The Eclipse

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Beam of the Sun!
O Thou that seest afar,
What wilt thou be devising?
O Mother of mine eyes!
O star supreme,
Reft from us
In the daytime!
Why hast thou perplexed
The power of man and the way of wisdom,
By rushing forth on a darksome track?


 Beyond the land of the Kalmucks and the Kirghis, beyond the mighty vertebrae of Central Asia known as the Kunlun, the Tien Shan and the Altai Mountains, even at the threshold of Siberia and Lake Baikal, the ancestors of the Ugric peoples shared their fires and the warmth of their dreams with the forefathers of the Indo-Europeans. At a very remote period these ancient folk formulated from their shared visions and creative genius the basic patterns of many of the world's great myths. They did not separate themselves from the phenomena of nature but readily identified their own inner struggles with the polarities displayed within the cosmos at large. Being hunters who regularly confronted dangerous beasts, it was meaningful to them to symbolize the foe as an animal and particularly one of monstrous form. Thus, for countless centuries the Buriat have asserted that the monster Alka can darken the world. Once when he did this, they say, the gods became so angry, they cut his body in two. The hind-part fell down but the fore-part still haunts the sky, and every time Alka swallows a star, it soon appears again, since the beast is unable to retain it in his body.

 Some say this tale originated in India, where the monster's name is Rahu. It is suggested that the name was corrupted from Rahu to Arakho to Alka. But the idea is older than the name Rahu, whose Indian prototype in Vedic times was Svarbhanu, and its roots seem to grow from a proto-Indo-European source. So ubiquitous is the myth in Asia, its appeal is not confined by the parameters of any one religion. In the Buddhist tradition it is claimed that when the deities of the sun and the moon are assailed by Rahu, they turn to the Buddha for shelter. "Rahu," says Sakyamuni, "the deity of the moon has had recourse to me; let go of the moon, for the Buddhas pity the world." Whereupon the demon departs in terror, reflecting that had he harmed the moon, his head would have blown into seven parts.

 In the Hindu tradition it is said that Surya and Soma live in enmity with Rahuketu, who ever seeks to swallow them. This enmity began at the time of the Great Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Once the ambrosia had been taken by the gods and the poison swallowed by Lord Shiva, the Asuras despaired and decided to war against the gods for the possession of both the ambrosia and Lakshmi, the moon. After being duped by Narayana, they were frustrated, but Rahuketu, in the form of a god, had already begun to drink the sacred ambrosia. The nectar had reached only his throat, however, when he was discovered, and with his discus Narayana clove his neck, and he leapt forth into the sky, where he has ever warred with the sun and moon, as Rahu and Ketu, the north and south lunar nodes.

 The notion that an animal of some monstrous nature - a dragon, an evil serpent or a werebeast - continually threatened these all-important celestial orbs has been very widespread in the world. Some, like the Slavic peoples, believed that a vukodlak (werewolf) followed the clouds and continually attempted to devour them. The ancient Mexicans identified the threat in the being of the god Tezcatlipoca, the Dragon of the Eclipse and patron of magicians. He was called the Transformer, taking the shape of a werebeast in jaguar form, and he was very dangerous to men during the hours of the night or when he had gained ascendancy over the sun. Many people have responded to eclipses ritually through a show of sympathetic magic, like the Ojibwa, who shot fire-tipped arrows towards the darkened solar orb in an effort to rekindle it. The Chilkat Indians attempted to counter the effects by tucking up their robes as they did when travelling. Leaning on staves as though heavily burdened, they walked in a circle in order to support the failing steps of the Sun as he turned his weary way in the sky. In just such a manner did the ancient Egyptian Sun Kings circumambulate a temple until a solar eclipse was over.

 Some of the Orinoco tribes bury lighted brands in the ground in an effort to keep the moon from being extinguished and, by extension, all fires on earth. They, like so many other people, see a close connection between cycles and the presence of light and life in the world. An eclipse is feared because it bodes an end to all that men cling to, the obscuration of consciousness and growth. Even the death and birth of epochs is feared, for all that is part of custom and culture is often violently altered by shifts in historical forces. Some, like the Aztecs, tried to inure themselves psychologically to this ultimately inevitable obscuration through sports such as the game of tlachtli, where the ball, representing the sun, is kept aloft and moving as long as possible before it is eclipsed by falling through a stone hoop. The player responsible for this forfeited his life as part of an attempt by the Aztecs to stave off the forces of darkness through sacrifice.

