hush fell over the crowd of about 3,000 perched on the steps of the magical
church and pyramid of Cholula. All were anxiously waiting for the same thing--the total
eclipse of the sun. This was my first solar eclipse. Even though I had read about others,
I had no way of knowing what to expect. In fact, in all my years of traveling in Mexico,
I've come to learn to expect the unexpected.
As I approached Cholula, my inner excitement turned to anxiety at seeing the eclipse.
Once I walked out onto the plaza in front of the pyramid of Cholula, my heart jumped.
There before me were several thousand people each in their own way waiting to see the moon
obliterate the sun and darken the sky. Waiting. Checking the time. Waiting. Checking
As I wandered through the crowd and began to climb the steep stairway to the first
level of the pyramid, I felt an exhilaration, an inner excitement of the anticipation of
the hour of darkness. In a way, I felt almost pagan. It was as if all were waiting for the
high priest to assure them that the world would continue. A cheer welled up from the
crowd. An announcement. Another cheer. A scramble for position. It's no wonder that
the ancient peoples of Mexico lived by myths and legends when it came to worshiping the
sun. They had no idea why the sky turned dark. Many thought that the god of the sun had
forsaken them. In a way, that primal thought crossed my mind with the anticipation of the
eclipse, even though I live in an educated and scientific society.
As I sat down on the hard stone and looked out over the crowd below, the scene took on
the appearance of a celebration. A four-piece band had been hired to play original New Age
music composed for the occasion. The eerie melody drifted through the air, now heavy with
the smell of grilled corn and salsa, for sale by a number of vendors. Others sold T-shirts
emblazoned with a myriad of symbols to commemorate the festivities. But despite the
festive atmosphere, the people around me seemed uneasy, almost pensive.
A young woman named Laura, sitting next to me and clutching her little daughter
tightly, pointing out and naming the various churches on the horizon. She told me of a
ancient myth that had been passed down to her by her grandmother. "At one time, long,
long ago, there were four ages and four suns, each one destroyed by a cataclysm," she
said. "The gods gave the human race a fifth age and a fifth sun. Before the creation
of this fifth sun, there was darkness.
"The gods gathered at Teotihucán and two men were chosen to be sacrificed--a young
man and an old man. The gods made a big fire and celebrated four days of penitence. They
finally decided to sacrifice the two men. The young man was first, but he was scared and
backed off. At that moment the old man through himself into the fire and created the sun.
The young man then threw himself into the fire and created the moon. "At this
point they were of equal brightness, so the gods through a rabbit at the moon to cut its
brightness. To this day, we believe we see a profile of a rabbit in the moon.
"All the gods threw themselves onto the fire to create the movement of the sun and
moon," she continued. "Forever after, the moon chased after the sun and tried to
steal its brightness. Every 52 years the Indians used to sacrifice young people to have
the sun and moon forever. This became known as the florida or flower party, since
the person to be sacrificed was draped in hundreds of fragrant blossoms. The person being
sacrificed was dismembered and the sun was once more conceived, full grown and in full
As I listened to Laura, I couldn't help thinking that in some ways many of the people
before me still believed in this myth. As advanced as our society has become, here were
people who were descended from ancient tribes who worshiped the sun, who firmly believed
that the world was coming to an end at the moment of a solar eclipse's totality.
The low murmuring of the crowd distracted my attention. They cheered suddenly as the
announcement that totality would take place in five minutes blared from the loudspeakers.
My watch showed 12:57 p.m. The moon was just now beginning to cover the sun. Totality was
only minutes away. Almost unperceptively the light dims. Only a camera's electronic eye
can sense the decrease.
As the sky darkened, a hush came over all old men, the wrinkles of time lining their
faces; young men, with the cocky assuredness that comes with youth; families holding on to
each other, their eyes glued to the sky. The temperature dropped at least 15 degrees,
chilling the normally hot summer air. Birds fluttered. Then silence.
A dancer, attired in the bright feathered plumage of his ancestors sat on the stones of
the first level with his hands outstretched. Even with all the trappings of the 20th
century, the scene had the feeling of the past
At the moment of totality, the sky took on a greenish hue like that before a tremendous
summer storm. The air grew cold and a middle-age woman in front of me drew her shawl
around her shoulders. The clouds parted and revealed the sun in all its radiance just as
the moon slipped in front of it. It really did feel like the end of the world. The clouds
on the horizon went into silhouette as the volcano in the distance peaked through. The
music being performed below using ancient flutes and drums added to the feeling of
As the moon totally obliterated the sun's light, the sun's corona appeared with all its
majesty. A low "Ahhh..." swelled up from the crowd, as diamond-like points of
light shot out from behind the black ball, which was the moon, giving the appearance of a
wedding band. Then, just as suddenly, they all began a mysterious hooting sound, which one
man told me was to ward off evil
The crowd, now silent, many lying on their backs for a better view, almost missed the
phenomenon all around them. There, on the horizon, was a 360-degree upside-down sunset.
Where the sky was normally deep purple at its zenith, it glowed with the golden luminosity
of a halo, and where it was normally bright yellow at the horizon, it was now deep magenta
mixed with purple. The brilliant sunset silhouetted the church steeples of Cholula against
the sky as their bells tolled all at once in a cacophony of celebration.
The full effect emotionally moved me. I felt a closeness with my fellow human beings
that, at the instant of totality, made us all feel as one. I also felt an impending danger
and fear of the unknown.
When it was over, I looked around at the faces of the people near me. Many were
awestruck, others had tears streaming down their cheeks. It was as if the gods had
answered their prayers and gave them back the day.