Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 8, 16 August 1999

Catherine Lovatt M I O R I T A:
Two Minutes and Twenty-Three Seconds

Catherine Lovatt

Excitement and curiosity drew the attention of Romanians away from the country's political and economic problems for two minutes and twenty-three seconds on Wednesday 11 August when Bucharest was plunged into darkness. Mysticism and science were both evoked to unite the explained and the unexplained. Divisions were breached and problems forgotten - if only for a short time - while the last solar eclipse of the millennium granted Romania the longest viewing time of totality anywhere along the eclipse's path.

Eating the sun

Before the world had mastered science and logic, people from all parts of the globe had various myths and legends about eclipses. Different cultures interpreted the natural phenomenon in different ways. Many believed that an eclipse warned of a natural disaster or the death of a ruler. Other myths involved demons who devoured the sun leaving darkness. In order to ward off the evil spirits during an eclipse, many cultures adopted superstitions which they believed would protect them. For example, in Japan people would cover wells to prevent demons from dropping poison into them. But, not all myths explain an eclipse as a bad omen. In Arctic America, the Eskimos, Aleuts and Tlingits believe that the sun and moon have left their places to check that everything is going well on Earth.

In Romania, superstitions and myths abound. Many are inter-linked, bearing remarkable similarities to those from other cultures. Myth and legend are part of the history of a people. History defines our ancestors' past and can be demonstrated in a number of forms, ranging from the written word to the architecture and landscape around us. Ancient Romanian civilisation developed an oral history which became part of today's mythology. As a migratory people their travels brought different interpretations of symbolic events. Consequently, a mixture of varying cultural perceptions and beliefs combined to form a complex and muddled Romanian mythological structure. This complexity is intensified by the different variants of Romanian myths.

Several legends exist in Romania concerning eclipses. Amongst those of an ominous nature, myths warn of evil demons, vampires and werewolves that consume the sun and reek havoc on Earth. This bares a remarkable resemblance to the Chinese belief that an eclipse is caused by an invisible dragon eating the sun. To counteract the presence of evil, superstitions are practised. In 1999, the approaching end of the millennium and the solar eclipse have raised these superstitions from the dead.

Whilst scientists and astronomers gathered in Bucharest to witness the 1999 solar eclipse and to utilise those valuable seconds for research, some Romanians lit a blazing bonfire in the main square to ward off the evil werewolves and demons who were eating their sun. Also, in the industrial town of Ramnicu Valcea 150km northwest of Bucharest, where the period of totality lasted the longest, church bells were rung throughout the eclipse to scare away evil spirits. Logic meets the illogic and past meets present. Romanian folklore is traditional, old and strong and may not appear to be that irrational to the native believers. Records have shown that astronomical events have coincided with natural disasters or dramatic social changes such as the independence struggle against the Turks in 1706. However, the evidence for this is thin and the reliability of historical documents is always in doubt.

Cashing in on the darkness

Superstition and myth are undoubtedly part of Romanian life but the solar eclipse also offered an opportunity for Romania to generate valuable income for her ailing economy. Shows of ancient folklore have added to the mysticism of the Romanian people in the eyes of foreigners and reinforced Bram Stoker's image of the land of demons and vampires. The eclipse combined with the display of ancient superstitions had the potential to leave the tourist visiting Romania spellbound.

Despite plenty of advance warning of the spectacle, Romania was unprepared for the influx of tourists, scientists and astronomers. Slow privatisation left only 160,000 hotel rooms at 815 hotels. Karin Popescu reporting for Reuters said that disgruntled tourists have complained about "paying large sums of money for rooms with a single light bulb or rationed hot and cold water" (Reuters, 3 August 1999). Magda Stavinschi, manager of the Romanian Acadamy's astronomy institute, showed frustration at the disorganisation of the Romanian tourist industry, saying "The eclipse will be at its maximum in Romania. The country should have been prepared, by the same token, to the maximum. The eclipse could have served to take our country out of darkness". (Reuters, 3 August 1999). The Tourist Board had attempted to lure visitors to more picturesque areas along the eclipse route including the Retezat and Paring mountains in the Southern Carpathians. Unfortunately, poor weather conditions washed out major roads forcing viewers into Rimnicu Vicea, known for its large Gypsy community and colourless views. Alongside this fiasco, the Romanian road network is in a shambles with the sole stretch of motorway west of Bucharest under repairs. Consequently, transportation out of the capital to other vantage points was a long and tiresome process.

In order to appease the disgruntled tourists, the Romanian authorities had to find alternative attractions. The highlight was an outdoor concert by Luciano Pavarotti on the evening of the day of the eclipse. The concert was held on the steps of the vast marble palace built by Ceausescu with tickets selling for about USD 200 rendering the event almost exclusively for tourists, the average monthly Romanian salary being around USD 100.

Low funding and low gravity

The eclipse not only attracted tourists but also scientists from around the globe. Astronomers set up observation points in Bucharest, the only European capital in the direct path of the eclipse. Among the visitors were experts from NASA hoping to gain those few extra seconds for their experiment and photographs of the sun's corona. Romanian scientists attempted to exploit the opportunity but economic instability meant that funds were lacking. Stavinschi commented that they had planned to acquire at least a one-metre telescope and build an observation station outside Bucharest but limited funds rendered it impossible. However, one astronomer from Suceava, Dimitrie Olenici attempted to perform an experiment proposed by the nineteenth-century French physicist Jean Bernard Leon Foucault to prove that at the moment of totality gravity decreases. If the gravitational force is affected during the eclipse, the rhythm of a sufficiently large pendulum should disturbed. His results have yet to be released.

The visitor, whether scientist or tourist, viewing the solar eclipse from Romania would have been witness to a bizarre array of conditions and spectacles. Whilst archaic traditions and economic instability may perpetuate an image of backwardness to the Western observer, the scientific and cultural activity surrounding the eclipse also demonstrate a society desperate to advance, to make an impression on the world, whilst maintaining their historical roots - despite the uncontrollable chaos around them.

Catherine Lovatt, 16 August 1999





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