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Demons Eat the Sun: Inside Ancient Solar Eclipse Myths

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Photographer Bjornar G. Hansen captured this view of Wednesday's partial solar eclipse from the island of Kvaloya in arctic Norway, using a Nikon D3 camera. Bjornar G. Hansen

On Thursday afternoon, beasts will race across the sky, attack the sun and take a big bite out of it — or at least that is what civilization after civilization believed happened during a solar eclipse.

The less dramatic and more scientific explanation is that the moon will pass between the sun and the Earth at around 6 p.m. ET tonight, giving people in North America quite a show. But the science behind the phenomenon escaped many of our ancestors.

"Most of eclipse lore is based around the concept that there is something attacking the sun or the moon, and people have a role to play in stopping it," Dr. E.C. Krupp, who has been acting director of the Griffith Observatory since 1974, told NBC News.

Like Homer Simpson chomping on a doughnut, the gods of ancient myths were always munching on the sun, which completely freaked out the laypeople. If solar eclipses don't sound so scary, imagine if you believed the following not-so-scientific explanations.

Sinister snakes and wasps

Scared of snakes? Good thing you are not living in the Maya empire, where ancient records depict a snake with the sun in its mouth. They were also suspicious of Venus and other planets that became visible in the minutes leading up to a total eclipse.

Solar eclipse darkens northern Australia

"The Mayans saw these celestial objects as demons in the sky," Krupp said. They were often shown as wasps or other stinging insects flying through the sky. One thing is for sure: the Mayans didn't trust Venus.

"Venus was seen as an agent of the eclipse and the attacker of the sun," he said.

Hungry, hungry decapitated demon heads

This ancient myth is a bit complicated. OK, here it goes: the ancient Indians believed that gods churn the "cosmic ocean" to produce soma, the elixir of immortality, because being immortal is what gods do. One demon, Rahu, got his hands on this magic juice and took a sip — only to be tattled on by the sun and the moon. Vishnu got angry and chopped off Rahu's head.

The elixir hit Rahu's lips, but he never swallowed it, leaving his head immortal but his body dead. In his rage, he chases around the sun and moon like a demonic Pac-Man, occasionally catching and eating them only to watch them pass through his severed throat.

"Most of these myths are grotesque," Krupp said. "These were catastrophic events to them."

Sky wolves on the hunt

Now, in the category of "eclipse myth most likely to be painted on the side of some dude's van," comes the Viking myth.

In the final apocalyptic battle, called Ragnarok, eclipses are going to be happening constantly. These terrible events, according to ancient Nordic lore, are the result of two sky wolves, Skoll and Hati, who are always chasing the moon and sun, respectively.

Watch 'Blood Moon' Hyperlapse 0:55

When the sun is caught, darkness falls. The recent blood moon is what happens when Skoll really sinks its teeth into something.

"When the moon is caught, its blood spills all over, and the moon turns red," Krupp said.

Modern day myths

Even today, people get superstitious about eclipses. Many religions still have apocalypse myths and rare celestial occurrences — like the recent tetrad of lunar eclipses — can spur wild imaginations.

"We still get calls from pregnant women worried about being out during an eclipse," Krupp said, noting that the fear of eclipses hurting unborn babies goes back to the time of the Aztecs.

Los Angeles, where the Griffith Observatory has stood since 1935, has its fair share of people "who have a magical sensibility about the eclipse," Krupp said, but overall we have learned to enjoy eclipses without all of the superstition.

One thing that is not a myth: you should use specially designed gear or homemade viewing devices to sneak a peek at this natural phenomenon. As Krupp advised, "You really should not look directly at the sun during a solar eclipse."