By Norma Reis
Since the very beginning of history, people have been amazed by what they see when they look up at the sky. Indeed, looking at the celestial sphere without the unpleasant interference of city lights is magnificent. It can sometimes mesmerise us with a deep desire of traveling out to these celestial spheres to directly experience what our eyes cannot see. Human imagination has no boundaries, but the universe is infinite! However, most ancient civilizations have viewed changes in the sky with great fear and apprehension. Comets, meteor showers, supernovae, lunar and solar eclipses were viewed as bad omens by most societies.
The Sun and the Moon are the main actors in the celestial theatre, the former being vital for life on Earth. The Moon, by its turn, has served as special inspiration for poets, writers, and lovers. The Sun and Moon have also been associated with religion and mythology, and sometimes regarded as gods with influence on the destiny of both societies and individuals.
Solar and lunar eclipses were usually regarded as a disturbance in the natural order of the sky – as an indication that something was going wrong. Many historical events coincided with solar or lunar eclipses: battles, crowning or dethroning of emperors, peace treaties, and so forth. It is our nature as human beings to attribute meaning to events by whatever history, tradition or thought is available to us. The same is true for eclipses throughout the centuries.
Unlike comets, which for a long time were regarded as unpredictable events, eclipses were accurately predicted at the earliest stages of mankind’s history. Early astronomers were able to predict eclipses by around 2300 BCE. Their predictions were based on empirical relationships, governing the recurrence of events by which the relative positions of the Earth, Sun and Moon reoccur the same way after 6,585 days. The existence of a regular eclipse cycle, such as the Saros cycle, resulted from these coincidences involving complex combinations between the movements of the Moon, Earth, and Sun. This more detailed knowledge of eclipses started to be acquired during the second century BCE, the golden age of Greek astronomy.
But the general population did not understand these relationships. As governors began to realize the influence astronomical phenomena exerted over the population, they used this knowledge as an instrument of power to influence people’s psyche. The population would follow rituals and say prayers in order to prevent the supposed dire effects. Governors wanted to pretend they could influence the obscure powers involved, and likewise, astrologers and astronomers sometimes attempted to use their knowledge to manipulate and influence governors. A negative or positive correlation with an eclipse could affect the outcome of a battle.
Only in the last five hundred years or so, or certainly since the invention of the telescope in 1609, have we come to understand these cosmic concurrences primarily in terms of the natural order of the universe. As previously mentioned, these events are no longer feared, but viewed as singular opportunities to better understand the universe. In this article, we present some important solar and lunar eclipses throughout time and their impact on people, societies, and science.
The Catalog of Solar Eclipses of Historical Interest contains many more examples of important eclipses that have left their mark on history.
Part 1: Solar Eclipses of Ancient Times
Ho and Hi, the Drunk Astronomers (2137 BCE)
Throughout the centuries, Chinese astronomers devoted substantial efforts towards predicting eclipses. However, like all similar efforts prior to the Renaissance, this could only be by empirical research. The earliest record of a solar eclipse comes from ancient Chinese history. Identifications of this event have varied from 2165 – 1948 BCE, though the favoured date is October 22, 2137 BCE. Ancient Chinese astronomy was primarily a governmental activity. It was the astronomer’s role to keep track of solar, lunar and planetary motions and explain what they meant to the ruling emperor.
According to legend, the royal astronomers Ho and Hi dedicated too much of their time to consuming alcohol and failed to predict a forthcoming eclipse. Traditionally, the solar eclipse recorded in the Shu Ching (an historical classic text) was regarded as having occured the 3rd millennium BCE. On the first day of the month, in the last month of autumn, the Sun and the Moon did not meet (harmoniously) in Fang’ … so runs the text. The emperor became very unhappy because, without knowing that there was an eclipse coming, he was unable to organize teams to beat drums and shoot arrows in the air to frighten away the invisible dragon. The Sun did survive, but the two astronomers lost their heads for such negligence. Since then, a legend arose that no one has ever seen an astronomer drunk during an eclipse.
“Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hi
Whose fate though sad was visible,
Being hanged because they could not spy
Th’eclipse which was invisible.”
– Author unknown
Eclipse of Abraham in Canaan (1533 BCE)
Eclipses are also mentioned in sacred books such as the Bible. One of the best-known references to eclipses appears in the book of Genesis, which involves the journey of Abraham into Canaan: “And when the Sun was going down … great darkness fell upon him.” It is possible to relate this description with a computed solar eclipse occurring on May 9, 1533 BCE.
Homecoming of Odysseus (1178 BCE)
There is some evidence to suggest that Odysseus, from Homer’s Odyssey, could have returned to his Penelope on the day of an eclipse. Basically, we have three cases of evidence for this hypothesis:
a) Plutharch interpreted a passage in the 20th book of that masterpiece of literature to be a poetic description of a total solar eclipse at Odysseus’ return;
b) A century ago, astronomers estimated that such an eclipse occurred over the Greek islands on April 16, 1178 BCE, the only one in the region close to the estimated date of the fall of Troy;
c) Recently, astronomical references led two scientists to state that the total solar eclipse of 1178 coincided with the homecoming of Odysseus to rejoin Penelope after the Trojan War.
