History Podcasts

Eclipses

Eclipses

Solar and lunar eclipses—astronomical events that occur when the Earth, the Sun and the Moon are aligned—have figured prominently in human history. Striking to behold, eclipses often were viewed as supernatural phenomena. They also allowed ancient civilizations to develop sophisticated calendars, convinced Aristotle the Earth was round and helped Einstein prove his theory of relativity.

Types Of Eclipses

A solar eclipse happens when the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun and partially or fully blocks the view of the Sun. When the Moon passes directly behind the Earth, into its shadow, a lunar eclipse occurs.

A total solar eclipse happens when the Moon totally covers the Sun’s disk. During a total solar eclipse, the daytime sky may darken briefly and the temperature may drop. A total solar eclipse may last only a few minutes. They are rare events at any given location, because the Moon’s shadow is small relative to the size of the Earth and traces a narrow path across Earth’s surface.

During a total lunar eclipse, the Moon turns a reddish color, because the only light seen is refracted through the Earth’s shadow. Total lunar eclipses are sometimes called blood moons.

Historic Eclipses

November 30, 3340 B.C.: A series of circular and spiral-shaped petroglyphs at the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument in County Meath, Ireland, are believed to correspond to a total solar eclipse visible in the region on that date. The discovery of charred human bones beneath a stone basin inside the monument only adds to the mystery of this site.

October 22, 2134 B.C.: One of the earliest solar eclipse records appears in the Shu Ching, an ancient Chinese book of documents. The ancient Chinese believed that a solar eclipse was the result of a large dragon eating the Sun. It was the job of two royal astronomers named Hsi and Ho to predict such events so that people could prepare bows and arrows to fend off the dragon. However, they shirked their duties in order to get drunk and were beheaded by the emperor as a result.

May 28, 585 B.C.: According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, a total solar eclipse brought about an unexpected ceasefire between two warring nations, the Lydians and the Medes, who had been fighting for control of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) for five years. During the Battle of Halys, also known as the Battle of the Eclipse, the sky suddenly turned dark as the sun disappeared behind the moon. Interpreting the inexplicable phenomenon as a sign that the gods wanted the conflict to end, the soldiers put down their weapons and negotiated a truce.

August 27, 413 B.C.: At the height of the Peloponnesian War, a decades-long struggle between Athens and Sparta, Athenian soldiers found themselves locked in a losing battle to expel the Syracusians from Sicily. Their commander, Nicias, ordered a temporary retreat.

As the troops prepared to sail home, however, a lunar eclipse took place, prompting the highly superstitious Nicias to postpone the departure. The Syracusians took advantage of the delay to stage another attack, overcoming the Athenians and weakening their stronghold on the Mediterranean. According to many historians, the defeat in Sicily marked the beginning of the end of Athenian dominance.

29-32 A.D.: Christian gospels say the sky darkened after the crucifixion of Jesus. Some accounts suggest the event may have coincided with a solar eclipse. Historians have used astronomical records of solar eclipses in the years 29 C.E. or 32 C.E. to try to pinpoint the death of Jesus.

May 5, 840: The third son of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious inherited a vast empire in what is now modern-day France when his father died in 814. His reign was marked by dynastic crises and fierce rivalry between his sons. A deeply religious man who earned his nickname by performing penance for his sins, Louis reportedly became terrified of an impending punishment from God after witnessing a solar eclipse. According to legend, he died of fright shortly thereafter, plunging his fractured kingdom into a civil war that didn’t end until the historic Treaty of Verdun in 843.

February 29, 1504: Twelve years after his momentous landing at San Salvador, Christopher Columbus was exploring the Central American coast when woodworms attacked his ship, causing leaks and forcing him to make an emergency stop in Jamaica. He and his crew spent more than a year there awaiting relief. The indigenous people of the island welcomed the men, offering them food and shelter, but cut off their supplies when some of Columbus’ crew members began stealing from them.

