Solar Eclipse

People are often very fond of the Sun, which is understandable. The Sun is very pleasant, at least at this distance. It warms and cheers us, makes things grow, and so on. Many people take this fondness for the Sun to extremes. Their form of worship involves a sojourn or a ‘pilgrimage’ to a far away land, taking off all their clothes, and lying near-naked, basking in the rays of the Sun, until it makes them quite ill, or at least very red. Scientists have decided that this form of worship is dangerous.

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Worship of the Sun and Moon goes back to ancient times. The ancient Egyptians, Aztecs, Chinese, Hindus and Indonesians all engaged in some form of solar worship, including the magnificent shaman power associated with a total eclipse. After all, there’s probably no end of power to be gleaned from such a stirring sight, given the tendency towards superstition in many ancient peoples and cultures.

The practice of solar worship was not unknown on our own shores. Even though the function and purpose of prehistoric monuments such as Stonehenge have long been debated, it is worth considering the possible ‘cosmic’ aspect of its construction. Many scholars have believed Stonehenge to be a kind of astronomical observatory for Sun-based rituals to encourage a good yield from the crops.

Much of the hypotheses in the past revolved around the summer solstice. However, there is growing evidence that our ancestors did not visit at all in the summer, but rather during the winter solstice: the only other megalithic monuments in the British Isles to contain a clear, compelling solar alignment are Newgrange and Maeshowe, which both famously face the winter solstice.

As the year wears on, the path of the Sun moves more southerly with each passing month. Could it be that these ancient cultures built their monuments to somehow appeal to the Sun, at the end of each year, to arrest its journey south and return for another summer of growing the following year?

And how might an alien culture react to a stellar eclipse?

That was exactly the kind of question posed by the celebrated science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov. His 1941 story Nightfall imagined an alien civilisation living on a planet which orbited within a six-star system — as a result, total darkness is unknown.

Then, the planet's scholars discover that once every 2,000 years or so the one sun visible is eclipsed, resulting in a brief ‘night’. Such an eclipse soon occurs once more, and chaos ensues…