I will provide here just a taste of important observations, events, poetry and legends found notable by my good friend and professional astronomer, Dr. Thomas Hockey, and I would like you to document your own culture or country's legends about eclipses in our journal for posterity.
"So out of the
ordinary are eclipses that they have long been considered omens, for good or
ill. Venerated or feared, they rarely
have been ignored. Entire books have
been written on humankind’s reactions to eclipses.
It is impossible to
say what people first thought of eclipses.
That report is lost to prehistory.
However, we do know that homo
sapiens have a long history with eclipses.
The circumstances of 13,200 lunar and solar eclipses all over the globe
have been calculated, just between the years 1207 BCE and 2161. We note that the Chinese were writing about
something that sounds like the corona of the Sun, only seen during eclipses, as
early as 1300 BCE.
Too, there is the
famous story from around this time of two court astronomers, Hi and Ho, who
were supposedly executed for failing to predict an eclipse--a much harder feat
than observing one. This tale is,
though, almost certainly apocryphal.
Still, as late as
840, a Chinese emperor died of fright during an eclipse. This is understandable in view of the Chinese
myth that an eclipse occurs when a dog devours the Moon. As recently as 1948, an election was postponed
in South Korea on account of an eclipse.
The Bible may record an ancient eclipse: “And
on that day, says the Lord God, I will make the Sun go down at noon, and darken
the Earth in broad daylight“ (Amos 8:9).
Historians speculate that this passage is in reference to the eclipse of
15 June 763 BCE, which was total in
Old Testament lands.
Farther west, we
have this poem by Archilochus:
there is beyond hope,
that can be sworn impossible,
of the Olympians,
night from midday,
the light of the shining sun,
sore fear came upon men”
during the Seventh Century BCE. A total
eclipse of the Sun was visible from Greece
on 6 April 648 BCE.
The historian Herodotus
claims that, during a war between the Medes and Lydians, the great scientist Thales
predicted an eclipse. (This seems
unlikely; perhaps he warned of the possibility of an eclipse in the manner of
the Mesopotamians?) Anyway, both sides
wanted peace, and this was as good an excuse as any to call off the war. The story can be associated with the eclipse
of 28 May 585 BCE.
Helicon of Cyzicus’s
supposed prediction of a 12 May 361 BCE solar eclipse, like Thales’s, also can
be attributed to a misunderstanding. It
is easy to believe that stories of a famous scholar observing an eclipse evolved into stories of his predicting an eclipse.
Filled with more
verisimilitude, I think, insofar as it does not involve a prediction, is the
story of the lunar eclipse of 27 August 413 BCE. It, too, took place during a war--this time
between Athens and Syracuse. The Athenian
commander viewed the eclipse as a bad omen.
He retired from the battlefield for a full month, thereby giving Syracuse time to regroup. Syracuse
An exciting modern
discovery in archaeology is a set of metal gears and dials remarkably preserved
in a two-millenia-old Greek shipwreck.
It is named the Antikythera Mechanism (after a nearby Mediterranean
island). As far as we now know, there
was nothing else like it built for a thousand years. The Antikythera Mechanism seems to be a
sophisticated, mechanical calendar. New
analysis techniques reveal what looks like a saros eclipse-prediction dial. This one-of-a-kind artifact still is being
Antikythera Mechanism sat on the bottom of the sea, time floated by. The cause for eclipses became known. Moreover, Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE)
pointed out that, because the Earth always produces a round shadow on the Moon,
the Earth must be a sphere.
However, that did
not mean that everybody knew what was
going on. Roman citizens still might be
heard making a great clamor during a lunar eclipse, the purpose of which was to
frighten away the great wolf that was eating the Moon.
Roger of Wendover (died:
1236) chronicles the early-day eclipse of 14 May 1230: He tells of the sky becoming so dark that
laborers, who had commenced their morning’s work, returned to their beds to
sleep--only to restart the day hours later, after the eclipse had ended.
The nature of the
corona was still a subject of speculation.
It had been documented in print since the Tenth Century, but what
exactly was it? (The word itself was not
coined until 1803.) In the Seventeenth Century,
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630; arguably the first modern astronomer) correctly concluded
that the corona was actually part of the Sun, and not, say, of the Moon nor was
an optical illusion produced by an eclipse.
became possible to predict eclipses accurately.
(In the Western Hemisphere, the Maya probably could crudely foretell
eclipses by the Third or Fourth Century.)
In 1504, Christopher Columbus was marooned in Jamaica, awaiting resupply. He told the natives that if they did not
provide him and his crew with food in the meantime, he would take away the Moon. Columbus
was able to demonstrate the power of his threat since he knew that a lunar
eclipse was to occur on 29 February, and he timed his pronouncement accordingly. The ruse worked. This was one of Columbus’s more “pleasant”
interactions with the New World natives.
Skipping forward to
more recent times, eclipses were standard observing fare for observational astronomers,
who wished to keep track of the exact location of the Moon. The coordinates of the Moon were of practical
value to mariners, who used its position on the Celestial Sphere to determine
longitude before the advent of reliable sea clocks. Timing a total eclipse allowed placing the
Moon precisely at the exact location of the Sun.
A lunar eclipse was
of even more direct use: Because such an
eclipse is a simultaneous event over large areas of the Earth, comparing the
time of its occurrence to that printed in an almanac, written for a known
location, allowed calculation of the time difference, and hence longitudinal
difference, between your location and the almanac’s.
Freeth, Tony; Jones, Alexander; Steele, John M.; and Bitsakis, Yanis. “Calendars with Olympiad Display and Eclipse
Prediction on the Antikytherea Mechanism.”
p. 614. 2008.
Pásztor, Emília. “Some Remarks on the
Moon Cult of Teutonic Tribes.” In
Ruggles, Clive (Editor). Archaeoastronomy
in the 1990s. Loughborough (UK): Group D
Publications, Ltd. 1993."
End of Prof. Thomas Hockey's paper.
Legends involve theories ranging from the benign and romantic (the sun and moon as lovers, kissing behind the veil of darkness created during the eclipse) to the downright frightening (dragons, wolves or evil gods devouring the sun that must be scared away or appeased by banging on pots and pans or by making sacrifices). Of course, whatever you do to make the sun come back ALWAYS works in no more than 7 minutes, the maximum length of an eclipse, thus perpetuating the need to do whatever it is you did the last time. So, go ahead, have fun with it, do what your culture says to do, bang on some pots and pans, or create your own legend.
The one thing I urge you NOT to do is avoid looking at the eclipse completely because of unscientific beliefs in some cultures that predict bad luck, pregnancy, blindness, or other such events will occur for those who look at or are outdoors during an eclipse. No doubt all these things happened to people who looked at eclipses in the past, but they also happened to people who didn't look at eclipses. There is no scientific correlation between personal issues and eclipses, and the total solar eclipse is, in my opinion, nature's most magnificent spectacle, and very well understood and explained by modern science. Wonder at it, feel emotional, see the earth's place in the solar system like you never will at any other time, and most of all, enjoy it!