Hoping to impress his hosts and regain their support, Columbus consulted the almanac he had brought with him and read about an upcoming total lunar eclipse. He told the Jamaicans that the gods were unhappy with them for failing to provide assistance and that they would show their disapproval by turning the moon a bloody red color. The eclipse occurred on schedule, and the astonished Jamaicans promised to resume feeding Columbus and his crew.

Scientific Discoveries

Scientists have studied eclipses since ancient times. Aristotle observed that the Earth’s shadow has a circular shape as it moves across the moon. He posited that this must mean the Earth was round.

Another Greek astronomer named Aristarchus used a lunar eclipse to estimate the distance of the Moon and Sun from Earth. The Moon’s ability to cover the Sun’s disc during a total solar eclipse also allowed the ancient Greeks to describe the Sun’s corona—the aura of light that surrounds the Sun.

Scientists have used eclipses to make discoveries in more recent times, too. On May 29, 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity during a total solar eclipse. Einstein had theorized that massive objects caused distortions in space and time. Eddington confirmed that starlight bent around the sun by measuring the position of certain stars relative to the eclipse.

Viewing Eclipses

On August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will cross the United States from coast to coast. Viewers in the direct path of the eclipse will experience a total solar eclipse, while people outside the direct path will see a partial eclipse.

Looking directly at the sun without eye protection during a solar eclipse can cause eye damage. However, there are ways to safely view a solar eclipse.

DIY pinhole “cameras” allow viewers to track the progress of the Moon’s across a projection of the Sun’s surface, while special solar-viewing or eclipse glasses make it safe for the wearer to stare directly at the Sun.

SOURCES

Eclipse History. NASA.
The Long History of the Lunar Eclipse. NPR.
May 29, 1919: A Major Eclipse, Relatively Speaking. WIRED.
The 8 Most Famous Solar Eclipses in History. LiveScience.com.


Find Solar & Lunar Eclipses in Your City

Eclipse times, paths, phase animations, maps, and much more.

Will you be able to see the next eclipse?

18–19 ноябрь 2021 г. Partial Lunar Eclipse

Much of Europe, Much of Asia, Australia, North/West Africa, North America, South America, Pacific, Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Arctic

4 декабрь 2021 г. Total Solar Eclipse

South in Australia, South in Africa, South in South America, Pacific, Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Antarctica

30 апрель 2022 г. Partial Solar Eclipse

South/West South America, Pacific, Atlantic, Antarctica

Next Eclipse: Path Map

Where is the next eclipse visible? Try our map!

Next Eclipse: 3D Globe Map

Interactive 3D globe of eclipse path

All Eclipses Worldwide

Find solar eclipses and lunar clipses worldwide from 1900 to 2199.

Solar Eclipse Live Show

We are streaming the annular solar eclipse on June 10 LIVE!

Great American Eclipse 2023

Annular solar eclipse visible in parts of the US, as well as several Central and South American countries.


NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Eclipse Web Site

The lunar eclipse of 2018 July 27 is visible in regions of South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia.
Figure showing the phases of the eclipse and where it will be visible

Google Maps are not working at present we are working on a replacement.

Eclipses of the Sun
  • | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 |
  • | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 |
  • | 1951 - 1960 | 1961 - 1970 | 1971 - 1980 | 1981 - 1990 | 1991 - 2000 |
  • | 2001 - 2010 | 2011 - 2020 | 2021 - 2030 | 2031 - 2040 | 2041 - 2050 |
  • | 1901 - 1920 | 1921 - 1940 | 1941 - 1960 | 1961 - 1980 | 1981 - 2000 |
  • | 2001 - 2020 | 2021 - 2040 | 2041 - 2060 | 2061 - 2080 | 2081 - 2100 |
  • | 1901 - 1920 | 1921 - 1940 | 1941 - 1960 | 1961 - 1980 | 1981 - 2000 |
  • | 2001 - 2020 | 2021 - 2040 | 2041 - 2060 | 2061 - 2080 | 2081 - 2100 |
Eclipses of the Moon
  • | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 |
  • | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 |
  • Decade Lunar Eclipse Tables:
    • | 1951 - 1960 | 1961 - 1970 | 1971 - 1980 | 1981 - 1990 | 1991 - 2000 |
    • | 2001 - 2010 | 2011 - 2020 | 2021 - 2030 | 2031 - 2040 | 2041 - 2050 |
    Planetary Transits Across the Sun
    Solar System Data
    • Generate sky events calendar: SKYCAL: Sky Events Calendar
      • Sky Events Calendars: | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020 |
      • Sky Events Tables: | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013 | 2014 | 2015 | 2016 | 2017 | 2018 | 2019 | 2020 |

