When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun –  STEM Café, August 21, 2017

Speaker Richard Cooler wearing a t-shirt celebrating the total eclipse of 1995, which he observed in Cambodia. Both the t-shirt and the silver betel boxes he holds depict Rahu swallowing the sun.

Residents in the northern Illinois region will be able to see a rare solar eclipse on August 21, 2017, during mid-day. To celebrate this unique event, NIU STEM Café will host “Solar Eclipse: When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun” from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Two Brothers Roundhouse, 205 N. Broadway in Aurora.

Richard Cooler, NIU Professor Emeritus of Art History and Southeast Asian Studies, and archaeoastronomist Christopher Davis, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will share explanations of the solar eclipse from mythologies and scientific reports in ancient cultures. Ryan Hibbett of the NIU Department of English will read a short selection from an essay by Annie Dillard, Total Eclipse. Her imagery will provide a view of the eclipse for those who do not have the opportunity to see it during the day. The event is free and open to the public. Food will be available for purchase from Two Brothers Roundhouse.

Cooler—an expert on the art of Southeast Asia—will share the story of Rahu, the god of the eclipse of the sun and moon, and discuss Rahu’s importance in Cambodia. According to Cambodian tradition, periodically Rahu sneaks up on and swallows the sun or moon, causing a solar or lunar eclipse. A shape-shifter who can also make himself invisible, Rahu is a powerful figure in Cambodia, where he has appeared in temples and other art since at least the eleventh century. Cooler has been interested in the god Rahu since the 1970s, when he traveled as a special exchange scholar in Burma and Cambodia. His interest grew when he was present for a total eclipse of the sun in Cambodia in 1995.

Two silver betel boxes from Cambodia depicting the god Rahu swallowing the sun.

Cooler wants the audience to consider how disruptive a solar eclipse would have seemed to agrarian people before modern science. He says, “Humans have always anthropomorphized the marvelous and the overwhelming. This is a way of making sense of a startling natural phenomenon.”

Davis—whose research focuses on archaeoastronomy and pictographic rock art on the banks of the Amazon River in Brazil—will discuss how ancient cultures responded to solar eclipses in their beliefs and myths. Davis says the audience might be surprised to learn that “ancient people as early as 13,000 years ago—near the end of the Ice Age—used art to record the position of the sun, and possibly the moon, on the horizon. Cultures who began to keep track of these movements had a significant clue to indicate that it was the moon, moving invisibly during the day, that could sometimes cross the path of the sun to cause an eclipse.”

Davis continues, “Cultures, or even members within a culture, that did not keep track of the sun and moon commonly held superstitious beliefs and had peculiar rituals during an eclipse. But some cultures, or skywatchers that were often chiefs or priests within those cultures, probably knew what caused eclipses and could possibly even predict the next one. This type of knowledge was sometimes exploited to garner prestige and power for the skywatcher by amazing the masses with their predictions.”

This event is part of NIU STEM Outreach’s series of monthly STEM Cafés, which are free and open to the public. The STEM Café series is just one of the many engaging events STEM Outreach hosts to increase public awareness of the critical role that STEM fields play in our everyday lives. For more information, call (815) 753-4751 or email jdymond@niu.edu.

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