experience dozens in a lifetime.
What makes the solar eclipse coming up on Aug. 21 so special, then?
Location, location, location. This month's eclipse is the "American eclipse," so-called because people from Oregon to South Carolina will be able to see the Sun totally blanked out by the moon. (Coloradans: to see "totality," consider a drive to Wyoming or Nebraska.) The United States is the only country that gets to see the total eclipse, the first time in the country's history that an eclipse has tracked with such geographic specificity. And at this particular moment in history, even with your scientific thinking cap strapped on tight, you might find yourself wondering if there's a sign in that.
But what kind of sign? Personal accounts of eclipses quiver between beauty and revulsion, uplift and desolation, isolation and connectedness. Over the years, eclipses have been interpreted as omens of peace and omens of war, manifestations of cosmic chaos and proof of cosmic order. To escape the evil portent of the eclipse, Mesopotamian kings would temporarily abdicate the throne. In ancient China people banged pots and pans to scare away the "dragon" consuming the Sun.
These days, legions of "umbraphiles" veer toward the path of every total solar eclipse, anticipating the "jaw-dropping, knee-buckling, emotionally-overloading, completely overwhelming spectacle" of totality, as it's described on Eclipse2017.org, a web site run by umbraphile Dan McGlaun (12 eclipses and counting). They come expecting euphoria, awe, the rapture of a quasi-religious experience materializes from hard science.
But those that experience eclipses also talk about the fear: "primordial fear which sinks ever so slightly even the modern heart," per Eclipse2017. In an essay called "Total Eclipse," writer Annie Dillard, who experienced a 1979 total solar eclipse in central Washington, told her readers: "I pray you will never see anything more awful in the sky." (Whether that makes you want to go chase an eclipse or not is, I guess, a matter of temperament.)
Maybe we are not so different from our ancestors. We get scared. We look for signs. And when the sky goes dark, we are torn: Between science and superstition, fear and awe, euphoria and terror. Between the beginning of something, and the end of everything. As the Sun disappears, we wonder if this sudden cool and dark might, against all reason, be permanent.
Of course, we know it isn't. The Sun will be back in a few minutes. But what kind of America will it shine on? There's no cosmic omen for that. It's a question we have to answer on our own.