      Permission is freely granted to reproduce this data when accompanied by an acknowledgment:


      Notes

        "Babylonian observation of a lunar eclipse in the first year of Nabonassar. This is the earliest eclipse record from Babylon, and it may well be due to this that Ptolemy uses the beginning of Nabonassar's reign as the epoch for his calculations."
        - Dr. John Steele
        "And when all were in readiness, and none of the enemy had observed them, not expecting such a thing, the moon was eclipsed in the night, to the great fright of Nicias and others, who, for want of experience, or out of superstition, felt alarm at such appearances. That the sun might be darkened about the close of the month, this even ordinary people now understood pretty well to be the effect of the moon but the moon itself to be darkened, how that could come about, and how, on the sudden, a broad full moon should lose her light, and show such various colours, was not easy to be comprehended they concluded it to be ominous, and a divine intimation of some heavy calamities. For he who the first, and the most plainly of any, and with the greatest assurance committed to writing how the moon is enlightened and overshadowed, was Anaxagoras and he was as yet but recent, nor was his argument much known, but was rather kept secret, passing only amongst a few, under some kind of caution and confidence."
        - Nicias by Plutarch
        "In the ensuing year--the year in which there was an eclipse of the moon one evening, and the old temple of Athena at Athens was burned, Pityas being now ephor at Sparta and Callias archon at Athens--the Lacedaemonians sent Callicratidas to take command of the fleet, since Lysander's term of office had ended (and with it the twenty-fourth year of the war)."
        - Hellenica by Xenophon
        "At the time he died the moon is said to have been eclipsed, and one might well say that the brightest luminary in heaven next to the sun thereby gave token of her sympathy. According to Apollodorus in his chronology he departed his life in the fourth year of the 162-nd Olympiad at the age of eighty-five years."
        - Carneades by Diogenes Laertius IV

        "For the troops in Pannonia had mutinied as soon as they learned of the death of Augustus, and coming together into one camp and strengthening it, they committed many rebellious acts. . But when the moon suffered eclipse, they took the omen to heart and their spirit abated, so that they did no further harm to this detachment and dispatched envoys again to Tiberius."
        - Roman History by Cassius Dio

        "The worthy Abp. Bradwardine, who flourished in the reign of the Norman Edwards, and died A.D. 1349, tells a story of a witch who was attempting to impose on the simple people of the time. It was a fine summer's night, and the Moon was suddenly eclipsed. 'Make me good amends,' said she, 'for old wrongs, or I will bid the Sun also to withdraw his light from you.' Bradwardine, who had studied with Arabian astronomers, was more than a match for this simple trick, without calling in the aid of the Saxon law. 'Tell me', he said, 'at what time you will do this, and we will believe you or if you will not tell me I will tell you when the Sun or the Moon will next be darkened, in what part of their orb the darkness will begin, how far it will spread, and how long it will continue'."
        - Archdeacon Churton
        "On Wednesday the 28th of Shawwal, the Sun was eclipsed by about two-thirds in the sign of Cancer more than one hour after the afternoon prayer. The eclipse cleared at sunset. During the eclipse there was darkness and some stars appeared. . . . On Friday night the 14th of Dhu I-Qu'da, most of the Moon was eclipsed. It rose eclipsed from the eastern horizon. The eclipse cleared in the time of the nightfall prayer. This is a rarity - the occurrence of a lunar eclipse 15 days after a solar eclipse."
        - al-Maqrizi
        "Lunar eclipse observed by Georg Peurbach and Regiomontanus in Melk. The considerable error between the observed time and that predicted by the Alphonsine tables may be one reason why Regiomontanus worked on a new set of tables."
        - Dr. John Steele
        "The Indians observed this [the eclipse] and were so astonished and frightened that with great cries and lamentations they came running from all directions to the ships, carrying provisions and begging (. ) and promising they would diligently supply all their needs in the future."
        - Ferdinand Columbus
        "Lunar eclipse predicted and then observed by a young Tycho Brahe in Knudstrup. He says that 'I cannot but be very surprised that even at this youthful age of 26 years, I was able to get such accurate results' from his prediction."
        - Dr. John Steele

