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Arts & Culture

Myths & Rituals Around Eclipse Includes Red Underwear And Safety Pins

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Griffith Observatory

Monday’s North American solar eclipse is enthralling skywatchers nationwide. It’s the first eclipse to span the country coast-to-coast since 1918. People are traveling from all over the world to the sites of totality.  But, centuries ago, a solar eclipse was seen as a bad omen in cultures around the world.

How did myths surrounding eclipses lead to traditions that carry on into the 21st century?

In a webcast presentation by Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles called “Devoured by the Sun,” Griffith Observatory director E.C. Krupp explains the terror experienced by some Aztec cultures.  He quotes the 16th century Florentine Codex written by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún:

"The sun turned red. It became restless and troubled. It faltered. Became very yellow. Then there were a tumult and disorder. All were disquieted, unnerved, frightened. There was a weeping. The common folk raised a cry, lifting their voices. People of light complexion (this bothers me!) were slain as sacrifices. Captives were killed. All offered their blood…It was thus said if the eclipse of the sun is complete it will be dark forever, the demons of darkness will come down, they will eat men."

Sounds scary, right?

Nowadays, eclipses are anticipated celestial events. But some superstitions about eclipses carry on to this day. 

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Credit Norma Martinez
Santa Muerte figure at Papa Jim's Botanica

Walking into Papa Jim’s Botanica in South San Antonio, one is enveloped by a sweet, almost fruity smell, caused by the collective aromas of candles, incense, and oils sold in the store.  The store looks like home base for the superstitious.  It sells everything from santos – figures of saints - to Santa Muerte, a personification of death deified by many in Mexico.  Would anything here save us from the ill effects of a solar eclipse?  For an answer, I spoke to Papa Jim’s manager, Yuly Garcia.  She says many of the Mexican superstitions mostly center around pregnant mothers or their babies.

"They say pregnant women should wear a safety pin on their belly.  For babies, when they’re newborns, they say that you could put a pair of scissors opened in the form of a cross under the bed or under the crib.  And it’s basically protection.  For the safety pin on the belly when a pregnancy is taking place, this is going to prevent for when the baby’s born, to be born with a blue eye. That’s what they say." 

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Credit Norma Martinez
Yuly Garcia, manager at Papa Jim's Botanica

Garcia also says that individuals who practice some rituals with stones, amulets, or talismans look forward to celestial events like an eclipse.

"People that do rituals, people that do cleansings, people that do basically any type of ritual for any purpose, they want to use these days to get the full energy of it, because it is said to bring more power to it."

Another Mexican superstition is to wear calzones rojos – red underwear - during an eclipse.  An article in the Guardian Liberty Voice shows that this perhaps dates back to Aztec times, when pregnant women would carry a red string around an arrowhead.  But how did that translate into wearing red underwear?

Yuly Garcia says that’s still a mystery, but it’s something that she did when she was pregnant with her children. 

"This is something that my grandmother would tell me all the time.  And as generations change, things like this would tend to be more funny than anything.  But I still did it.  (laughs) Just to prevent.  It’s just something that has been in our culture, and it goes from generation to generation." 

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Credit Norma Martinez
Crystals for sale at Papa Jim's Botanica

If you’re looking to protect yourself from the ill effects of an eclipse, you probably don’t need a trip to a botanica or curandera.  Safety pins are pretty easy to come by.  And, Garcia adds, "of course I think every person owns a pair of red undies."