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon,
Irrecoverably dark, total eclipse
Without all hope of day!

John Milton

 The old Nordic myths frequently point to the doom of the gods and the destruction of the world as marked by total eclipse. The withdrawal of the gods is itself a theme accompanied by darkness and each era of mankind is shrouded with the danger of moving further from the source of light. Thus, in the ancient traditions of the East it is said that the Ashwatha Tree of Life and the Serpent (Logos) of Eternity became degraded in the "terrestrial mud of the Garden of Eden" which is symbolic of our epoch. In this way the Serpent, like Time (Kala), fell into space and became the Polar Dragon - Alpha Draconis - which ever threatens but never swallows the sun during its eclipses. The beginning of the dark age of Kali Yuga was heralded by a solar eclipse on February 18th, five thousand and eighty-four years ago [Ed: from July 1982]. Fourteen days later a lunar eclipse further marked the progressive involvement of man in the material miasma of the world, and the course became set whereby human consciousness would complete the business of turning itself inside out, as it were, in its identification with externals. The calamity of this event was focussed by some in Lucifer's fall from heaven. Milton conveyed this beautifully when he wrote:

It was that fatal and perfidious bark,
Built in th' eclipse, and rigged with curses dark,
That sunk so low that sacred head of thine.

 Many ancient records of eclipses are to be found in the annals and chronicles of various cultures. Some are quite precise, some assimilated so as to coincide with other important events, and some are magical, regarded as omens marking a battle or the death of a king, which itself was seen as the end and beginning of a new epoch. Over four thousand years ago the Chinese emperor Chung K'ang had just mounted the throne when two court astrologers who were entrusted with the complex order of the calendar became drunk and failed to observe and calculate the phenomena surrounding the solar eclipse of 2154 B.C. For this negligence the pair were punished with death, indicating something of the importance placed upon the proper recording of such events. Solar eclipses were considered grave omens and over one thousand of them are noted in Chinese court annals. Herodotus wrote of one foretold by Thales the Milesian to the lonians which was based on an ancient recognition of cycles of eclipses (saros), wherein they were believed to occur occasionally in triads. This eclipse took place on May 28, 584 B.C.- during the sixth year of a battle between the Lydians and the Medes and marked a turning-point in the war. Herodotus also described the advent of the march of Xerxes towards Abydos when "the sun suddenly quitted his seat in the heavens, and disappeared, though there were no clouds in sight". His magicians said that "the sun foretold for them, and the moon for us", but they were mistaken and what they took as a good omen was actually bad.

And it shall come to pass in that day,
Saith the Lord God,
That I will cause the sun to go down at noon,
And I will darken the earth in the clear day.


 The obscuration of the world's source of light is usually taken as an evil omen, the accommodating magicians of Xerxes notwithstanding, and the very word 'eclipse' implies a loss. The Greek εκλειπσις (ekleipsis) literally means 'disappearance' and is related to words which indicate failure, a growing weakness or falling away. A forsaking is implied, which is probably what inspired Pindar to describe the "star supreme" as κλεπτομενον (kleptomenon) or "reft from us". Forsaking their subjects by their deaths, the passing of heroes and kings has been continually identified with solar eclipses. The Old Norse sagas tell of the eclipse of A.D. 1030, when Olaf Haraldsson was killed in battle whilst trying to regain his throne. On May 1st of A.D. 1185 the Icelandic Annals depict the fall of King Magnus Erlingsson, when darkness covered Oslo and the southern lands in the midst of day. A frightening eclipse was said to have heralded the death of King Henry of England in A.D. 1135, just as the earlier Anglo-Saxon Chronicles had recorded royal deaths and great battles and eclipses which occurred during Lent, when men even feared that the advent of the primeval chaos was nigh.

 An eclipse is disturbing. Even animals who have no elaborate symbolic beliefs are frightened by them. Wherever solar eclipses have occurred in modern times, people are deeply affected and some will do everything to shield themselves from what they believe to be their evil effects. Despite the pervasive and profane curiosity of modern science and its large body of empirical knowledge concerning the phenomenon, the idea persists that something foreboding occurs during an eclipse. The literature of ancient history and modern religion abound in descriptions of eclipses as omens of evil, disruption or danger. The day Odysseus slew the false pretenders to his throne was marked by a total eclipse over the island of Ithaca. The defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse and the death of Julius Caesar in Rome were signalled by Greater Nature in the same cataclysmic fashion. Frequently the human event and the actual eclipse were fictitiously assimilated into each other, as in the case of the solar eclipse that was said to have accompanied Caesar's much-touted crossing of the Rubicon (which Plutarch claimed to have been accomplished at night) and the death of Jesus the Christ as described in the Chronicon of Eusebius (c. A.D. 325). In the chronicle Eusebius chose an eclipse reputed to have occurred at a convenient time and, in assimilating it to the time that "Christ went to his Passion", tried to imply that it had been the greatest eclipse known in history and that it was worldwide.