      References for Lunar Eclipses of Historical Interest

      Brewer, B., Eclipse, Earth View, Seattle, 1991

      Humphreys, Colin J. and Waddington, W. G., "Dating the Crucifixion", Nature, Vol. 306, No. 5945, p.743-746, 22 December 1983

      Littmann, M., Espenak, F., and Willcox, K. Totality - Eclipses of the Sun (3rd Ed.), Oxford University Press, New York, 2008.

      Schaefer, Bradley E., "Solar Eclipses That Changed the World", Sky and Telescope, May, 1994, p.36-39

      Schaefer, Bradley E., "Lunar Eclipses That Changed the World", Sky and Telescope, December, 1992, p.639-642

      Schaefer, Bradley E., "Dating the Crucifixion", Sky and Telescope, April, 1989, p.374

      Schaefer, Bradley E., "Lunar Visibility and the Crucifixion", Q.Jl. R. astr. Soc., 1990, 31, p.53-67

      Steel, Duncan, Eclipse: The Celestial Phenomenon That Changed the Course of History (Washington, D.C.: The Joseph Henry Press, 2001)

      Predictions

      Lunar eclipse predictions must take into account the enlargement of Earth's shadows. In this Catalog, Earth's penumbral and umbral shadow sizes have been calculated using Danjon's enlargement method.

      The coordinates of the Sun used in the predictions are based on the VSOP87 theory [Bretagnon and Francou, 1988]. The Moon's coordinates are based on the ELP-2000/82 theory [Chapront-Touze and Chapront, 1983]. For more information, see: Solar and Lunar Ephemerides. The revised value used for the Moon's secular acceleration is n-dot = -25.858 arc-sec/cy*cy, as deduced from the Apollo lunar laser ranging experiment (Chapront, Chapront-Touze, and Francou, 2002).

      The largest uncertainty in the eclipse predictions is caused by fluctuations in Earth's rotation due primarily to tidal friction of the Moon. The resultant drift in apparent clock time is expressed as ΔT and is determined as follows:

      1. pre-1950's: ΔT calculated from empirical fits to historical records derived by Morrison and Stephenson (2004)
      2. 1955-2006: ΔT obtained from published observations
      3. Post-2006: ΔT is extrapolated from current values weighted by the long term trend from tidal effects

      A series of polynomial expressions have been derived to simplify the evaluation of ΔT for any time from -1999 to +3000. The uncertainty in ΔT over this period can be estimated from scatter in the measurements.

      Acknowledgments

      The data presented here are based on predictions published in:


      4 thoughts on &ldquo Eclipses and History &rdquo

      I think this idea of tracing back past cultures texts in order to find their past eclipses is quite interesting. The idea that they were able to figure out with the limited technology what they did is quite fascinating.

      I’ve never thought about the fact that scientists could use astronomy to measure time and the fact that this will allow them to discover timelines of ancient history is really amazing!

      It’s so interesting that historians were able to use eclipses to connect calendars and timelines. Do you think the locations of different civilizations had any impact on the eclipses they could see? If so, would this make it harder for historians to make accurate connections between the different events?

      I think that this is a really interesting idea! Perhaps the climate and weather would have an effect too, as it’d be hard to tell exactly what is going on during an eclipse when it’s cloudy!


      Eclipses down the ages…

      Throughout history, eclipses have been associated with important and dramatic events – the start or end of wars, the birth or death of a leader and the founding of nations.

