BUFFALO, NY - The word "eclipse" literally translates from the Greek word meaning "an abandonment," or "to forsake a usual place."
In the earliest days of recorded history, humankind treated solar eclipses as omens of imminent death and destruction.
And as you can imagine, says Kevin Williams-- the director of Buffalo State's Whitworth Ferguson Planetarium-- it's pretty easy to see why the earliest people of Earth were frightened by any total solar eclipse.
"The sky gets dark, the stars come out, animals start acting weird, so before we knew what it was, you can understand why people were afraid of them," said Williams. "In Chinese culture they thought a dragon was eating the sun so they would bang pans, they would make lots of noise to scare away the dragon."
One of the earliest Chinese words for eclipse, "shih," literally translates into "to eat," but early Chinese cultures were not alone in their ominous view of solar eclipses.
In Vietnam, it was believed the sun was devoured by a giant frog; the Norse believed it was a hungry wolf feasting on the sun.
In Korea it was believed mythical dogs were attempting to steal the sun during an eclipse, and the Greeks believed it was a sign of angry gods.
But not all interpretations of the eclipse were full of dread; Italians once believed that planting a flower during an eclipse would result in a brighter and more vibrant color than when planted at any other time.
One of Williams' favorite superstitions is best captured by the Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that a total solar eclipse ended a 5-year war between the Lydians and Medes in 585 B-C.
Much like the Batammaliba people of Western Africa, these cultures saw a total eclipse as a sign of peace and resolution.
Over time, Williams said, the perception of the total solar eclipse changed to a more mathematical and scientific view.
"As we learned that a solar eclipse is actually just the moon passing in front of the sun, for most cultures its not a bad omen anymore," said Williams. "It's just a fascinating coincidence of geometry.">
During the last coast-to-coast eclipse in 1918, astrophysicist Arthur Eddington was able to prove Einstein's theory of relativity.
Einstein believed the sun's massive size caused the starlight in space around it to bend; this was only able to be tested and confirmed during an eclipse, when the light from the sun was gone and the stars were in full view.
It also opened new possibilities of understanding the sun itself; Prussian photographer Berkowski was able to take the first scientifically useful photograph of the Sun's corona during an eclipse on July 28, 1851.
Since those earlier years, astrophysicists can now use the "saros cycle" to correctly predict future eclipses with near-pinpoint accuracy.
Which brings us to Monday, August 21st, when Western New Yorkers will get a chance to see more than 70% of the sun eclipsed, reaching it's full coverage at 2:33 p.m.
No, it's might not be a total eclipse, but it's a good way to practice for April 8th, 2024; that's the next predicted day for a total solar eclipse, and the city of Buffalo falls perfectly in line seeing a complete solar eclipse for about 4 solid minutes.
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