Today (Monday, August 21, 2017), everyone in North America will be able to see—at least partially—the event being dubbed the “Great American Eclipse.” This is the first total eclipse viewable in the contiguous United States since 1979 (the next one won’t be until April 8, 2024).

Here are nine things you should know about eclipses and their religious significance:

1. A solar eclipse is a celestial event in which the moon passes between the sun and Earth and blocks all or part of the sun. The effect can last up to about three hours, from beginning to end, though for this eclipse, the longest period when the moon completely blocks the sun from any given location along the path will be about two minutes and 40 seconds. (To see this eclipse for the maximum amount of time, you’ll need to be in a spot about six miles southeast of Carbondale, Illinois.)

2. The term eclipse is derived from the Latin eclipsis, which itself is derived from Greek ekleipsis meaning “an abandonment,” literally “a failing, forsaking,” from ekleipein “to forsake a usual place, fail to appear, be eclipsed.” During a solar eclipse the sun isn’t actually “abandoning” or “forsaking” us; what causes the darkness is that we are in the shadow of the moon.

3. Contrary to a popular myth, the Earth is not the only planet that has total solar eclipses. However, the Earth is the only planet in our solar system from which such an event could be seen from a planet’s surface. Neither Mercury nor Venus has moons, so they have no eclipses at all. Mars has two moons but they are too small to block out the sun. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune all have moons that are large enough, but these planets are made of gas so you couldn’t stand on their surface to see the total eclipse. That leaves the Earth as the best planet in our solar system to see a total eclipse.

4. Many ancient cultures attributed solar eclipses to either the moon or the sun being eaten by animals or demons. In Chinese folklore an eclipse is caused by a black dog or dragon eating the sun, while in Vietnam a giant frog does the solar devouring. The Chocktaw tribe of North America attributed the phenomena to a black squirrel biting the sun, while Hindu mythology claims the sun is eaten by the demon Rahu. In almost every culture that holds this “sun-eating” belief, the solution is to make a loud noise—a method that has proven to be 100 percent effective in getting the sun to return.

5. In several religious cultures (including Christianity), an eclipse is related to an impending apocalypse—either literally or symbolically. In Norse mythology two giant wolfs, Skoll and Fenrir, chased the sun and moon, and if they swallowed the celestial entities, it would lead to Ragnorok (the apocalypse). In Mayan cultures, a solar eclipse that lasted more than a day was a sign of the end of the world, a time when the spirits of the dead will come to life and eat those on Earth.

6. Based on an interpretation of Genesis 1:14, Rabbinic Judaism considers celestial events to be signs from God: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs. . . .’” An eclipse (a luminary being stricken) is a prime example of such a sign. As the Talmud states:

When the luminaries are stricken, it is an ill omen for the world. To what can we compare this? To a king of flesh and blood who prepared a feast for his servants and set a lantern to illuminate the hall. But then he became angry with them and said to his servant: “Take the lantern from before them and seat them in darkness.”

Jewish scholars knew eclipses were predictable events, yet still considered them related to human actions. As Yehuda Shurpin explains, “An eclipse is not caused by sin. Rather, it is an indication of a trying time, a time when there is a natural predisposition for sin, and for strict judgment of that sin.”

7. Throughout history, Christians have claimed specific solar eclipses as prophetic signs (the latest eclipse is no exception). These claims are based on several verses in the Bible that are often associated with eclipses and divine judgment: Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7, Joel 2:10, Joel 2:31, Joel 3:15, Matthew 24:29, Mark 13:24, Revelation 6:12, and Revelation 8:12.

8. Rather than a sign of impending doom, most Christians consider the religious significance of eclipses to be that they reveal the majesty of our Creator (Psalm 19:1). As astronomer Hugh Ross says, “I don’t think it’s an accident that God put us human beings here on Earth where we can actually see total solar eclipses. I think God wants us to make these discoveries. I would argue that God on purpose made the universe beautiful, and one of the beauties is a solar eclipse.”

9. During an eclipse, looking directly at the sun is unsafe except during the brief total phase of a solar eclipse. When the moon is completely obstructing the sun, the light emitted is only a type of electromagnetic radiation too weak to cause blindness. The only safe way to look directly at the partial eclipse is through special-purpose solar filters, such as “eclipse glasses” (compliant with the ISO 12312-2 safety standard) or handheld solar viewers. You can also look at it indirectly through a pinhole projector. If you want the safest viewing method, NASA will be live-streaming the eclipse from 11:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. EDT.

Other posts in this series:

Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease •  Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State