We recently had an eclipse in the US and the accompanying warnings about potential vision damage from looking at the eclipse directly outside of the full totality.

What I'm wondering is how eclipses happened in the past without damaging every single person's vision. Obviously most historical societies ascribed a lot of significance to natural events like this, and in an era without modern distractions, with much more connection to the natural world, and without modern scientific explanations of what was happening, the sun suddenly disappearing during the day would probably be one of the craziest things you'd ever seen. Seems like you'd probably look at it.

Like how did everyone not just look directly at the eclipse? These events aren't particularly uncommon, you could reliably experience at least one every generation, so how was this not causing mass blindness?

Was there some sort of cultural taboo enforced about not looking at it? Was it common scientific knowledge? Did people just deal with the eye damage and get by as best they could?

  • 6
    A very cursory Google search strongly suggests "Because it is painful to look at an eclipse" Most people avoid pain.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 10 at 18:49
  • 2
    Please move that into the question and document the assertion. (I confess that I'm skeptical.)
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 10 at 19:02
  • 8
    I don't know that this is a question we can point to historical sources to answer. Just as a logical exercise though, consider the amount of people who were outside with the sun every day (pretty much everyone), and somehow knew to avoid staring at it long enough to cause eye damage. Then consider how truly rare an event an eclipse is for any one inhabited location. This map of future eclipses might help give you an idea. It should be pretty clear that, as a Darwinian matter, the former dwarfs the latter.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 10 at 20:04
  • 6
    This German article claims that cases of eye damage have been reported since ancient times, and that 300 cases of serious and permanent eye damage were reported after an eclipse in 1912 in Germany.
    – Jan
    Commented Apr 11 at 11:07
  • 4
    Add to @T.E.D.'s point that if you have not been warned in advance that one will happen, an eclipse is not all that noticeable until fairly close to totality, and the damage done by looking at the Sun is lowest then. The pre-Modern world didn't have endless media sources saying, "The Great American Eclipse will happen here and at this time and it is wonderful thing you gotta see. And, by the way, don't look at it -- we're afraid you might get hurt and sue." I think the answer is a mixture of media over hyping the (very real) danger today, and few people paying attention then.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Apr 11 at 16:03


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