Martin Voracek, Maryanne Fisher and Gernot Sonneck, psychologists based at the University of Vienna published a study entitled ‘Solar Eclipse and Suicide’, examining whether the total solar eclipse which occurred over Austria in 1999, might have influenced suicide rates.

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Source: Free for commercial use No attribution required pixabay

An eclipse is clearly a profoundly emotional experience for many. In a book entitled ‘Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser’, by Clinical Psychologist, Kate Russo, she explains it as an intensely physical sensation as well as hypnotic and ethereal.

An increasingly large group of people appear to have become almost ‘obsessed’ with the experience, leading them to pursue eclipses all around the globe, almost as if this had become a new ‘addiction’.

For example, as Kate Russo points out, one thousand ‘eclipse chasers’ traveled to Antarctica in 2004.

In her study, she found that 59% of eclipse chasers agreed that their hunt for standing in the shadow of the moon had become an addiction. 67% felt that being an eclipse chaser was now part of their identity.

Kate Russo explains in her book, published by Springer in 2012, that there is an eclipse on average once every 18 months somewhere in the world, but they are often visible only from remote places, plus the re-occurrence rate of a total eclipse at any one specific location is on average once every 375 years. Perhaps the relative rarity of these events and the difficulty involved in getting to them adds to their psychological impact and allure?

Maybe an eclipse is the closest many will come to what could be termed a spiritual experience. Staring at the sun for a prolonged period is associated with religious rituals and experiencing visions.

Monique Hope-Ross, Stephen Travers and David Mooney in a study entitled, ‘Solar retinopathy following religious rituals’, point to the profound danger of blindness from staring at the sun.

Their investigation published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, followed a series of patients all of whom looked deliberately at the sun for prolonged periods, encouraged to do so by other pilgrims reporting apparitions.

All suffered irreversible visual damage, so the authors of the paper conclude that it is vital the public is aware of the dangers of sun gazing at any time. The desire to seek a spiritual experience and therefore stare at the sun for an over long period, could destroy your vision.

Martin Voracek and colleagues point out, in their paper examining the Austrian eclipse of 1999, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, that the last total solar eclipse over Austria occurred in 1842, with the next occurring in 2081.

As a result, on eclipse day, which fell on a Thursday, 40% of the Austrian working population took leave from their jobs, and an estimated 750,000 of the country’s population of 8 million journeyed into the narrow ribbon (110 km in length) of eclipse totality, producing transportation chaos, according to the authors of this investigation.

All six suicides on eclipse day investigated by this unique study, were by men and occurred only in the regions crossed by the path of totality, in which unusually massive numbers of people congregated. But this number was not in-keeping with a significant statistical increase nationwide in what would be the average expected suicide rate.

The authors argue that these suicides’ spatial clustering corresponds to the stressful circumstances surrounding immense eclipse chasing. The authors contend that their finding was more indicative of a suicide-preventive population-wide effect across the whole country. Extensive media coverage produced collective anticipation of a positive event, perhaps temporarily inducing greater social cohesion.

One theory is because people felt more connected with each other and shared this experience, this reduced the sense of isolation and alienation that normally presages suicide.

Professor Martin Voracek went on to publish with colleagues a similar study in 2004 only this time they compared the total solar eclipse of August 11 1999, and found suicide incidence decreased in Timiş county, Romania, a region crossed by the path of totality and subject to eclipse-chasing. However, no such decrease was observed in Latvia, a comparable region, but where only a partial eclipse was observed, according to this study entitled, ‘Anticipation of total solar eclipse and suicide incidence’.

Voracek and colleagues conclude that it is collective anticipation of a positive event which could have a preventive effect on suicide incidence.

This ‘collective anticipation’ occurs because modern understanding of the movements of celestial bodies is now so accurate that not just the precise timings of an eclipse are available to us, but exactly where it will be visible from.

This accuracy allows eclipses to help us date remote events in history, for example the exact date of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ has been attempted to be fixed most precisely by a lunar eclipse at that time.

In an investigation entitled ‘The Date of the Crucifixion’, by Colin Humphreys and Graeme Waddington from Department of Metallurgy and Science of Materials, University of Oxford, quote biblical and other contemporaneous references indicating that at the crucifixion, the moon 'turned to blood'.

The analysis published in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, contends that this seems to refer to a lunar eclipse. The authors point out that even though during a lunar eclipse, the moon falls within the earth's shadow, some sunlight reaches it through refraction of the earth's atmosphere. This light is red since it has traversed through atmosphere whereby scattering by air molecules and particles preferentially removes the bluer end of the spectrum.

This combination of scattering and refraction, the authors explain, produces the deep blood-red colour of a lunar eclipse.

The authors argue that in the period A.D. 26-36, the most likely candidate years for the crucifixion, there was only one lunar eclipse at Passover time visible from Jerusalem, that of Friday, 3 April, A.D. 33. This date is therefore the most probable date for the crucifixion, according to these authors and this particular argument.

So perhaps millions of eclipse chasers are in danger of ignoring the most moving element of all, which is not so much the actual physical experience, but more their psychological reaction, which has changed because modern science has supplanted ancient superstition.

That we can all gather and share a communal experience adds to its psychological power.

That standing in the shadow of the moon doesn’t spell the end of the world, nor any other superstitious cataclysm, means we are free to experience it without fear.

Today people chase eclipses, and can come together to experience them, thanks to modern science, while in the past, because of ancient superstition, they were afraid of them.

Yet this profound psychological shift is only possible because modern astronomy, science and mathematics, have gained such incredible predictive power and understanding of our physical universe.

Current eclipse forecasts can be accurate to less than a minute in time over spans of centuries, while space agencies have already computed all eclipses visible on Earth for the next two thousand years.

Is this what we should be most amazed by, and grateful for, as we experience the wonder of an eclipse?

References

Total Addiction: The Life of an Eclipse Chaser By Kate Russo  Springer Science & Business Media 2012

Solar retinopathy following religious rituals MONIQUE HOPE-ROSS, STEPHEN TRAVERS, AND DAVID MOONEY British Journal of Ophthalmology, 1988, 72, 931-934

Solar eclipse and suicide. M Voracek, ML Fisher, G Sonneck Am J Psychiatry. 2002 Jul;159(7):1247-8.

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