Yesterday (as this is posted), the US was treated to that astronomical rarity: a total solar eclipse. Scientists took full advantage of the opportunity to study that phenomenon, and so did teachers and professors and their classes. And, of course, millions of people watched the big event in a more casual way.
The more we learn about science, the better we understand phenomena such as eclipses. Still, there’ve also been some fascinating non-scientific explanations, too. And what’s just as interesting (at least to me) is that plenty of societies still have those other beliefs woven in somehow, even as they also embrace more scientific approaches to explaining things.
In real life, there are certainly misunderstandings about eclipses that almost resemble those more ancient beliefs. And that’s true even in today’s world, where the latest scientific developments are easily accessible for a lot of people. For instance, E.C. Krupp, Director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, says the observatory gets plenty of calls from people asking whether the eclipse presents a danger to pregnant women or their unborn children. We see that juxtaposition of older beliefs and more modern understanding in crime fiction, too. And that can add interest to a story, as well as insight into a culture.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking what he thinks will be a simple holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. He gets involved in a murder case when fellow hotel guest, famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, is killed. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be the most likely suspect, but he’s soon proven to have a solid alibi. So, Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. At one point, there’s an interesting conversation about different ancient beliefs of the area (Devon); one of them is belief in pixies. In fact, even as recently as this novel, people still tell stories about them.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation, as well as a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. He certainly accepts modern science, and has a university education. But at the same time, he is a spiritual person who, for a time, studies to be a Navajo singer/healer. And he’s not alone in accepting both modern science and traditional Navajo beliefs. In Skinwalkers, for instance, we are introduced to Bahe Yellowhorse. He’s a doctor who runs the Badwater Clinic. He is also known as a ‘crystal gazer,’ who uses traditional ways to diagnose and treat patients. Interestingly, he uses both approaches to healing to work with patients, directing them to whichever paths to healing work for them. When the Badwater Clinic becomes the focus of a murder investigation, Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn get to know Yellowhorse, and we learn how he tries to balance different views of medicine.
Colin Cotterill’s series featuring Dr. Siri Paiboun takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri is Laos’ only medical examiner, and as such, he is expected to use modern science to explain phenomena that he finds. And he does. Even though his equipment is outdated and he doesn’t have access to all of the modern technology available, he does believe in the scientific method. And he uses it to solve mysteries. However, there are deep spiritual traditions in Laos that go back thousands of years, and Dr. Siri is aware of them, too. And some of those traditions find their way into his perspective and experiences. What’s more, those more ancient explanations for phenomena reflect the way the people of Laos have thought for a long time. So, despite the current government that insists on atheism and disparages ancient beliefs, Dr. Siri finds that those less prosaic beliefs play an important role in what he does.
They do in the world of Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri, too. He’s a PI who lives and works in Delhi. Puri believes in science and in scientific explanations for things, although he has a spiritual side. But he also understands that there are other ways of looking at the world. For example, much of the ‘bread and butter’ of his business is ‘vetting’ potential spouses for his clients’ children and grandchildren. So, he sees a lot of what goes into choosing a partner. And one aspect of that choice, for a lot of people, is astrology. It’s believed that successful marriages are at least in part the result of compatible horoscopes. That ancient tradition leads many people to cast horoscopes of promising partners before they do anything else. It’s an interesting case of people who study, contribute to, and believe in science, but who still have ancient explanations woven into their cultures.
And then there’s Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour. In that novel, which takes place in the French Alps, the residents of Ventebrune and Pierrefor are upset when nine sheep are discovered with their throats slashed. At first, it’s believed that a wolf is responsible, and that’s dangerous enough. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found murdered in one of her sheep pens, killed the same way as the sheep. Now, despite modern beliefs in science and in forensics, whispers start that all of this is the work of a werewolf. In fact, those who believe that say that the werewolf is a loner called Auguste Massart, who’s gone missing. Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg travels to the Alps to investigate. As you can guess, there isn’t a werewolf involved. But it’s interesting to see how those ancient beliefs and explanations survive alongside modern science.
Phenomena such as eclipses are fascinating on a lot of levels. One of them is what they say about human thinking. We have modern science, and modern explanations for a lot of what we experience. But those ancient accounts, whether they’re of sky-wolves eating the sun (that was a Viking belief) or of the sun and moon fighting (that belief comes from Togo), are still woven into our psyche at some level.
ps. I don’t live in the path of totality of this latest eclipse, so this beautiful ‘photo comes courtesy of ABC News.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain.