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Eclipse folk tales show different relationships between people and the sun

Ohio State expert says stories demonstrate longing to understand the phenomenon

Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth remembers exactly where he was during the 2017 solar eclipse: on a pontoon boat on the Tennessee River.

“At the moment of totality, there were several other pontoon boats nearby,” he said. “We all independently put on Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ at the same moment. That’s a pop culture song but it becomes folklore in the sense that this was something spontaneous. We didn’t have CB radio between all of the different groups. … Each group decided to do this on their own.”

Waugh-Quasebarth, a visiting professor in comparative studies and director and archivist for the Center for Folklore Studies at The Ohio State University, said that folklore goes far beyond stories to include moments like what he experienced in Tennessee.

“[People] think about the Brothers Grimm, they think about the folk tales we have,” he said. “But really, it’s an encompassing field that includes music, dance, craft traditions – what I call ‘everyday expressive behavior.’ The ways in which people relate to their world, create meaning out of their world, … all of these things are encompassed by folklore.”

In preparation for this year’s eclipse on April 8, Waugh-Quasebarth dug deep into folklore indexes to see what common motifs have been used to explain the phenomenon. A common one: the sun being consumed by a creature.

While there are stories from many cultures that include this idea, Waugh-Quasebarth cautions against oversimplifying.

Jasper Waugh-Quasebarth

“[There are stories from Siberia, Armenia], India, South America, all these different places that we’re pulling this from,” he said. “So it seems to be a fairly common motif throughout those different traditions. [I] think about what gets lost when we put something into such a narrow box like that. How are these actually different things that are happening that aren’t so easily collapsible into a single category?”

While the idea of the sun being eaten may sound frightening to a modern reader, Waugh-Quasebarth isn’t at all sure the story was meant to be a scary one.

“We always have to be really careful with doing this sort of meaning-making, like what are our feelings about being pursued by a monster and how is that a universal feeling?” he said. “Is there a difference that might’ve been happening across time and space? Another way of existing in the world?” 

Not all the motifs suggest that something is pursuing the sun. Others offer that the sun is sad, for one reason or another, and must be cheered up. This humanizing of the sun appeals to Waugh-Quasebarth.

“What I find really powerful here is the ability to sustain a relationship that’s not one of fear or power, that you often see in other popular mythology, [with] the sun,” he said. “[The stories are about] finding a moment of common humanity with a celestial body, which I think is a way that people have historically related to those elements of our world – the sun and the moon, in particular. I think that the idea of kinship [with the sun] is really wonderful.”

These interactions with the natural world are at the heart of Waugh-Quasebarth’s research.

“I’m an environmental folklorist, so I’m specifically interested in the interactions between people and their environments writ large.”

In fact, this foundation has helped Waugh-Quasebarth come to believe that folklore and science can be used in tandem to understand natural phenomena.

“There’s a wonderful alliance that can be made with some of the methodologies of our colleagues working in the natural sciences like biology or geology,” he said. “[They can give us] the kind of ways in which [natural elements] are expressive, the ways they express an agency onto the world.”

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