“Pijaude” they call it in the French Gâtine, the stretch of gentle hill and forest undercoated with granite so hard that the region has remained, even today, resistant to cultivation or change. The word refers to the effect of sunlight through the leaves of trees. Dappled light we English might call it. On this patch of beach in Kerala on India’s south-western shores, the palette for pijaude came from the sunlit space between jack fruit tree leaves and sand, rather than oak leaves and field grass. The spaces were small cinnamon half-moons of gliding across the sand like the light through a paper kaleidoscope from the sway of the soft sea breezes above.
But this morning, December 26, 2019, there was an unusual quality to those half-moons that had not been there on Christmas morning. My senses recognized it as eclipse light. I had not heard the news of this coming eclipse, having been out of touch with internet and news for the past week. I was astonished to find myself old enough, eclipsed enough, to recognize it. I have only witnessed 3 or 4 eclipses in my time on earth, but perhaps it only takes one. Perhaps, like the fear of snakes, it goes beyond individual memory, to shared neural imprints from eclipses of the ancients. For most of our history, before the advent of communication technologies, possibly the only event apart from comets experienced by so many at the same time. It would have been talked about and shuddered over, astrologers calculating, storytellers storying, religious zealots warning that unless this then the end that.
Whatever mechanism of recognition was at work in my own psyche, no other phenomenon I knew could create this light. It is entirely distinct from twilight or dawn. And this was 8 in the morning when the pijaude should have had a far more polished tone. Now it was as if every atom had been covered with a very fine layer of shimmery dust. To recognize something with such clarity that one cannot easily describe is to hold one’s perception as a deeply internal, private thing. If un-shared, peaceful and uncontested. Yet singular. Devoid of the camaraderie of spirit with any other who has marveled at that same marvel. Even if only to say, “Yes, I marveled at that too.”
In a fabulous rendition of as above so below, the kaleidoscopic activity of the half-moons of light were, at that very moment, being mirrored in the celestial movements of sun and moon – a celestial pijaude. The shadow of the moon draped across the shoulders of the sun. Eclipse light is light shawled in shadow. The world through a veil. A knowledge that aches to remain hidden while the laws of the natural day halt in their steps to re-calibrate the secret.
The light held a loveliness, no doubt, but also a deep disquiet. Because it was not just about the quality of light. There was some other sense engaged. A whole nervous system sense that could feel something grand and awful was afoot. Something that could punify the biggest, the most powerful of anything we know. No surprise that eclipses have been associated with the fall of empires, with calamities, with pestilence and general doom. With the end of life as we know it. With, in short, very, very bad news. At best, it was supernatural theft; the sun had been snatched away by a giant frog, a wolf (Vietnam, Norway) or eaten by a dragon, a bear (China, indigenous north-west US). It was a time to count your sins and to pray that your soul was pure enough for the passage.
How utterly terrifying it must have been to have lived in a time when you didn’t know if the sun would return. The source of life itself. Without which nothing would be possible. No art, no love, no children, no green, no arguments, no Sundays. Maybe sun worship fell out of fashion with other forms of astrolatry–the worship of celestial bodies as deities–when we figured out that we would get the sun back in just a couple of hours. In other words, when we began to take it for granted. And maybe one eclipse the dragon will hold the sun in its claws just a little longer. Just so we learn to appreciate it again. Because I feel a small jealousy for that immense terror on such a scale, conciliated by the subsequent immense relief. Now, our fears are background existential threats, that we can neither clearly identify or adequately feel except as a kind of malaise, eclipse dust.
There remains something preternatural about eclipses however sciencey you get. And because of this eclipse superstitions are bound to endure. Although many Indian newspapers took pains to try to dispel eclipse myths one die-hard journal covering the Boxing Day “Surya Grahan” of 2019 warned the reader that during the celestial event they should eat grains, have sex, or walk into a kitchen. At Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram sports stadium, set up for eclipse watchers who watched the event on a giant LED screen, kheer, a sweet pudding made of milk and grains, was distributed to the crowd for the very purpose of dispelling the belief that such food becomes poisoned during eclipses. One bright exception to the darker lore is the Italian belief that if you plant flowers during an eclipse they will be more colourful. But Italian optimism is outdone by the doom and gloomers. After all, the word eclipse itself is derived from the Greek for “abandonment” or “downfall”.
When I extinguish you, I will cover the heavens and darken their stars. I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. Ezekiel 32:7
This was not a total solar eclipse, but something astronomers call a “ring of fire” or annular eclipse. The moon was in a distant part of its orbit, too small to shadow the sun’s orb completely, creating a ring of light around it. In photos it looks like Frodo’s ring burning in the heavens. Another French word. Anneau. The word for a simple circular coil or a ring with no ornamentation – a wedding ring perhaps. The marriage of the sun and moon spoken of in alchemy, that lost marriage of art and science. I like this thought, especially since for a number of indigenous cultures solar eclipses were signs of disharmony in the celestial sphere, where the sun and moon were quarreling with one another.
Syzygy is the alignment of three or more celestial objects in space from the Ancient Greek meaning “yoked together”. It can also mean a pair of corresponding things. Like the shape of the in-between leaf shadows on the sand at my feet and the shadow of the moon around me. In an annular eclipse, the shadow that the moon casts on earth from being directly in front of the sun but not ‘occulting’ it entirely (the language of eclipses is a magician’s rule book) is called the antumbra. Another French word. Ombre. Shadow or shade, from where we get “umbrella”.
Kerala was the first place in India where this eclipse was visible, but I could not see it from where I was sitting since the Indian ocean behind me faced West and the Eastern direction was blocked by a grove of trees. But I could “see” it in another sense. In that syzygy of corresponding things. As inscribed on the lost Emerald Tablet described by Hermes Trismegistus: As above, so below. As within, so without. As with the soul, so with the universe.