Total Eclipse: Chasing the Myths

Mystery solved, but the magic intensifies

From the ancients in Asia who thought a dragon had eaten the sun to today’s high tech chasers, total solar eclipses have made people curious, anxious, exuberant and crazy.

Fear first motivated tribal peoples to try to do something about solar eclipses. The Mayans ate snakes, the Aztecs performed more sacrifices while other tribal people shot flaming arrows into the sky. Most looked skyward in fearful awe then let their imaginations and pagan belief systems kick in.

Not that much has changed down through the centuries. Even though modern astrophysics has solved the solar eclipse scientific mystery, a deeply emotional wonderment still drives us to do things we wouldn’t normally do. As the moon’s ominous shadow provides us with nature’s most beautiful sensory experience, we go many miles out of our way to fully experience a solar eclipse.

Bears, vampires and a celestial tryst

You can’t blame the ancient tribes for being scared out of their loincloths when the sun disappeared in the middle of the day further unsettling their already precarious world. The Pomo in Northern California thought a rampaging bear had eaten the sun. In Bolivia, they envisioned an evil king had sent fire dogs to steal the son. The Tartars in Western Siberia cowered and conjured a vampire swallowing the sun. Alaska’s Tlingit and Australia’s aboriginals had a common amorous explanation. The moon and the sun were lovers and just needed some darkened privacy.

Mexico’s Maya weren’t afraid; instead they used their high tech numerical system to start unraveling the mystery. These sun worshipers knew a total solar eclipse was a life changing event, and the Maya hierarchy figured if they could predict the next eclipse it could show their power and be a form of social control. By noting the dates of previous solar events they were able to predict future events using their 20-based numerical system. Cycles in the solar system corresponded to cycles in the human body the Maya believed. Instead of superstition they used their science and get credit along with the ancient Greeks in first deciphering the celestial magic.

Chasing totality

It wasn’t until Einstein’s theory of relativity and Sir Arthur Eddington’s confirmation of it following the 1919 solar eclipse that led to the modern age’s eclipse chase. It was part science/part bravado when non-scientists got in the chase. Navy pilot Alvin Peterson’s flight in a dirigible over New York to see the 1925 solar eclipse, led to the first film footage of a total eclipse. He shot reels of footage, but paid a chilling price after spending two hours atop the dirigible at high altitude —severe frostbite.

The jet age ushered in the supersonic eclipse chase. In 1973 scientists chartered the Concorde and were able to use its 1,250 miles an hour speed to fly over Africa and stay within that solar eclipse’s path of totality for a record 74 minutes.

Tusker style eclipse tourism

Tusker founder Eddie Frank was in the vanguard of eclipse tourism starting in 1983 and has since led eclipse trips in Africa, Australia and Mongolia along with astrophysicist Dr. Laurence Doyle of the SETI Institute. They pursue eclipses with the intellectual fervor of the ancient Mayans and Greeks, combined with the awe of those loin clothed tribesmen who knew these moments were life altering.

Tusker’s next eclipse trip is slated for December 2020 in Patagonian Chile. Laurance will set up a viewing camp outside Temuco on the umbral center line Dec. 14 for the best totality viewing. Earlier in the trip the group spends time at Cerro Tololo Observatory, South America’s premier telescope and astrophysical research station.

Patagonia is among the most spectacular places on Tusker’s map and to have a total solar eclipse there is a meeting of two special worlds. The worlds of true adventure travel’s earthly physical challenges in pristine nature will be combined with the age old wonderment of a total solar eclipse.

It’s almost as rare a confluence as when the moon obstructs the sun. Try to be part of it.

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