Friday, January 19, 2024

The Book of Symbols: Eclipse

Excerpted from The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. (ed. by Kathleen Martin. Taschen, 2010: 32.)

     Eerily beautiful sign of conjunction, a single spot of photospheric light shining through a gap on the moon's edge, or limb, appears "as a brilliant gem set on a band of ghostly, subdued coronal light," the so-called "diamond ring effect" (Mechler, 112). It occurs in a total solar eclipse second before the moon overlies the entire surface of the sun, casting the earth into untimely nightfall. 

    For our prescientific ancestors who feared the permanent extinction of the sun's vital light, the less than eight minutes spent in the 2,000 mph path of the umbra (shadow) of a total solar eclipse must have felt like an interminable time before the sun's seemingly miraculous reappearance. The wonder of the eclipse is that the apparent size of the sun and moon are nearly identical. This caused by the fact that the sun's diameter is 400 times greater than the moon's and at the same time 400 times more distant. The chance capacity of the moon to eclipse the sun's glowing core while revealing its fiery corona is considered by modern astronomers - who routinely view jeweled nebulae and the birth of stars - as one of the most sublime sights a human can witness. Traditional cultures everywhere, however, typically perceived the sun to be enshrouded by demonic forces as the midday breezes seized, temperatures dropped and birds began to roost. The entire village would gather to banish the baleful effects by shooting arrows at the malign spirits, frightening them off with drums or torchlight, sacrificing humpbacks or dwarfs or bury lamps underground in imitative magic.

    Eclipse, from the Greek ekleipsis, means abandonment, falling, cessation, omission or flaw. Solar eclipses happen when a dark or new moon, often mythically portrayed as inauspicious or dangerous because hidden, passes in front of the sun. A solar eclipse was experienced as the abandonment of the earth by the "omission" of its emblem of creation, life, warmth, light and consciousness. Out of time, darkness reigns, however briefly, associating eclipse with ominous possibilities - plague, earthquake, apocalypse, the death of a ruler or a savior. In partial eclipses, the planes of the orbits of the sun and moon are not perfectly aligned, and the moon cuts into only a portion of the sun's body, deforming it. Many peoples imagined an eclipse of the sun as a wounding or devouring of the solar principle by cosmic snake, jaguar, demon or dragon, forces of the night, dark and chthonic; in China, the ideogram for eclipse and eat (ch 'u) are identical. Others portrayed eclipse as pursuit and incestuous coitus between divine siblings. Alchemy represented solar eclipse as the descent of Sol into the lunar "fountain," or an encompassing of the masculine by the feminine -  Osiris by Isis, Christ by the Virgin Mary. Such images combined the themes of union, dissolution, deathly marriages or the "dead balance" of opposites canceling each other out. Yet it also portended the possibility of rebirth in the psychic matrix, or out of the symbolic coitus, the conception of a new spirit of double nature, solar and lunar.

    Eclipse means that the ordinary lights on which we depend are temporarily quenched. Nightly, sleep eclipses our waking awareness, which sinks exhausted into the liquid realm of dreams. More afflicting, the light of nature within ourselves can be eclipsed by affects, moods, traumas, and compulsions. Eclipse conveys the idea of the ego being overshadowed by the unconscious or the ego itself blocking the essential source of illumination. But while life can be eclipsed in many ways, the symbolism and science of celestial eclipse attest to a provisional extinguishing of the light, inevitably followed by its welcome resurgence. 

[Author cited: Mechler, Gary, et al. The Sun and the Moon. NY, 1995.] 

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