Behold the solar eclipse | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Behold the solar eclipse

/ 05:13 AM April 12, 2024

Mont-Orford National Park, Quebec, Canada—On Monday afternoon, I saw the solar eclipse together with my sister Christine, her husband Neal, and my two nieces Tori and Liza, joining millions of people in North America in witnessing a rare celestial spectacle amid serendipitously clear skies. Back on Oct. 24, 1995 (I remember the date because it was my parents’ anniversary), my sister and I had seen the solar eclipse that passed through the Philippines from our hometown of Los Baños, making this reunion extra special. At the same time, what we saw back then was a partial eclipse, and, standing in that platform by the slopes of Mount Orford, we were not prepared for what we were about to see.

At around 2:15 p.m., the first sign of the eclipse appeared: a thin scratch off the sun’s surface that presaged the progressive occultation of the sun, as though it were going through the moon’s phases, from gibbous to crescent—but in a matter of minutes, instead of days.

And then, after over an hour, it was suddenly cooler; shadow bands—waves of darkness and light—swept across the still-snowcapped landscape, as though from fast-moving clouds. Letting go of the solar glasses at the moment of totality at 3:27 p.m., I could only gasp in awe and stare in wonder as the moon blocked the sun for a full three minutes and 28 seconds, rendering the corona and even some solar prominences visible to our naked eyes; making our home star seem like a portal that had opened in the heavens. In view of Jupiter, Venus, and a handful of stars, we were enveloped in a strange darkness, as if the world were dimly lit by a fluorescent lamp.

Then it was all over; within minutes, the sun and the clear blue skies were back as though nothing had happened.



Eclipses may be celestial events, but making sense of them is a very human endeavor. In the Philippines, one widely shared ancient tradition was that a serpent or a creature named bakunawa or laho (among other names) ate the sun or the moon, causing either a solar or lunar eclipse; people would make noise using gongs, drums, and household items to drive the cosmic serpent away. Such beliefs have striking parallels across the region, and laho may well be related to the Hindu rahu—also a mythical snake (in which case the Tagalog word “laho” is actually using the very vivid image of an eclipse as a metaphor for loss).

Such a resort to supernatural explanations is surely understandable in the face of the sublime. For the North American eclipse, many a news article was devoted to indigenous traditions and knowledge, and many a YouTube video offered some eschatological meaning behind the astronomical event. Regardless of one’s religion, one cannot help but marvel at the uniqueness of our place in the solar system, if not the universe: the sun and the moon perfectly matched to produce not only eclipses—but life itself. Personally, I was just humbled and awed by the incredible alignment of sun, moon, earth, sky—and my own self that the moment entailed.

Eclipses have also participated in human affairs in fascinating ways. The Greek philosopher Thales was said to have predicted a solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC, in doing so averting war between the Medians and the Lydians. By some accounts, Christopher Columbus managed to save his men from starvation by using his foreknowledge of a lunar eclipse on Feb. 29, 1504, to scare indigenous Jamaicans. On May 29, 1919, a solar eclipse that passed by South America and Africa proved Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, catapulting him to global fame—and arguably contributing to our scientific trajectory, all the way to the nuclear age.


The Philippines has had its fair share of eclipses. On Jan. 14, 1926, an eclipse passed by Southern Mindanao; on May 9, 1929, another one passed by the Visayas, with Iloilo City in the path of totality, serving the site for scientific observation. On June 20, 1955, the longest eclipse of the century—lasting over seven minutes—passed by Manila, with the New York Times reporting that “Philippine scientists gathered at Diliman University [sic] in Quezon City on Manila’s outskirts to observe the progress of the eclipse,” and that “Government offices were closed and employees dismissed early to permit them to witness the event.” Alas, it had been raining in Manila that day, but in the provinces there were reports of “perfectly clear skies.”

On March 18, 1988, the eclipse passed by Southern Mindanao anew, with then President Corazon Aquino joining sightseers in General Santos City who were rewarded with spectacular views; those in Davao weren’t so lucky. During the 1995 eclipse, only Tawi-Tawi experienced totality but they, too, had cloudy skies. There hasn’t been a solar eclipse in the country since, and the next wouldn’t be until April 20, 2042—with parts of Palawan, Panay, Romblon, and Bicol in the path of totality.


When that day comes, I hope to see not only another eclipse, but our country out of the shadows.


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