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HOUR OF DARKNESS
by Bob Brooke

 

A 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 again.

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 armor."

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

Eclipse of the SunAt 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 mystery.

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 spirits.         

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.

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