      The Babylonians, who were keen astral diviners, considered eclipses to be omens from the celestial gods, heralding significant events for the nation – the king in particular. As far as they were concerned, many lunar eclipses were very bad omens, especially for the current ruler, who was often temporarily replaced by a ‘stand in’ during such events so that any evil portents brought about by these occultations would not affect national stability. Given how important the moon was to the Mesopotamians (it determined their calendar, for one thing) the sight of the Moon turning blood red from the shadow of the earth, must have been a terrifying sight.

      One example of an eclipse omen, from a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum, gives us an insight into their interpretation of lunar eclipse omens:

      1-6 If the moon is eclipsed in Leo and finishes the watch and the north wind blows, Jupiter does not stand (in) the eclipse Saturn and Mars stand in Aries or in Sagittarius (The Field) variant: in its eclipse [a halo surrounds (the moon) and Regulus stands within it].


      7’ For this sign: [the king] of Akkad will experience severe hardship/disease: it will seize him, and in a revolt they will oust him from his throne.


      8’–9’ His people will experience great famine brother will kill his brother, friend his friend, in battle. For three years [. . .] will not return [to the throne of Akkad] the gods will [abandon] the country [the people will be scattered, break (= the people) will abandon their shrines break (= mercy and) well-being will end in the land Enlil [will maliciously oppress the country . . .]

      Eclipses during the Graeco-Roman period

      Later on, the ancient Greeks, including Herodotus and Plutarch, also wrote about eclipses. Not all Greeks saw them as mere astronomical-scientific or natural events. Some such as Arrian, also saw them as astral portents, who reports that before a major battle with Darius, the king of Achaemenid Persia, Alexander the Great and his army witnessed a lunar eclipse, which was interpreted by his seer, Aristander of Telmessos, as a sign of victory for the Greeks.

      So,‘… Alexander sacrificed to the Moon, Sun and Earth, who are all said to cause an eclipse,’ and went on to win the battle within the month, just as Aristander had prophesied.[i]

      Several Roman chroniclers also record eclipse events, mostly typifying them as natural omens, but none are as dramatic as that reported by Cassius Dio on the eve of the Emperor Augustus’ death around the years 17-25 CE when:

      ‘The sun suffered a total eclipse and most of the sky seemed to be on fire glowing embers appeared to be falling from it and blood-red comets were seen’.[iii]

      Eclipses & Biblical History

      Certain Biblical scholars think that there may have been an eclipse at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. According to scriptural chroniclers, including the testimony given by the Apostle Peter, when the Moon rose that evening, it was dark and turned ‘the colour of blood’[ii] which sounds very much like a lunar eclipse. The Full Moon, rising opposite the Sun in the eastern horizon as the Sun set in the west, would have taken on a reddish hue as a result of the shadow of the earth, which lies between the two luminaries during this type of event.

      The negative interpretation of such an event would also be very much in keeping with Near Eastern prophetic traditions such as those in Babylon, when the king’s life was often considered to be in danger. What is interesting here is the lunar associations with Christ, rather than the later solar associations that became commonplace during the middle ages when Christ was drawn with a solar halo in many images, and in Ireland, the Christian cross became amalgamated with the pagan symbol of the sun to form the Celtic cross.

      Joseph Campbell has commented on this rather unusual cluster of lunar imagery around Jesus[iv] which he not only relates to the earlier tradition of Mithras (the solar god who kills the bull = time and bondage to the past or to mortal life) but also its links to the sacred marriage of the Sun and Moon in alchemical terms, which, for many, represents:

      The “mystical union of opposites,” with the bride representing the “incarnate self” and the bridegroom representing the “disincarnate Self.”

      Sacred Marriage: The Secret Key to Christian Spirituality by Cynthia Avens

      Anne Jeffers has also written papers on how, ‘despite officially condemning all magicians and divinatory practitioners, the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures is replete with references to divination.’ These vary from astrology to lot casting and hepatoscopy (liver divination) and even necromancy.[v]

      The date of Easter, for example, the festival designed to commemorate the crucifixion, is determined by the Moon. According to the Bible, Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred around the time of the Jewish Passover, which was celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. This soon led to Christians celebrating Easter on different dates. At the end of the 2nd century, some churches celebrated Easter on the day of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the following Sunday.