 Apart from such distortions and embellishments engaged in primarily for political purposes, many ancient peoples possessed a remarkable knowledge of eclipses and were skilled in the sacred science of celebrating them and even predicting them. It was known to some, like the builders of Stonehenge, that the sun's path, as it appears to us in the sky, can be taken as the same from year to year, whilst the moon's path changes. Its orbit slews around causing the nodes where the solar and lunar paths cross to move along the sun's path. The nodes complete a circuit of the sun's orbit every 18.61 years, the cycle which Thales knew by the Chaldean name 'saros', which simply means 'repetition'. The Chaldeans and the builders of Stonehenge knew that upon the completion of each saros, the meeting of the sun and the moon will be a little further along the solar ecliptic until a series is completed extending over thirteen to fourteen centuries, which would be made up of saros intervals.

 It is only at these nodal points that an eclipse can occur, and one can deduce their whereabouts by observing the changing swing of moonrise and moonset which is brought about by the slewing around of the moon's orbit. Because the bodies involved are large, they do not have to be exactly in line in order for an eclipse to occur. The collinearity can deviate up to one degree from earth to moon, and the moon can be up to ten degrees from a nodal point at the time of eclipse. A lunar eclipse occurs at full moon if the moon and sun are each within ten degrees of the opposite node points, and a solar eclipse occurs at new moon if the moon and sun are within ten degrees of the same node point. The builders of Stonehenge dug holes as fixed reference points in a circle. Two further stones representing the nodes were moved by three holes per year, so as to make a complete circuit every 18.67 years. A marker moved by two holes each day completed a circuit in twenty-eight days, or a lunar cycle. The positions of the sun, moon and the nodal points could thus be predicted: by moving a sun marker one hole each six and a half days, moving markers for the nodal points by three holes each year, and moving the moon marker one hole each morning and one each evening.

 Because these ancient builders knew there were 365.25 days in a year, they could extrapolate the sun's motion from a given position. It moves less than one degree per day (360/365.25°), which is easily measured by refined metal instruments such as we have today. Not possessing such tools, these early scientists made a very large circle which would enable them to preserve accuracy whilst using stone. They divided the circle into fifty-six subdivisions (56 x A½ x 13 = 364), leaving an error of a little more than one degree, which was acceptable in the light of the fact that the rules which determine the occurrence of eclipses only require knowledge of the position of the sun to within ten degrees. By resetting the stone with suitable accuracy every summer and winter solstice, the error was virtually eliminated.

 Since there are so few total solar eclipses in one area during a century, it is thought unlikely that the builders of Stonehenge were primarily engaged in solar prediction, but rather that of lunar eclipses which may be expected to occur about twice a year. There is, however, the possibility that these wise astronomers were interested in more than marking time in one part of the world. It seems highly likely that they understood and pursued the arcane teaching which stresses the unity of the whole globe as a living being whose parts respond in immediate sympathy with each other as they are affected by solar and lunar eclipses. Because of this, it is likely that they were very much focussed upon the prediction of solar as well as lunar eclipses. To them the solar and lunar eclipses were connected with universal cycles of death and rebirth; the masculine side of nature involved in this twice a century, the feminine side twice a year. The marker stones must have held for them the qualities of divinities as they were moved in what was a matter of ritual as well as science. The lunar goddess is required to jump certain holes in her more rapid movements, and there is one point in each year when the fast-moving moon arrives during a twenty-six-day stay made by the sun at a particular position to reside there in the same territory for a while. This junction takes place at what is referred to as position 94 at Stonehenge - a mound within the larger circle which, in modern times, is ironically and even sacrilegiously traversed by a visitor's path. The sun and the moon, when in positions of conjunction or opposition, as they are during a solar or lunar eclipse, are referred to as syzygy: a heavenly couple poised in juxtapositions which reveal the essence of their true relationship. The Tlingit Indians intuited something of this when they asserted that a solar eclipse was caused by the moon whenever she visited her husband, the sun.

