solar eclipse
A solar eclipse as seen from Australia's Palm Cove in 2012Getty

A solar eclipse is set to plunge parts of Europe into darkness for a few minutes on 20 March, with the moon obscuring the light from the Sun in a celestial event that takes place in some part of the world once every 18 months or so. However, people living hundreds or thousands of years ago would not have known the events were so common, with many believing they marked an impending apocalypse.

In a 2013 interview with National Geographic, E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, said: "If you do a worldwide survey of eclipse lore, the theme that constantly appears, with few exceptions, is it's always a disruption of the established order."

To mark the forthcoming eclipse, IBTimes UK looks at some of the different myths about total eclipses from ancient societies around the world.

Vikings

Vikings believe that Ragnarok (the apocalypse) comes about from two wolves, Skoll and Hati, wanting to eat the Sun and the Moon. Skoll goes after the Sun, while Hati chases the Moon. When either celestial body is caught, an eclipse takes place. On Earth, people must rescue the Sun or Moon by making as much noise as possible to scare away the wolves.

Solar eclipse graphic
A graphic of the solar eclipse on Friday 20 MarchNasa

Ancient Egyptians

Although Sun worship was extremely prevalent in ancient Egypt, surprisingly little is known of their beliefs surrounding eclipses – there is virtually no mention of solar eclipses.

However, because the Sun played such a prominent role in their society, some experts have suggested an eclipse would have been terrifying. One theory says the Ancient Egyptians were so scared of it, they regarded it as too evil of an omen to write about.

Maya

In 2013, researchers found evidence that ancient Maya could accurately predict solar eclipses.

An astronomical calendar from the 11th or 12th century predicted an eclipse that took place on 11 July, 1991. Solar eclipses were known as chi' ibal kin, or 'to eat the sun'. What they understood or believed about eclipses is unknown, however, with missionaries destroying almost all the written records in the 1600s.

Hindu mythology

In ancient Hindu mythology, the demon Rahu is beheaded by Vishnu for drinking the nectar of the gods. Rahu (or Kala Rau) had planned to achieve immortality by drinking the nectar and disguises himself as a woman to win a place at the god's banquet. When Vishnu realises the crime, he cuts of Rahu's head and it flies across the sky, swallowing the sun and causing an eclipse.

Ancient Greeks

In 2008, researchers said a reference to a total eclipse was found in Homer's Odyssey, with the lines "The sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world". The Ancient Greeks believed a total eclipse to be a bad omen. They thought it signalled that the gods were angry, and that it marked the beginning of disasters and destruction.

Chinese mythology

In ancient China, solar eclipses were also seen as bad omens. People thought eclipses took place when a dragon ate the Sun. To stop it, people would chant, beat drums and fire cannons to scare the dragon away.

Predicting eclipses was the duty of astronomers and one of the earliest recordings of a total solar eclipse comes from 2,134 BC, when two astronomers failed to predict the eclipse – meaning people could not prepare. As a result, both had their heads chopped off.

Modern day

Over the last century, there have been four total eclipses over the UK – and none of them resulted in the world ending, so there is no reason to believe this event will be any different.

However, some doomsayers still think the eclipse should be seen as a warning sign from an almighty power. In an interview with right-wing US website WorldNetDaily, Bob O'Dell, the co-founder of Root Source Ltd (which provides Christians with access to Jewish teachings), said the event is "likely a message from God to the entire world".

Pastor Mark Biltz, author of Blood Moons: Decoding the Imminent Heavenly Signs, also told the website the eclipse is a warning to Europeans in particular: "In Jewish tradition, a total solar eclipse is a warning to the Gentiles and a sign of judgment on the nations ... Europeans especially should take heed."