Almost all classic scholars are skeptical of this correlation. If there was an eclipse, Homer must have had it in mind when he wrote of a seer prophesying the death of Penelope’s waiting suitors and their entrance into Hades. The story does not mention an eclipse, but there are omens and a poetic description of a total solar eclipse. Odysseus arrived home, disguised in beggar’s rags and in hiding before revealing himself. It happens that, when Penelope’s persistent suitors sat down at noon for a meal, they started laughing and saw their food spattered with blood. At this moment, the seer Theoclymenus foretells their death, ending with the sentence, “The Sun has been obliterated from the sky, and an unlucky darkness invades the world.” This description suggests a solar eclipse over Ithaca. As a matter of fact, Odysseus killed Penelope’s suitors who wanted to steal his throne and afterwards he spent a long night of love with his wife.
The Old Testament Eclipse (763 BCE)
One passage in the Bible says: “And on that day, says the Lord God, ‘I will make the Sun go down at noon, and darken the Earth in broad daylight'”. The corresponding eclipse should have occurred on June 15, 763 BCE. A cross-reference is provided by an Assyrian historical chronicle known as the Eponym Canon. In Assyria, each year was named after a ruling official and the year’s events were recorded under that name in the Canon. Under the year corresponding to 763 BCE, a scribe at Nineveh wrote this simple line: “Insurrection in the City of Assur. In the month of Sivan, the Sun was eclipsed.” Historians have thus been able to use this eclipse to improve the chronology of early biblical times.
Archilochus Eclipse (648 BCE)
It is believed that the Greek lyric poet Archilochus saw a total solar eclipse, which happened on April 6, 648 BCE: “Nothing there is beyond hope, nothing that can be sworn impossible, nothing wonderful, since Zeus father of the Olympians made night from midday, hiding the light of the shining sun, and sore fear came upon men.”
Thales Eclipse (585 BCE)
In the West, the first prediction of a solar eclipse is associated with the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus who, according to Herodotus, foretold the eclipse of 585 BCE, in Turkey:
“In the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night. And this change of the day Thales the Milesian had foretold to the Ionians laying down as a limit this very year in which the change took place. The Lydians however and the Medes, when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased from their fighting and were much more eager both of them that peace should be made between them.”
Although some argue that Thales used the Babylonian Saros period of 223 lunations it is now agreed by historians that the Saros period was not discovered before the fifth or fourth century BCE, therefore Thales could not have used that time system. There is a legend referring to the final battle of a fifteen-year war between the Lydians and the Medes, with ups and downs on both sides, but no decisive victory for either.
Also known as the “Battle of the Eclipse”, it occurred at the Halys River on May 28, 585 BCE, and was suddenly terminated due to a total solar eclipse, which was perceived as an omen indicating that the Gods wanted the fighting to stop. The kings were impressed and stopped fighting. Since the exact dates of eclipses can be calculated, this battle is the earliest historical event for which a precise date is known. It is said that Thales was proclaimed a wise man by the oracle of Delphi in 582 BCE, possibly due to the eclipse prediction credited to him. However, it is clear that he did not understand the scientific basis of the phenomenon.
The Crucifixion Eclipse (29-33 CE)
According to the evangelists, Jesus was crucified on a Friday afternoon, some hours prior to the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. It is recorded that Jesus was crucified during the period when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea (26-36 CE). However, there is no consensus on the date of the crucifixion. Evidence suggests April 3, 33 CE, while others suggest it was April 7, 30 CE. There are various allusions in the Bible to the Moon being dark and turned to blood when it rose in the evening after the crucifixion, which sounds like a lunar eclipse.
In Acts of the Apostles, Peter also refers to a Moon that is the colour of blood and a darkened sky. There is other evidence that on that day the Moon appeared like blood. The so-called Report of Pilate, a New Testament Apocryphal fragment, states:
“Jesus was delivered to him by Herod, Archelaus, Philip, Annas, Caiphas, and all the people. At his crucifixion the Sun was darkened; the stars appeared and in all the world people lighted lamps from the sixth hour till evening; the Moon appeared like blood.”
This may be the result of a dust storm caused by the khamsin, a hot wind from the south. Under such circumstances – a lunar eclipse while there is much suspended dust – one would expect the Moon to appear the dark crimson of blood. The reason why the Moon is blood red is that, although it is geometrically in the Earth’s shadow, sunlight is refracted through the Earth’s upper atmosphere, where normal scattering will prevent blue light from penetrating. But this refracted light would be much weaker than direct light from even a small portion of the Sun and the blood colour associated with the eclipse would not be visible to the unaided eye. However, the Moon would have an amber colour from atmospheric absorption, similar to any other occasion when the Moon is low in the horizon.
Another hypothesis is that of a solar eclipse visible at Jerusalem on November 24, 29 CE. The Greek historian Phlegon mentions this eclipse in his History of the Olympiads, and says that it was accompanied by an earthquake. The Greek writer Phlegon reported that:
“In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was an eclipse of the Sun which was greater than any known before and in the sixth hour of the day it became night; so that stars appeared in the heaven; and a great Earthquake that broke out in Bithynia destroyed the greatest part of Nicaea.”
In fact, mention is also made in the Bible of the Sun being darkened earlier that day: “The Sun shall be turned into darkness.”
There is controversy among researchers whether this was a solar or a lunar eclipse, and also controversy about the date. In any case, an eclipse occurring in the very same night of the crucifixion would have been seen by believers as a supernatural sign and influenced the change of mind of the Jews and Pilate towards the body of Christ, leading to the placing of a military guard on the tomb.