From Iceland — Lemúrinn: Do Sheep Care About Solar Eclipses?

Lemúrinn: Do Sheep Care About Solar Eclipses?

Published March 16, 2015

Lemúrinn: Do Sheep Care About Solar Eclipses?
Photo by
US National Archives and Records Administration

Many Icelanders will, weather conditions permitting, get to witness a solar eclipse on March 20. The last total eclipse of the sun in Iceland occurred on June 30, 1954, when, around midday, the southernmost parts of the country experienced a total eclipse for about a minute.

The event was widely covered in the Icelandic press, both before and after. On the day of the eclipse, newspaper Morgunblaðið promised those lucky enough to view the total eclipse an experience of such a “peculiar and mysterious nature it can hardly be described in words” and the day after, described it as the “most magnificent natural phenomenon” witnessed in Iceland since the Hekla eruption of 1947.

Of course, views of the eclipse were not limited to Iceland, and the next day Morgunblaðið reported a number of curious occurrences, for example that many women in Copenhagen seemed to have given birth to babies prematurely during the eclipse.

Lemúrinn Do Sheep Care About Solar Eclipses by US National Archives and Records AdministrationMany Icelanders were similarly interested in any effects the eclipse might have on nature or man. On the tiny island Dyrhólaey on Iceland’s south coast, one journalist set out to see this for himself.

Writing in Morgunblaðið’s weekly supplement some time after the eclipse, the journalist admitted that the whole thing had perhaps been slightly over-hyped: “It is likely that many imagined that the darkness would be blacker than it turned out to be, as so much had been made of the darkness that was to be expected. It is possible that some were less impressed than they expected to be.”

The journalist went to Dyrhólaey having heard predictions that during solar eclipses “seabirds will flee out to sea, land birds will think night has fallen and crouch down, livestock will run together into a knot, the cows mooing, horses neighing and sheep bleating.”

He positioned himself on a cliff overlooking much of the island, keeping a close eye on the birds nesting in the nearby cliffs or circling around the island. Agents, stationed around the island, similarly monitored flocks of sheep, cows and horses.

Lemúrinn Do Sheep Care About Solar Eclipses by US National Archives and Records Administration1The result of this comprehensive survey were, perhaps, rather disappointing. The journalist reported that almost all birds he saw seemed to pay the eclipse no attention at all, registering no change in their behavior and hearing no “peculiar sounds” from their general direction None of them fled out to sea, as had been predicted. The screeching birds kept screeching, the nesting birds kept nesting. However, a few oystercatchers seemed to be taken aback, he reported, shrilling loudly and flying away as darkness fell.

Similarly, the flocks of sheep grazing in the hills of Dyrahólaey “seemed to pay no heed to this wonder of nature,” and just kept on grazing. Some hens went inside their henhouse as it got colder, and a rooster, somewhat confused, crowed as the sun returned.

The horses did not seem to mind, either. Perhaps somewhat curiously, of two small groups of grazing cows observed, one group paid no attention, while the other momentarily stopped eating as the moon passed in front of the sun.

Lemúrinn is an Icelandic web magazine (Icelandic for the native primate of Madagascar). A winner of the 2012 Web Awards, Lemú covers all things strange and interesting.

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