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Solar Eclipses, Saros Cycles and Chumash Rock Art
Thursday, August 15, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Gary Valle'. All Rights Reserved.

June 10, 2002 Solar EclipseClick!
Naturally lensed images of June 10 eclipse

From two to five solar eclipses occur somewhere on earth each year, but the chance of seeing one at a specific location is relatively low. On June 10, 2002 the southwestern U.S. was treated to a partial solar eclipse where as much as 70% of the sun's disk was obscured by the moon. How might this eclipse be related to Chumash rock art at Painted Cave, near Santa Barbara?

Near Los Angeles, the eclipse occurred in the late afternoon and I enjoyed it while doing a run in the Simi Hills. The decrease in sunlight was noticeable, and the extent of the eclipse could be indirectly observed on the ground or other objects as a result of the lensing effect of sunlight filtering through tree leaves. The lensed images can be compared to this illustration of the eclipse, created using Starry Night Pro software. (Note that the image is inverted, just as it would be with any simple lens.) The eclipse also appeared to cause afternoon temperatures to cool more quickly than normal.

Eclipse of June 10, 2002 from Los AngelesClick!
Eclipse of June 10, 2002 from Los Angeles
Created using Starry Night Pro software

Eclipses occur in predictable sequences, with each eclipse in a sequence occurring about 18 years, 11 days, and 8 hours apart. This period is called the Saros cycle, and the sequence is referred to as a Saros. A Saros is typically comprised of 70 to 80 eclipses. The Saros starts at one pole, and then over a period of about 12 to 14 centuries the eclipse paths of the sequence shift toward the opposite pole, where the series ends. Each eclipse in the sequence shifts approximately 120 degrees of longitude westward and on average about 185 miles north or south. There are about 40 Saros sequences active at any given time. The June 10, 2002 is part of Saros 137, which started May 25, 1389, and will end June 28, 2633.

Eclipse of November 24, 1677Click!
Eclipse of November 24, 1677
Created using Starry Night Pro software

Another eclipse in the Saros 137 series is the total eclipse of November 24, 1677. This eclipse may have been depicted in Chumash rock art at Painted Cave near Santa Barbara, California. This view of the Painted Cave sky, created using Starry Night, shows the relationship of Mars, Antares and the eclipsed Sun. This can be compared to the triad described in An Eclipse In Chumash Petroglyphs.

Although much of the astronomical and cosmological knowledge of the Chumash has been lost, there is little question that the Chumash were expert astronomers. The arrangement, position and movement of the sun, moon, stars and planets was inexorably woven into their culture and world view.

The following is from Crystals in the Sky: An Intellectual Odyssey Involving Chumash Astronomy, Cosmology and Rock Art by Travis Hudson and Ernest Underhay.

"It should be clear from the chapter summaries that the Chumash shamen-priests were watching the heavens in earnest and observing the motions, positions, 'behavior' and characteristics of a large number of celestial objects. The daily movements of the sun and moon were unquestionably followed, as were those of a large number of stars, constellations, and planets."

According to Crystals in the Sky the Chumash believed the sun to be a powerful being who lived in the Upper World in a quartz crystal house with his two daughters. (In my reading it is not clear whether the "daughters" represent Venus and Mercury, the two aspects of Venus, or some other objects or entities.)

The Chumash celebrated solstices and numerous solstice shrines and observatories have been found. One of these is not far from where I viewed the June 10 solar eclipse. This animation (used with the permission of Compass Rose Archaeological, Inc.) shows the progression of a remarkable "light dagger" on a target of concentric circles, at sunrise near the Winter Solstice.

The Chumash that lived near Santa Barbara in the 17th century might have had a somewhat distorted view of the rarity of a total eclipse. According to NASA's Fred Espenak, on average a total eclipse will occur at a particular location on Earth once every 375 years. In the 56 year period from 1623 to 1679, the Chumash in this area would have had the opportunity to observe five total, or near total, eclipses!

Less than two years after the 1677 eclipse, the Chumash would have had the opportunity to view the total eclipse of April 10, 1679. This eclipse was of longer duration than the eclipse of 1677 and the sky would have been darker during totality, with Saturn, Aldebaran, The Pleiades, Venus, Jupiter, and Mercury visible.

It seems plausible that the eclipse-like drawing in Painted Cave was inspired by these 17th century eclipses. But is it a literal representation of the eclipse of 1677? Are the companion objects Mars and Antares? The arrangement of the eclipsed sun and its red companions is suggestive. But drawings such as this were usually created by shamen in an altered state. They are rarely literal and are often difficult to interpret. Red pigment was common, and used to draw objects of various colors.

It's fun to gaze in wonder at an eclipse darkened sky and speculate... What better time, than during an eclipse, would there be to magically see the daughters of the Chumash Sun?

One of my primary sources of information regarding solar eclipses was Fred Espenak's Eclipse Home Page. This web site is NASA's official eclipse home page. It contains maps and tables for 7,000 years of eclipses and includes information on eclipse photography, observing tips and eye safety information.

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