The Eclipse as Life Renewal for Native American Nations
Eclipses are monumental analogies of death as the portal of renewal.
Seneca, in his Naturaes quaestiones, wrote that “the sun lacks a public until it begins to disappear. No one looks at the moon until it is overshadowing. It’s then that cities shout together and everyone makes a big fuss over a silly superstition.”
But “silly” superstitions, as the philosopher called them, are part of ancient worldviews and religions that have given meaning to the lives of communities and nations around the world. Even Heraclitus and Anaximander postulated ideas about eclipses completely contrary to those of modern science (such as that the hollow of the sky had turned or that the light of the sun had passed through the interior of the moon).
Eclipses are not always lived with a “big fuss.” Members of the Navajo nation of Fort Defiance, Arizona, believe that the occurrence of an eclipse is a time to be lived in silence, meditation, and recollection – in short, with a stoic attitude very similar to the very one espoused by Seneca.
For the Navajo, an eclipse is a time of renewal, like restarting a computer, to allow that which is no longer useful to go away and to allow in that which is new. The time of an eclipse is about abstaining from eating, drinking and talking while meditating in silence on what we hope the future to be.
This vision contrasts with that of the Crow Nation in Montana. This year’s eclipse coincided with an annual dance marking the Crow New Year. For the Crow, the sun dies and then returns to life. The current celebration involves a day off for schools and workplaces in respect to tradition. Still, for the Crow, eclipses are lived as a kind of taboo. Just as scientists advise not looking directly at the sun during an eclipse, ancestors of the Crow forbid the observation of the phenomenon, because doing so allowed negativity to enter into all the aspects of life.
This strict prohibition again contrasts with the experience of the Cherokee nation, where eclipses are marked by parties and scandal, enough to turn off even Seneca. For the Cherokee, an eclipse of sun or moon occurs because an enormous frog is attempting to devour the celestial body. It’s thus necessary to fire guns, to play drums and to make enough noise to drive it off. At the eclipse’s end, the party celebrates the frog’s defeat.
No matter where or how you’ve lived this past eclipse, you’ll probably think of it is a natural phenomenon that cultures around the world have explained through multiple means. All of them obey a traditional logic. It’s a good time to make an assessment of our lives and to allow ourselves a moment to renew after a period of darkness. As the sun emerges from temporary captivity in shadow, it will shine once more with a renewed energy.
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