      Eclipses in Medieval Europe

      During the Medieval period, similar viewpoints continued to hold sway. Gregory of Tours, in his history of the Franks, for example, writes of an eclipse in April 581 which he sees as an ominous portent of death and destruction:

      ‘The moon was darkened and a comet appeared in the sky. A serious epidemic followed among the common people.’[vi]

      Perhaps the comet added an extra bit of drama to the mix, making it seem even more of an unusual and potentially meaningful event? In this respect, it is interesting that the first eclipse of 2017 fell on the same day as the appearance of a comet – a potentially ominous portent for the world?

      According to Norma Reis, an eclipse in the 9th century so terrified a French king that he died of fright after witnessing it. The story goes that:

      ‘…Louis of Bavaria, the son of Charlemagne, was head of a great empire when, on May 5, 840 CE, he witnessed a solar eclipse. He was so petrified that he died just afterwards. His three sons then began to dispute his succession. Their quarrel was settled three years later with the Treaty of Verdun, dividing Europe into three large areas, namely France, Germany and Italy.[vii]’

      References

      [i] See Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, III,7(6) 15(7)

      [iii] See his Roman History, LV II, 4 and LVI, 29. Cornelius Tacitus, Dio Cassius and Eusebius/Jerome also mention this event. See: http://hbar.phys.msu.su/gorm/atext/ginzele.htm

      [iv] Campbell, J and Moyers, B. Sukhavati – Place of Bliss. A Mythic Journey with Joseph Campbell, DVD, Released 2002/7 by Acorn Media

      [v] Anne Jeffers, ‘”Nor by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets”: The story of the woman at the pit in I Samuel 28’ in In: Curry, P. and Voss, A. (eds.) Seeing With Different Eyes, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, pp. 129-142.


      Crucifixion of Jesus

      Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience

      The Christian gospels say that the sky was darkened for hours after the crucifixion of Jesus, which historians viewed either as a miracle or a portent of dark times to come. Later historians used astronomy to pinpoint the death of Christ based on this eclipse mention. Some historians tie the crucifixion to a total solar eclipse lasting 1 minute and 59 seconds that occurred in the year 29 C.E. others say a second total eclipse, blocking the sun for 4 minutes and 6 seconds, in 33 C.E., marked Jesus&rsquo death.


      Maps of Solar Eclipses in North America

      The following maps show the path of every total or annular solar eclipse visible from North America during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. The maps are broken down into 50 year periods and are organized by eclipse type (total or annular). Each map is stored as a gif of 82 to 86 kilobytes.

      These maps can be printed on standard size (8.5" x 11") paper. First change your printer for "landscape" mode and set the scale to 50% reproduction. If some clipping occurs, try a smaller scale setting (e.g. - 45% or 40%). The maps are broken down into 20 year periods and are organized by eclipse type (total or annular). Each map is stored as a GIF of about 180 kilobytes.


      Introduction to the History of Eclipses

      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.


      "Desolation des Peruviens pendant L'Eclipse de Lune. Voyage Historique de l'Amerique Meridionale."
      The Spanish explorer Don Juan described the Peruvians' despair during an eclipse.
      Source: The Philadelphia Print Shop Ltd.

      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 series of articles on Astronomy Today, we present some important solar and lunar eclipses throughout time and their impact on people, societies, and science.


      Eclipses throughout history: Bad omens, hungry dragons, stopped wars

      A petroglyph has been found at New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, carved by the early Pueblo people. And according to Professor J McKim Malville from the University of Colorado Boulder, it may depict a solar eclipse nearly a millennium ago, in the year 1097.

