The solar eclipse of 2017 has meaning far beyond the moon passing in front of the sun.
By Mark D. Harris
21 August 2017 will be an important day in astronomical history. A total eclipse of the sun will occur, cutting a 70-mile-wide path from Salem, OR to Columbia, SC in the United States. The physics of this event would humble Einstein, with sun, moon, and earth moving through space in perfect time and position, finer even than Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Mikhail Baryshnikov at their most magnificent. There will be eclipse parties, eclipse merchandise, and millions of eclipse viewers, some acting as citizen scientists for the US National Air and Space Agency (NASA). Schools are closed, and visitors in Oregon are renting tents for the weekend for $1,500 to get a front row seat.
Why do so many people care so much about an event that will last two minutes? Astronomers, physicists, and other scientists want to study it, building mankind’s knowledge of the universe. Artists want to get words, images, and video for bestselling books, family files or feature films. Many regular people just want to experience solar totality, and have the chance to tell their friends about it. A few people, saints and poets perhaps, will ponder the mystery:
- Does this solar totality have any transcendent meaning, more than the seemingly random effect of the laws of motion?
- If it does, what does the eclipse mean in the life of the universe, the earth, the nations, and each individual?
- The ancients believed that eclipses portended great events, such as the advent of kings, the beginnings of wars, and natural disasters. Were they right? If so, what does this totality portend?
- Does this eclipse contain power that I can use to accomplish goals in my life? If so, how can I get it?
- Does this totality provide evidence of a transcendent reality, such as God, the Force, or something else?
There are as many other questions, and variations on these themes, as there are people who see the totality. Even those people who are indifferent to such events will pause, if only for an instant, when the sky goes dark at midday. To do otherwise would be less than human.
Observers will differ about whether the solar totality has meaning. Nihilists may argue that it has none, because transcendent meaning does not exist. Postmodernists will contest that since man is the ultimate standard of reality, the only meaning of such an event is what the individual or group places into it. Muslims will see the eclipse as the work of Allah, pagans as the movements of Mother Nature and cosmic deities, and Christians as an act of God. Some people won’t ask this question at all.
Whether an individual considers solar eclipses to have any transcendent meaning or not, such events have been considered omens since antiquity. The historian Herodotus credits a totality on 28 May 585 BC for stopping the Lydian-Median war. Traditional religious belief in Africa which has continued into modern times holds unusual events such as eclipses to be bad omens. A solar eclipse on 27 January 632 and visible in Medina presaged the death of Muhammad on 8 June 632. Even in modern times, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people worldwide consider eclipses to have meaning far beyond their impressive physics.
This question is the hardest yet, as it demands specificity rather than generalizations. The Bible argues that a host of astronomical events accompanied the birth and death of Christ. For Christians, this must be considered prima facie evidence that God uses, or at least used, the stars as signposts to history. Muslims may say the same about the coming of Muhammad, and Buddhists about the Buddha.
Asking what this particular solar totality means is tough, since no one knows what will happen after it. If a world leader dies, a natural disaster occurs, or some other major, news-worthy event follows, especially if it can be tied however loosely to the eclipse, many will associate the two. Some will even believe that the eclipse caused the incident. For example, if a major fire kills 50 people or if a local disease outbreak occurs on the track of totality within three months of the 2017 Great American eclipse, people will associate the two.
Ultimately, people want power to fulfill their needs and accomplish their goals. People who study eclipses or photograph them as part of their livelihood will see a direct, tangible benefit of the Great American Eclipse of 2017. Individuals that value eclipses for religious purposes will receive plaudits from the co-believers, and group leaders may enhance their spiritual authority in the eyes of their followers. Those who want a fun experience or bragging rights for their friends will get a return on their eclipse-viewing investment. Is there some other power, like the Force, that people can harness from an eclipse? Such power may exist, but either we don’t know it yet or it is not material (scientifically observable).
As with everything else in life, our assumptions will dictate our conclusions. Believers in God will see His work in every move of the sun and moon and in every beam of light. Non-believers will see mechanics, optics, and maybe a little beauty, but nothing behind it except what they put there.
Everyone should see one thing, at least. The Solar Totality of 2017 is an event over which man has no physical control. The mightiest nation, the wisest scientist, and the richest magnate are impotent against the forces of the galaxy. Yet these forces could destroy us all. A solar flare, a volcanic eruption, or a meteoric collision would devastate our carefully constructed modern world. Humility, not hubris, and preparation, not panic, are the right responses.
Millions of people in North America will enjoy the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017. They will learn, make money, appreciate the spectacle, get pictures, and brag to their friends. Yet hopefully they will consider, at least for a moment, the possibility that such events have a deeper meaning, one greater than whatever these modern observers put there. People in other cultures have seen these meanings for thousands of years – perhaps we can do the same.
 Herodotus, The Histories, Oxford’s World Classics. 1998. 1,74,2
 Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, Doubleday Anchor, 31, 94