What once frightened now fascinates

Are you headed south for “America’s Eclipse” today? If not, you probably know someone who is.

The blotting-out of the sun has raised tides of interest and expectations from sea to shining sea. The eclipse will pitch a 70-mile-wide path of darkness from Oregon to South Carolina early this afternoon. Roughly 12.2 million people live within the path of totality, and a majority of all Americans reside within a day’s drive, and that has mobilized what some say will be the greatest temporary migration of all time.

But while most of us are preparing to celebrate this celestial anomaly, our long-ago ancestors were terrified by it. Homer recorded the eclipse of 1178 BC in “The Odyssey” with the ominous description that “the Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world.” In Mayan and Navajo traditions, an eclipse is an ill omen, something not to be observed by mere humans. An eclipse’s “hideous darkness” was also blamed for the death of King Henry I of England in 1135, even though the eclipse occurred two years earlier.

In more recent centuries, humans have seen more upsides. In 1878, an eclipse passed over the Wild West and astronomers and scientists flocked to the event, including a 31-year-old Thomas Edison. In his book “American Eclipse: A Nation’s Epic Race To Catch The Shadow Of The Moon And Win The Glory Of The World,” author David Baron says the event was a chance for the United States to prove its scientific prowess to the world.

Monday’s eclipse arrives at a time when science-based policy issues seem to be up for debate, so it’s heartening to see so many people get excited about this natural phenomenon.

Business in eclipse-related products such as cardboard viewing glasses is brisk. In Bend, Ore., along the path of totality, gas stations are running out of fuel and Motel 6 rooms cost hundreds of dollars, if you can find one. The commotion is fitting, as eclipses are about as radical a disruption of the normal order as you can get. The sun makes everything possible on this planet, and it will be good to take a few minutes during the dimmed sunlight to reflect on what makes life possible, and worthwhile.