      The despair of the sun-worshipping Peruvian Incas during a lunar eclipse. The people bang drums and tambourines, whip dogs and scream to prevent the eclipse. Hand colored copperplate engraving by Nasi from Giulio Ferrrario's Costumes Antique and Modern of All Peoples (Il Costume Antico e Moderno di Tutti i Popoli), Florence, 1842. (Photo: Florilegius, SSPL via Getty Images)

      "Dragon devours sun, spits it back out."

      That could have been a headline in an ancient Chinese newspaper the day after a total solar eclipse.

      We've known for years that the "Great American Eclipse" will cross the United States from Oregon to South Carolina on Aug. 21. But imagine how freaked out you'd be if you didn't know it was coming.

      "Many years ago, people were surprised and terrified when an eclipse occurred," said former NASA astronomer Fred Espenak in his booklet Get Eclipsed.

      Myths in many cultures claimed animals such as dragons, frogs, snakes or jaguars devoured the sun during a solar eclipse, then regurgitated or excreted it back out, said astronomy historian Steve Ruskin, author of the book America's First Great Eclipse. "Early words for eclipses in China were to eat or devour."

      Vikings thought eclipses were caused by two great wolves chasing the sun and moon across the sky, while Mayans imagined snakes were eating them.

      The moment the sun was totally eclipsed, "people would do all kinds of things to make the sun return," Espenak said. "In China, they would light fires or shoot arrows at the sun to try to make it catch fire again."

      In cultures across Europe, India and Indonesia, Espanak said people would bang on pots and pans or drums and make all kinds of noise to try to scare the "monster" that ate the sun away.

      Ruskin divides eclipse history into pre-scientific and post-scientific eras, with pre-scientific societies primarily seeing eclipses as supernatural events that caused fear and consternation.

      People also thought of solar and lunar eclipses as bad omens or as portents of doom, according to Cameron Gibelyou of the University of Michigan.

      "The Dresden Codex, a well-known Maya text, puts hieroglyphs representing misery, malevolence, and death next to a set of images representing an eclipse," he noted on the Big History Project website.

      Several deaths of famous people have occurred around eclipses, fueling the fear: Charlemagne’s son, Emperor Louis the Pious, may have died in the aftermath of the terror he felt due to an eclipse on May 5, 840, Gibelyou said.

      An eclipse on Jan. 27, 632, coincided with the death of the Prophet Mohammad's son Ibrahim. And in England, King Henry I died shortly after an eclipse that produced "hideous darkness" on Aug. 2, 1133, prompting the spread of the superstition that eclipses were bad omens for rulers.

      But it wasn't always bad news: A total eclipse of May 28, 585 BC, occurred during a war in eastern Turkey between the Lydians and Medes. Greek historian Herodotus reported the combatants were so disturbed by the sight of the sun being “devoured” that they stopped fighting and made peace.

      Some cultures saw eclipses as a good thing, such as the Tahitians, or the Warlpiri people of the Australian Aborigines, according to Gibelyou. Those groups thought an eclipse "involves an amorous encounter between sun and moon," he said.

      Pre-scientific astronomers in some cultures — such as the Greeks, Mayans and Egyptians — had some success predicting eclipses, Ruskin said.

      Better predictions of eclipses began during the Renaissance. Christopher Columbus, during his final voyage to the New World in March 1504, used his knowledge of an upcoming lunar eclipse to basically blackmail what he considered to be uncooperative natives in Jamaica.

      Columbus told the Jamaicans that soon his god would take away the moon. And when the eclipse occurred as predicted, the Jamaicans "came running with food" to Columbus and his crew, according to Ruskin.

      Accurate celestial tables with precise eclipse paths, times and dates were finally widely available in the 18th century from the British Royal Astronomical Society. They were useful as the British Empire spanned the entire world.

      This sort of knowledge allowed hundreds of astronomers and thousands of tourists to travel by train to Wyoming, Colorado and Texas to witness America's first "Great Eclipse" of July 29, 1878, Ruskin said. Those folks had to brave treacherous storms, debilitating altitude sickness and the threat of Indian attacks to enjoy the spectacle.

      Hopefully, bumper-to-bumper traffic will be the only obstacle to enjoying our Great Eclipse of Aug. 21.