Later today, North America will experience a total solar eclipse. You already know the scientific explanation of a solar eclipse, caused when the moon comes between the Earth and the Sun. But, what did the ancient Chinese say about eclipses? How can their ideas help you?
It should come as no surprise that many ancient cultures saw eclipses as disasters. In ancient times, people’s daily lives depended on understanding agricultural cycles and the patterns of nature. The sun was the great life giver. Its sudden disappearance was terrifying. Most traditional cultures saw eclipses in one of a few ways:
1. Mythical figures are stealing or eating the sun
2. Gods are angry with humans
3. Gods are angry with each other
4. An omen warning about a disastrous event to come
The ancient Chinese fall into the first category. The Chinese word for eclipse is 日食 (rì shí). 日 (rì) means “sun”, and 食 (shí) means “eat”. It is also sometimes written as 蚀 (shí). 蚀 (shí) is a homophone for 食 (shí) and means “devour”. The ancient Chinese believed that an eclipse happens when a creature called the Sky Dog attacks the moon.
The Sky Dog
The Sky Dog (天狗 Tiāngǒu) is depicted as a black dog. He was once a mortal dog who ascended to heaven after licking an immortality pill that belonged to his master. In heaven, he began to devour the sun causing an eclipse. The Queen Mother of the West captured the Sky Dog, and assigned him to guard the gates to heaven. Occasionally, the Sky Dog escapes and begins to nibble the sun (or the moon in a lunar eclipse). If you scare the Sky Dog, he will spit out the sun, causing the eclipse to end.
The Sky God is often seen together with the Daoist deity Er Lang (二郎神) and helps him fight the Monkey King in the famous novel Journey to the West. The Sky Dog is also associated with children. If a child dies at an early age or has a bad temper, it is seen as the Sky Dog’s evil influence. The enemy of the Sky Dog is Immortal Zhang (张仙 Zhāng Xiān), who protects children by shooting arrows at the Sky Dog.
The Sky Dog is associated with the star Sirius (天狼星), which is interestingly also called the “dog star” in English. In fact, the Sirius is associated with dogs among many cultures, including the Chinese, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, Assyrians, and more!
In Japanese culture, the Sky Dog appears as Tengu. There are more than one Tengu, who appear as monstrous birds. One Japanese legend tells of Yoshitsune, a young monk who was taught swordsmanship by a Tengu, allowing him to avenge his father’s death. Even ninjas are rumored to have learned their skills from Tengu.
Saving the Sun
During an eclipse, the ancient Chinese did three things. Together, these practices were called “Saving the Sun” (救日 jiù rì) :
1. Confess evil deeds and ask for forgiveness
2. Ask for help in the future
3. Banish evil (make noise to scare the Sky God)
Why not practice “Saving the Sun” yourself? Is there something you can ask forgiveness for? This may be asking another person for forgiveness or forgiving yourself. Is there someone that you can forgive? Who is your Zhang Xian, the positive influence you can ask for help? Who is the Sky Dog, the negative influence that you should banish from your life?
While you might not believe that later today, a dog will nibble away the sun, but “Saving the Sun” may help you. The eclipse is a dynamic time. I hope you can use it as an opportunity to restore balance to your life.