 By the second millennium B.C., the concept of constructing instruments with which to observe the mysteries of the cosmos was gone. Astronomy gave way to numerology, which eventually evolved into the science of mathematics on the one hand and blind ritualism on the other. Increasingly, eclipses were primarily of interest as omens and regarded with fatalistic dread. Partial eclipses, which are difficult to detect by the naked eye, occurred largely unheeded, and the observation of totality did not elicit a refinement of curiosity or accuracy of record. One might say that ancient science itself had been eclipsed and was to remain so for a considerable length of time. Only very gradually did observers notice the stars that could be seen during total solar eclipses. Venus was noticed to be the brightest and most commonly seen without instruments, and others were identified as appearing at increasing degrees of eclipse magnitude. Greater interest was focussed upon the shadow phenomena (the umbra and penumbra) occurring during eclipse. Since the earth and moon shine by light reflected from the sun, each body casts a long shadow stretching out in space. That of the moon is cast upon the earth during a solar eclipse and that of the earth upon the moon during a lunar eclipse. Modern science has identified corrugations of waves of light reaching the earth from the sun during its eclipse. Through irregularities in the refraction of the earth's atmosphere, these appear as shadow bands moving over the earth's surface.

 When the moon eclipses the sun, it appears to be moving from west to east. After one and one-quarter hours the solar crescent grows very thin and daylight seems to be dusk. Then the Total Phase begins and within seconds all direct sunlight vanishes, the sky grows dark, the brightest stars become visible and the black disc of the moon appears to be projected onto the pale halo of the sun's corona. It is an unforgettable spectacle, lasting a little over seven minutes, after which daylight suddenly reappears. The total eclipse of the moon lasts one and three-quarters hours, during which time the lunar orb is visible and possesses a peculiar ruddy hue caused by sunlight refracted by the earth's atmosphere, much like the effect observed at sunset. Unlike the case of the sun, whose total eclipse is observed as a fifty-mile-wide path arching across a portion of the globe, a lunar eclipse presents the same features at all places on earth wherever the moon would be otherwise visible above the horizon.

 Continual refinement of instruments and observation by modern astronomers, who frequently travel to very remote places in order to observe each total solar eclipse, has produced a fascinating array of technical data. They have learnt that as the disc of the sun is covered by the moon during Total Phase, the solar flux in each wavelength region is progressively reduced, and no solar radiation reaches the earth at the time of totality for seven and a half minutes. There is also a variation of ion composition and changes in electron and ion temperature affecting the transport effects associated with them. In addition to this, there are changes in minor constituent concentrations in the D-region of the surface altering their effect upon electron loss coefficients and ion chemistry. The ozone concentration increases rapidly, accompanying the whole spectrum of transformations engaging the material which the Hindu Puranas describe as the Rishi's red cloth, which is but a shell of matter surrounding the real invisible sun. This 'robe' of the sun is made up of all the chemical elements to be found on earth and on every other planet, but on the solar globe they exist in a more 'developed' state. Our earth must necessarily become far more refined before its elements could match the condition of those within that chromosphere, whilst the irradiant white light of the corona reveals to our eyes visible evidence of the invisible sun that lies behind.

 By what science calls "a remarkable coincidence", the sizes and distances of the sun and moon are such that they subtend very nearly the same angle (about one-half degree) at the earth (though their apparent sizes are not constant due to the elliptical nature of their orbits). This means that during a total solar eclipse the distance from the centre of the sun to that of the moon is manifestly equivalent to the difference between the distance from the sun to the earth and from the earth to the moon. This suggests a relationship of such perfect balance and interdependence as to defy mere coincidence. The solar 'flash spectrum' visible at the initial moment of totality and at its end is explained in physical terms as an excitation of ionized helium caused by temperatures of twenty-five thousand degrees Kelvin. In occult terms this is seen as a macrocosmic production of what goes on in the human mind when one experiences an illuminating flash of understanding which, though short-lived, is capable of leading to the next phase where the pure white light of spirit reveals the voidness of the seeming full.

 The mind principle in man is endowed with the 'spirit' of our visible sun. This spirit manifests beyond the threshold of the 'flash spectrum' in the beautiful halo of the eclipsed sun. When the seeming reality of the sun's robe has been covered over by him whose mind is fixed in noetic contemplation, the solar corona shines like finely etched white frost against the deep blue of the eclipse-darkened sky. Sometimes the rays extend four to five solar diameters away from the masked orb. Temperatures of over five hundred thousand degrees Kelvin are accompanied by exploding gases and short-wave radiation, making possible long-distance radio transmissions within the earth's atmosphere. With the eclipse (the obliteration of physical consciousness) "a window is cut into the Real Solar Presence". One who follows the analogy and sees the perfect correspondence between the microcosmic and the macrocosmic planes will realize that the chemical and electrical changes occurring at the time of solar eclipse are in essence the same as those affecting the physical vestures of a meditating human being whose consciousness is merged with the invisible Parent Sun.

