Eclipse and skin color myths

As I have said before, I am not that excited about the solar eclipse that will occur over parts of the US on Monday, partly because this is a well-understood and highly predictable event. But I find the myths that used to surround this event before the science of it became known to be quite fascinating. Here are a few.

A dragon did it, according to stories from China, India, Armenia, Tibet, Persia and other parts of the world. Traditional tales from other cultures blamed a demon, a jaguar, a frog or toad, a wolf, a group of snakes, a werewolf.

The indigenous Pomo of Northern California envisioned a great cranky bear ambling through the heavens and biting the sun when it refused to move out of the way.

According to an elaborate tale in the ancient Sanskrit poem “Mahabharata,” a demon stole an immortality potion and tried to drink it, but the sun and moon reported him to the god Vishnu. Vishnu lopped off the demon’s head before the liquid passed his throat, so his immortal head travels around the heavens chasing the sun and moon for revenge. Occasionally it catches one or the other and eats it, but the orb falls out of his throat.

There are more fascinating myths in the article.

But even after the event became understood, superstitious people could still be duped simply by the rarity of eclipses. Here is a story from Sri Lanka that combines a myth about an eclipse with the remnants of colonial thinking.

Thanks to a combination of the legacy of British imperialism and the worldwide dominance of white western culture that sets the standards for what constitutes beauty, the people of Sri Lanka have long associated beauty with skin color and attached excessive importance to it, especially for women. The fairer you were, the better looking you were considered to be. When a baby is born, one of the first things parents and other relatives examine closely and anxiously are the clues as to what skin color they think the newborn will grow up to have. It was not uncommon for arranged marriage proposals in the newspapers to specify that the woman be fair-skinned. That color-consciousness exists to this day, sadly.

For example, in my own family, my paternal grandmother died quite young, a few years before I was born. Family oral history has it that because her four sons were all somewhat dark-skinned, she was anxious that they find fair-skinned brides so that her grandchildren had a shot at having fair skin. Interest on genetics is strong in Sri Lanka when it comes to the inheritance of skin color.

I was reminded by a friend of a hoax that was perpetrated during a 1955 lunar eclipse that passed over Sri Lanka that took advantage of this desire for whiter skin. The author of this article discusses the obsession and the hoax.

Fair skin is highly desirable, and it’s often a topic addressed blatantly with zero political correctness.

Flip through a local newspaper and you will find matrimonial ads that request ‘absolutely fair’ brides.

In 1955, there was a full lunar eclipse in Sri Lanka, prior to which an astrologer predicted that any dark complexioned person who drank blended Wada Kaha, an indigenous plant, during the eclipse hours would become fair overnight. During the following days, hundreds of women were admitted to hospitals island-wide with severe vomiting. Alas, there was no miracle fairness potion! This incident did gave rise, however, to several songs with very catchy lyrics – the Baila song Wada Kaha Sudiya is popular even today!

There was one other factor in the hoax that is not mentioned in the article and that is that the hoaxer told people that this would only work if they told nobody about it.

The song mentioned by the author is still extremely popular. It is in the Sinhala language and the pop musical genre called ‘baila’ (pronounced ‘bye-la’)is indigenous to Sri Lanka. Baila songs consist of simple bouncy tunes set to two or three chord guitar accompaniments with a steady beat with the chorus repeated many times. This makes them easy to sing and thus popular at parties and long car and bus rides and other gatherings where sing-alongs break out, since pretty much everyone knows the songs. The more popular bailas are the equivalent of campfire songs in the US.

In this particular song, the singer playfully implores a woman to confess the truth, that she actually believed the hoax and drank the potion. You can listen to the song below. It is in Sinhala but you get to hear what Baila is like.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    I thought preference for fair skin predated European colonialism, in China and Japan as well as South Asia. Not that the colonialism helped…

  2. mnb0 says

    “The fairer you were, the better looking you were considered to be.”
    Not only in Sri Lanka, also in the former Dutch colony Suriname. Even in our days I have amazed some people telling that many Dutch like to sunbath to get a darker skin.
    In Suriname I have known a woman who consistently avoided to get exposed to any sunlight her entire life. As a result she didn’t look fair skinned, she looked unhealthy.

  3. Owlmirror says

    There is a book I stumbled across a while back, Me’am Lo’ez by one Rabbi Huli (his last name is also transliterated as Culi or Kuli). I can’t find a translation online, but a scholarly work confirms what I remembered he wrote about eclipses, in the 1700s:

    To Huli, eclipses really are a divine warning and their intent is to teach something. Thus, he asserts that an eclipse of the sun is a bad sign for the entire world and an eclipse of the moon a bad sign for Israel. He also gives a rather bizarre list of four causes of eclipses of the sun: a great sage has not been buried according to his rank; a virgin has been raped and no one heard her cries for help; homosexual activity; or the simultaneous murder of two brothers because of hatred between them.

  4. Owlmirror says

    It looks like Me’am Lo’ez was just offering a variation from the Talmud; tractate Sukkah 29a

    (Translation used is from here)

    Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse it is a bad omen for idolaters; when the moon is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for Israel, 23 since Israel reckons by the moon 25 and idolaters by the sun. 26 If it 27 is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west; if in the midst of heaven it is bad omen for the whole world. If its face is red as blood, [it is a sign that] the sword is coming to the world; if it is like sack-cloth, 28 the arrows of famine are coming to the world; if it resembles both, the sword and the arrows of famine are coming to the world. If the eclipse is at sunset 29 calamity will tarry in its coming; if at dawn, it hastens on its way: but some say the order is to be reversed. […]
    Our Rabbis taught, On account of four things is the sun in eclipse: On account of an Ab Beth din 32 who died and was not mourned 33 fittingly; on account of a betrothed maiden who cried out aloud in the city and there was none to save her; 34 on account of sodomy, and on account of two brothers whose blood was shed at the same time. And on account of four things are the luminaries 35 in eclipse: On account of those who perpetrate forgeries, on account of those who give false witness; on account of those who rear small cattle in the land of Israel; 36 and on account of those who cut down
    good trees. 37

  5. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    @Rob Grigjanis #2
    Also Polynesians. Maybe they had some problems when sailing through Melanesia about 4000 years ago.

  6. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    @Owlmirror #6
    “26 If it 27 is in eclipse in the east, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the east; if in the west, it is a bad omen for those who dwell in the west; if in the midst of heaven it is bad omen for the whole world.”
    So they were flat-earthers…

    “If the eclipse is at sunset 29 calamity will tarry in its coming; if at dawn, it hastens on its way: but some say the order is to be reversed.”
    …but they knew how to hedge their bets.

  7. says

    This song is ideal for the total eclipse seen in USA on 21st August 2107. Only change the words to Beewa nedaa Glass of Beer. I remembered this song when I was 16 years old. and saw the Total eclipse. Some ignorant people went blind by watching the eclipse through naked eye. This belief was there if they drink specially prepared drink at the time of eclipse their skin will become white

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