My Eclipse: Searching for Mystery in Southern Illinois

The corporate nature of the sun disappearing was obvious as this part of the country moved into the path of totality. Country roads and small towns that may normally see a few dozen vehicles a day were inundated by hundreds of thousands lined up to witness the blotting out of our source of life. I had not thought finding a parking space and a good view of an object 100 times the diameter of the earth should be a problem, and as it turned out front row seats were available to all.

Faith packed some peanut butter and crackers, our solar eclipse glasses, and we made our way to Benton, Illinois along clogged freeway arteries out of St. Louis. Thousands stopped in parking areas along the freeway, in McDonalds and Walmart parking lots and traffic stopped on I64, so our GPS sent us into the backroads of Southern Illinois.

We chose Benton, as it was far enough away from the main attraction in Carbondale, but even in quiet Benton someone was charging $25 for parking. We found a small park just off the center of town, where the locals had gathered. At least they seemed local, as a mother was cursing throughout the eclipse that her children should stop looking at the sun. Eclipse glasses had been handed out at many businesses and the news of the eclipse had dominated the airways, but the small family may have not gotten word. Imagine the children’s surprise and disappointment – the day the sun disappears, they showed up at the wrong park, on the wrong part of the earth, and they could not look. This odd alignment, along with a father and son passing a football in front of us, provided the background for the celestial event.

Math, planetary motion, or the basics of astronomy were never my strong suit, so the fact that the moon perfectly blocked out the sun, though not news to me, still was striking. Even the math is an odd alignment: the sun is about 400 times larger than the moon but also about 400 times further away. Thus, the lens cap of the moon fits perfectly over the sphere of the sun. Maybe this is why the event has struck fear and awe in nearly every people group and religion on record.

In Japan, I visited the cave, that gave inspiration to much of Japanese State religion, probably due to an eclipse. The sun, Amaterasu, disappeared into a cave in Southern Japan, in what I presume is one of the earliest stories explaining total eclipse. The cave is along the coast in Miyazaki, and is called “Heavenly Cave” due to the sun goddesses visit, which sent the land into darkness. Apparently, there was a family spat, when her younger brother, and all-around trouble maker, Susano-no-Mikoto, made her angry. First, he destroyed Amaterasu’s rice fields her sacred hall, then he tossed a skinned horse into her sacred weaving hall. One of Amaterasu’s weavers saw the horse and died of shock, causing Amaterasu terrible grief. Infuriated, she hid herself in the cave, along the coast.

When she disappeared, the gods held a general conference, with eight million gathering in a nearby cave. They discussed how to lure her out and attempted a series of tricks. First, they gathered up roosters and set them to crowing, tricking the sun into thinking the world was moving on without her. Then, they placed a large, holy sakaki tree outside the cave, and decorated it with strings of sacred jewels, fine clothes, and an elegant mirror forged from materials of the heavenly mine. Then, the kami deity, Ame no Koyane no Mikoto recited a prayer, and the Ame no Uzume no Mikoto began to perform a dance. This dance got the assembly of gods to laughing. Amaterasu grew perplexed by the party noise and cracked open the stone door of the cave to peek out. She asked, “Why are you all dancing and laughing?” To this, the dancing deity Ame no Uzume answered, “We are happy, for there is one more glorious than you out here among us.” This trick worked. Curious, Amaterasu opened the stone door wider to catch a glimpse of the glorious god and saw her own reflection in the mirror. Tajikarao no Mikoto grabbed hold of the cave door and flung it away. Thus, Amaterasu was lured out from hiding and light was restored to the world.[1] Though quite roomy, from my mortal perspective, I’m not sure what caused her to pick this particular cave, though the Southern tip of coastal Japan is quite beautiful.

Similar stories occur around the world, with the Hindu Serpent God attempting to eat the sun. The Greeks believed the gods were angry and the Sun deity was abandoning the earth, giving us the word eclipse. In many myths such as the Egyptian, Chinese and Inca, the sun is attacked by monsters and sun worshippers attempt various tricks to scare them away. Several cultures think the eclipse dangerous for unprotected pregnant women. The Navajo nation goes on full lock down and prayer during an eclipse. As David Begay, a Navajo astronomer explains, “During the eclipse, we must be in full prayer and reverence. Prayers must be focused on the concept of the sun or moon going through an ending, and we are to pray about the ending of bad or evil, or the ending of phases of life. In addition, our prayers must be focused on the birth and renewal that will arrive when the eclipse ends.”[2] Many, like the Navajo, connect eclipses to both death and birth, with the sun and moon performing a mating ritual, after which creation is renewed.

This most religious of events around the world, did not raise issues of mortality or the sacred in Benton central park. At least, so far as I could tell, from the cursing mother and the football game, the little group surrounding us were not awestruck with reverence. Faith and I waited until the universe returned to normal, and the sun fully escaped the moon’s embrace, until we were alone in the parking lot watching the full reappearance of the sun.

The world continued to turn on its proper axis and we joined the hundreds of thousands attempting to escape rural Illinois. When I mentioned to a friend that the eclipse made me think of the tenuous nature of the human circumstance, he questioned whether it required an eclipse to make that obvious.


[1] According to the Miyazaki Travel Guide https://visitmiyazaki.com/mythology/mythological-tale-opening-amano-iwato-the-heavenly-stone-cave/#:~:text=Susanoo%20decided%20to%20retaliate%20with,hid%20herself%20in%20a%20cave.

[2] Phys Org, April 8th 2024. https://phys.org/news/2024-04-solar-eclipse-indigenous-groups-eyes.html#:~:text=Remembering%20Maya%20eclipse%20myths&text=One%20belief%20is%20that%20crops,red%20ribbon%20or%20anything%20red.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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