Sun-eating demons? 7 bizarre (but brilliant) myths and superstitions about solar eclipses

Millions of Americans are gearing up for the Great American Eclipse on Aug. 21, the first total solar eclipse to cross the country coast to coast in nearly 100 years.

Folks are planning watch parties, community events and day trips to catch the once-in-a-generation celestial spectacle, but solar eclipses weren't always as popular as they are today.

In fact, the word “eclipse,” derived from the Greek term for “abandonment,” was literally seen as the sun abandoning the earth and its people, leaving everyone in the dark.

And over time, ancient cultures and religions applied the definition to a plethora of now-debunked mythological tales and superstitions.

Still, many people around the world still consider solar eclipses evil omens signaling the onset of destruction and death.

Here are nine bizarre myths or superstitions about solar eclipses:

1. Sun-eating demons make the sky go dark.

According to a variety of astronomers and historians, including Edwin Krupp of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California, ancient cultures around the globe often blamed sun-swallowing beasts for the abandoning sun.

The ancient Chinese apparently believed an evil dragon living among the stars devoured the sun and, according to Noel Wanner, producer and director of NASA-funded Ancient Observatories, they would create a big, noisy commotion during an eclipse to scare the dragon demon away.

Similar stories are prevalent in ancient Vietnamese legends, where the demon is either a giant frog or toad .

Other sun-eating demons, according to Wanner and Krupp: giant serpent (Mayans), giant bird (Hungarians), giant bear (Buryats in Siberia), fire dogs (Koreans).

2. Decapitated Hindu demon Rahu takes revenge on the sun and moon.

Seeking immortality, the Hindu demon Rahu, stole a magic potion disguised as a god. As described in ancient Indian mythology, both the sun and moon watch the crime unfold and warn the god Vishnu.

Eventually, as the tale goes, Vishnu decapitated Rahu so that his head would live forever, but his body would wither away and die.

To get even, a scorned Rahu chases the moon and sun and “every now and then he catches them and swallows them," Krupp said. But without a throat, the sun and the moon fall right through his head.

3. Mythical, thieving dogs are the culprits.

The Vikings believed a wolf named "Skoll" temporarily stole the sun, causing the eclipse. In her book, "Tales from Norse Mythology," Icelandic author Snorri Sturluson said the Norse tried to scare the wolf away by making a lot of noise.

4. Eclipses happen when the sun and moon are fighting.

Many ancient cultures saw eclipses (solar or lunar) as fights between the sun and moon.

For example, Inuit folklore says a solar eclipse occurs when the moon god Anningan, furious that his sister (sun goddess Malina) walked away during their fight, manages to catch up with his sister, Wanner said.

And in ancient Africa, the Batammaliba people in Togo and Benin also believed the two celestial beings were hashing it out during an eclipse. However, the myth acts a reminder for the Batammaliba people to "encourage the sun and the moon to stop fighting," cultural astronomer Jarita Holbrook told National Geographic.

“They see it as a time of coming together and resolving old feuds and anger,” she said. “It's a myth that has held to this day.”

5. Solar eclipses are dangerous to pregnant women and their unborn children.

To this day, Krupp said, people still call the Griffith Observatory before eclipses and ask if pregnant women and their unborn babies are in danger, a myth dating back to the Aztecs.

Though it’s a legends-old superstition, several Hispanic mothers-to-be are still fed the warning by older family members, causing additional anxiety.

The same is true for some religions and cultures in India, where pregnant women are still forbidden to go outside during an eclipse.

6. Food cooked during a solar eclipse is poisonous.

Many Indians also fast on the day of a solar (or lunar) eclipse in fear of being poisoned by food cooked or processed during that time.

7. Flowers planted during eclipse will be more vibrant than any others.

Unlike the myths above, some Italians have a more positive outlook on solar eclipses.  It's believed that the flowers you plant during the solar eclipse grow to be more vibrant than flowers planted at any other time. Unfortunately, there is no scientific evidence to back this claim (or any of the others mentioned).