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Can Eclipses Shape Human History Once More?

If eclipses have the power to shape history, to make bitter enemies come to a ceasefire, the human race could experience one soon on October 14, 2023. Suppose the skies above Ukraine, or the Gaza Strip, could go dark. In that case, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Ukrainians and the Russians might finally decide to beat their swords into plowshares. Picture this for a moment. A band of foragers and hunters weave through the forest, steadily moving, carefully not to alarm their prey. Their faces were the pictures of utmost concentration. One wonders whether their survival depended on the task at hand. In that slow dance of death, they close in on an unsuspecting deer. Suddenly, the world goes dark. The deer, alarmed by the abrupt change in

If eclipses have the power to shape history, to make bitter enemies come to a ceasefire, the human race could experience one soon on October 14, 2023. Suppose the skies above Ukraine, or the Gaza Strip, could go dark. In that case, the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Ukrainians and the Russians might finally decide to beat their swords into plowshares.

Picture this for a moment. A band of foragers and hunters weave through the forest, steadily moving, carefully not to alarm their prey. Their faces were the pictures of utmost concentration. One wonders whether their survival depended on the task at hand. In that slow dance of death, they close in on an unsuspecting deer. Suddenly, the world goes dark. The deer, alarmed by the abrupt change in the face of the sky, flees into the deep forest. The hunters look up in shock, only to see an empty black spot where the shining and burning Sun once hung. They crumble in awe and fear to beg God’s forgiveness.

Before Aryanbhatta, an Indian astronomer and mathematician, gave the first scientific explanation for an eclipse, the human race has often found itself on its knees in the face of a solar eclipse. How is it that noonday becomes night in an instant, if not the anger of the Gods at work? Who else but deities could demonstrate their fury on the human race in such a manner? Thus, the advent of an eclipse has often been heralded and followed by various interpretations throughout ancient times.

In Indian culture, people have always regarded eclipses as a bad omen and have always viewed them as something that might bring bad luck. Rig Veda is one of the oldest books that mentions eclipses through a folk tale about how an asura (demon), Swarabhanu, pricked the Sun with darkness. 

In another popular story, Swarabhanu was beheaded, and the bodiless head, Rahu, is said to cause eclipses. The Chinese believed that a heavenly dog was trying to swallow the Sun. The Cherokee people thought a supernatural frog was attempting to roll the huge ball of fire down its throat. Those legends held sway over the common folk for thousands of years.


Eclipse observation in China around 1840.
Astronomers calmly observe an eclipse. Emperor sits quietly in the courtyard. The officials and rest servants, terrified, prostrate themselves on the ground to beg for heaven’s mercy.
(Photo Credit: History of China and India © Mary Evans / Explorer.
Source: Brunier and Luminet, Glorious Eclipses, Cambridge University Press.)


Modern research has now simplified the explanation of an eclipse. A solar eclipse occurs when the new Moon comes in between the path of the Sun and the Earth, obstructing the rays of the Sun from reaching the Earths surface, which makes a shadow on the surface of the Earth. As the Moon is smaller, it cannot cover the entire planet from the Suns rays; hence, a part of the Earths surface is affected. 

It is interesting to note that Earth is the only part of the solar system from which a solar eclipse can be observed. Also, if the Solar System had formed differently, they wouldn’t happen. The Sun is 400 times the diameter of the Moon, while also sitting about 400 times further from the Earth, so the two appear the same size in the sky. It’s an interesting coincidence?


A total solar eclipse happens when the moon, the sun and the Earth all line up such that the moon completely obscures the sun to viewers on part of Earth’s surface.


In his co-authored book Totality, Mark Littmann revealed that if the Moon were just 273km smaller in diameter or further away, people would never see the kind of total eclipse that will cross the Americas in April next year. Perhaps a hand is at work, placing the Moon between the Sun and the Earth. So did the ancients believe. History would have unfolded much differently if the ancients had not believed in cosmic wisdom sending messages through eclipses.

The Greek historian Herodotus recorded a war between the Lydians and the Medes, an ancient Iranian people. After six years of fighting, with stalemates, victories, and losses on both sides, the opponents met again. The world went dark as “day suddenly changed into night,” according to Herodotus. When both sides of the conflict saw the eclipse, they immediately ceased fighting and hurriedly made peace with each other.


Thales Eclipse.The battle between the Lydians and Medes was arrested by the total eclipse of the Sun on May 28, 585 BCE (-584 May 28).


Another narrative by Herodotus described how Xerxes, the leader of the Persian army, saw an eclipse before invading Greece. The Persian king was alarmed enough to consult his Zoroastrian priests. They told him God warned the Greeks about their cities’ imminent destruction. ‘The Sun foretells for them, and the Moon for us,’ the priests suggested.

It turned out to be the worst of counsel. Xerxes attacked Athens, but he was forced to withdraw after his navy was destroyed. On returning, his armies were attacked and crushed. Then, in 465 BC, he was assassinated. If Xerxes had known better, he might have planned his invasion of Greece differently or more carefully. It’s surprising to think about how historical events could hinge on the appearance of an eclipse.

Christopher Columbus was on his final voyage to North America nearly a thousand years later. In the late 1503, he landed his sinking ships on Jamaica with his crews in despair, most of his anchors lost. Fearing both starvation and conflict, Columbus forbade his crew from leaving their base and tentatively traded Spanish trinkets and jewelry for food and water with the island’s Indigenous people.

By the January of 1504, some of the crew mutinied and invaded the island. They abused and attacked the island people, stole provisions, and “committed every possible excess,” wrote Columbus’ biographer.

After weeks of chaos, the locals lost their patience and stopped trading food with the crew. Columbus and his crew faced imminent starvation.

But as the death by starvation set in, Columbus remembered an astronomical event was approaching: a lunar eclipse. On March 1, he gathered leaders of the local communities, reproached them for withdrawing provisions, and warned them:

“The God who protects me will punish you… this very night shall the Moon change her color and lose her light, in testimony of the evils which shall be sent on you from the skies.”

Local Indigenous people might not believe they did anything wrong by refusing food to the Spanish Sailors. But, upon seeing the lunar eclipse, they relented and resumed offering food again as the local tribes worshiped the Sun and nature and listened to their messages. Things would have taken a different turn if the eclipse had never happened. Columbus and his crew might have died on the island, never to be heard from again, and the discovery of America by the Europeans wouldn’t have happened as it did.


The path of the annular solar eclipse over North America. Saturday, October 14, a solar eclipse will take place. The eclipse will be visible as partial throughout the Americas, except in its southernmost tip and, very faintly, in the Canary Islands, Cape Verde and the westernmost tip of Africa. The total duration of the phenomenon will be 351 minutes (just under 6 hours). Credit: NASA ©2021 Great American Eclipse, LLC.


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