The Great American Eclipse

On Monday, 21 August 2017, all of North America will experience an eclipse of the sun, with a total eclipse stretching from Oregon to South Carolina. During this event, the moon will completely cover the sun, and the sun’s corona will extend its golden tendrils from behind a shadowed veil. Solar eclipses have been held responsible for the fall of empires, the onset of wars, the birth and death of great people, and the onset of terrible plagues and natural disasters. Is this rare and awe-inspiring event an omen? Grab your nearest soothsayer or augur; it’s big business for seers this year!

This series is a paean to this once in a lifetime event: an amber-gilded sampling of the poetry, prose, notable persons, mythology, and historical accounts surrounding solar eclipses.

The Great American Eclipse - Biblical Catastrophes

  • The Curtain of the Temple was Torn in Two

    By now it was about midday and a darkness fell over the whole land, which lasted until three in the afternoon; the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus gave a loud cry and said, ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit’; and with these words he died.

    Radiant golden amber suffused with holy incense smoke compounded from acacia, myrrh, cassia, balsam, frankincense, cinnamon, onycha accord, and galbanum.

The Great American Eclipse - Historical Accounts, Landmarks, and Personages

  • 18 June 1860

    On this date, the first wet plate photograph of an eclipse was taken. Shimmering amber, collodion, silver nitrate accord, and white lavender.

  • In Hideous Darkness

    The elements manifested their sorrow at this great man’s departure from England. For the Sun on that day at the 6th hour shrouded his glorious face, as the poets say, in hideous darkness, agitating the hearts of men by an eclipse; and on the 6th day of the week early in the morning there was so great an earthquake that the ground appeared absolutely to sink down; an horrid noise being first heard beneath the surface.
    – Historia Novella, William of Malmesbury on the death of Henry I

    Golden amber and ambergris, sage and white cedar, rockrose, bourbon tobacco, and vetiver.

  • Mabel

    Mabel Loomis Todd is probably best known as the first editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and editor of publications of Dickinson’s posthumous works. She was also a fearless and experienced adventuress, eclipse chaser and astronomer, and trekked over the globe locating unobscured sites to witness solar eclipses. She published Total Eclipses of the Sun in 1894, a list of past and future total solar eclipses, and recorded her experiences in her travels through painting and journals.

    Rose-tinted amber, golden chypre, ambergris, tobacco leaf, and clove.

  • Nothing is Unexpected, Nothing is Foresworn

    Nothing is unexpected, nothing is foresworn and
    Nothing amazes now that father Zeus the Olympian
    veiled the light to make it night at midday
    even as sun was shining: so dread fear has overtaken men.
    From this time on everything that men believe
    will be doubted: may none of us who see this be surprised
    when we see forest beasts taking turns in the salted field
    with dolphins, when the echoing waves of the sea become
    Dearer to them than the sand, and the dolphins love the wooded glen
    – Archilochus

    Red amber and heady red wine, benzoin, ash, and bourbon vanilla.

  • Oil and Pitch

    It has been known since antiquity that looking directly at an eclipse can cause serious damage to the eyes. Islamic scholar, Al-Biruni, observed that you could minimize the damage by viewing an eclipse reflected in the surface of still water. In his Naturales Quaestiones, Seneca observed, “Whenever we want to watch an eclipse of the Sun we set out basins filled with oil or pitch, because the heavy liquid is not easily disturbed and so preserves the images it receives.”

    Amber swirled in opoponax, black labdanum, and poplar tar.

  • The Drunk Astronomers

    Credit for some of the first recorded accounts of eclipses are attributed to the legendary Drunk Astronomers, Ho and Hsi, circa 2137 BCE. Ho and Hsi were royal astronomers in the court of Chung K’ang. They were in charge of predicting the celestial dance – all movements of the Heavenly Bodies. They were also reprobates, and spent a fair amount of their time in debauch, drinking and carousing. In a drunken stupor – though they knew an eclipse was imminent – they failed to notify the emperor of the event, and they failed to perform the sacred rites that would prevent the celestial dragon from consuming the mighty sun. They were summarily decapitated for creating chaos and confusion in the celestial chain by leaving their duties unperformed.

    Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hsi,
    Whose fate, though sad, is risible;
    Being slain because they could not spy
    The eclipse which was invisible.

    Jasmine tea, blood musk, and pale yellow amber.

  • The Sun in Anger Swore

    And the moon in haste eclipsed her,
    and the Sun in anger swore
    He would curl his wick within him
    and give light to you no more.
    – Aristophanese, Chorus of Clouds

    A withdrawn, seething red amber spiked with dragon’s blood resin, black pepper, red musk, and red oudh.

  • The Thales Eclipse

    In the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night. And this change of the day Thales the Milesian had foretold to the Ionians laying down as a limit this very year in which the change took place. The Lydians however and the Medes, when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased from their fighting and were much more eager both of them that peace should be made between them.
    – Herodotus, on a prediction of by Thales of Miletus

    Red amber and leather, patchouli, champaca flower, frankincense, oudh, castoreum accord, and black musk.

The Great American Eclipse - Songs of Midday Darkness

  • All Ruinous Disorders

    These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Though the wisdom of nature can reason it thus and thus, yet nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide, in cities mutinies, in countries discord, in palaces treason, and the bond cracked ’twixt son and father. This villain of mine comes under the prediction—there’s son against father. The king falls from bias of nature—there’s father against child. We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves. Find out this villain, Edmund. It shall lose thee nothing. Do it carefully.—And the noble and true-hearted Kent banished, his offense honesty! ‘Tis strange, strange.
    – William Shakespeare, King Lear

    Amber, bergamot, and honeyed saffron blackened by smoked oudh, patchouli, ti leaf, scorched thistle, leather, and yew.

  • Disastrous Twilight

    As when the Sun, new risen,
    Looks through the horizontal misty air,
    Shorn of his beams, or from behind the Moon,
    In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds
    On half the nations and with fear of change
    Perplexes monarchs.
    – John Milton, Paradise Lost

    Star-touched blue amber, gurjum balsam, pale orris, Somalian myrrh, benzoin, red sandalwood, and ylang ylang.

  • Eclipses Be

    Eclipses be – predicted –
    And Science bows them in –
    But do one face us suddenly –
    Jehovah’s watch – is wrong.
    – Emily Dickinson

    Rose amber, carnation, and clove.

  • The Sun Has Perished

    …and the Sun has perished
    out of heaven,
    and an evil mist hovers over all.
    – Homer, the Odyssey

    An evil mist hovers over all: Tunisian amber, wilted asphodel, myrrh, and smoke.