 Man, in his efforts to purify himself, unites himself by degrees to his prototype in heaven. As he does, he is drawn higher into that ray which supersedes the lower, causing it to break away, until he is drawn into the highest beam of the Parent Sun, It is taught that upon the death of one who has attained moksha, the soul goes from the heart of the body to the crown of the head, traversing the sushumna nerve. From thence it goes to the region of Surya Mandala along the solar rays and, entering into the seeming void of the invisible Sun, is released into Paramapadha, the essence of the body of Ishwara. Thus it is that the eclipse of the physical sun does not necessarily mean to the enlightened man what it has meant for so many people historically. Far from being seen as an evil omen, it is observed as an opportunity to intensify one's microcosmic efforts to go beyond the shell of appearances to the source of life itself by following the narrow path which begins as the shadowed swath cut by the darkened sun across the earth and ends at the hidden heart of the universe.

 The eclipse of the moon might be thought to symbolize the obscuration of that which is dangerous or evil, but it is important to remember that the beam that lights up the moon is the sushumna ray of the Sun (the vital spiritual force in man). Thus, man can revere the moon as transmitter of life, realizing that it provides the rhythm of growth but not the eternal goal towards which it tends. If he tarries not in the lunar graveyards of the world, he can achieve a proper rhythm - acting through the lunar whilst focussing his eye on the sun. It is through knowledge of the moon goddess (initiation) that one can become her husbandman. Why is it that a lunar eclipse took place fourteen days after the solar eclipse which marked the beginning of Kali Yuga? This would seem to have to do with the maximum separation of the syzygy: the solar and lunar forces operating in the cosmos and in man, whose sexual separation symbolizes the furthest fall of spirit into matter.

 Looked at in this light, a lunar eclipse can be interpreted as inauspicious. It results in a blockage of the sushumna ray, a drying up of the soma juice needed to fuel the rhythmic journey towards the inner solar seat. But the cycle of lunar eclipse is more rapid than that of the sun and, what with the constant variations in the phases of the moon, seems far less irregular. For a woman, the microcosmic cycle involves a death and rebirth every twenty-eight days. For the earth, the birth and death occurs twice a year. Men do not experience the same rhythmic cycle and must, by their natures, strive to recognize the larger cycle involving two solar eclipses in a century or, perhaps, in a lifetime. Early on, however, this division must break down, for men and women contain both forces in their natures and must learn to balance and interpret them much in the same way as the wise builders of Stonehenge.

 The shadow cast by the eclipsed sun extinguishes the light in such a way as to make men fearful of its analogue in man. A human being from whom the light has fled would be soulless. The umbra covering their eyes and the penumbra surrounding them is terrifying to behold. But the enlightened man realizes that for lives they mistook the physical for the real sun and clutched at its light at the expense of others. The wise man does not become focussed upon the shadows moving across the earth's surface but sees them as one side of the mayavic coin which delineates the realm of duality. It is not easy to achieve this lofty perspective. A terrible struggle lies in store for the candidate for adeptship, between himself and his personified human passions; between the enlightened man and the fallen serpent or dragon who ever tries to devour him. The hero becomes the dragon slayer and casts off his old skin in order to be reborn as the Son of the Immortal Serpent of Eternity. This struggle is analogous to the vast cycle of the great War in Heaven as well as the lesser saros cycles of solar eclipses and the eclipses of the moon. The Fall itself is a great eclipse and it takes place on many levels. Man is Surya, Lakshmi and Rahu at once. He needs desperately to make himself once again whole; not as an animal but as a radiant god whose single Eye of Shiva perfectly conjoins the syzygy of the sun and his faithful servant and spouse known to the world as the moon. This is the eye which cuts like a window in the Real Solar Presence and releases the radiant corona, which acts as a blessing and a guide to the rest of struggling humanity.

O yes! eclipse
That which in me
Bars the way of the Sun.
Cast in shadow that
Which shines for self
And forgets the lamp-lighter.
Eclipse the doubt
And let me soar
Through the flaming ring of Shiva's Eye.