The modern view of eclipses is still one of wonder. But, their rarity and strangeness caused them to take on great significance throughout history. From the ancient to the modern, here’s how eclipses have collided with human destiny over the centuries.
The American Revolutionary War
The first important eclipse in American history came on June 24, 1778. It was predicted well ahead of time, thanks to Ben Franklin’s Poor Richards Almanac. General George Washington notified his commanders of the coming phenomenon.
General George Rogers Clark used it to rally his men, telling them that it was a good omen. Clark and his men captured the city of Kasakia less than two weeks later. It was also long associated with the victory of the Continental Army in the Battle of Monmouth that occurred two days later.
Another eclipse in 1780 sparked an early American scientific expedition. It was one of the first concerted efforts for the young nation founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment to leave its mark on science. Harvard Professor Samuel Williams led a team of scientists to Penobscot Bay in Maine aboard a ship provided by the Navy. While the expedition missed the path of totality due to flaws in Williams’ calculations, it provided an early observation of Baily’s Beads. Williams wrote:
The sun’s limb became so small as to appear like a circular thread or rather like a very fine horn. Both the ends lost their acuteness and seemed to break off in the form of small drops or stars some of which were round others of an oblong figure. They would separate for a small distance, some would appear to run together again and then diminish until the whole disappeared.
Not fully understood until years later, Baily’s Beads are the glimmers of light shining through canyons between the moon’s mountains.
Fear and Trepidation
In pre-scientific times, eclipses were viewed with dread and awe. “In ancient times, every culture had a sun god, and it was usually one of the chief gods of their whole pantheon,” explains Bradley Schaefer, astronomy professor at Louisiana State University told CNN. “Humans couldn’t touch what’s in the sky, so they believed it must be where the gods are. When you have a total solar eclipse, it looks like the death of a god, and to them, that couldn’t be a good thing.”
Eclipses were taken very seriously in antiquity. “It happened against this unnerving backdrop, this existential realm where the gods displayed messages of great import, messages that could be read only by the highest and most learned priests,” Ross Anderson writes in The Atlantic.
An Athenian Error
Sometimes superstitions about eclipses could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. During the Peloponnesian War in 413 B.C., the Athenians who had launched an expedition to capture Syracuse on the coast of Sicily, were losing badly and planned a retreat. But, a lunar eclipse delayed the Athenian fleet’s departure, giving the Syracusan navy time to destroy their fleet of 200 ships and kill or enslave 29,000 Athenian soldiers.
Eclipses of the Bible
The Christian gospels record a darkening of the sky on the date of Christ’s crucifixion. Some speculate that this may have been the result of solar eclipses occurring in 29 or 33 C.E. But, this doesn’t fully add up. Neither eclipse would have been visible from Jerusalem.
The scriptures also record that the crucifixion occurred during Passover, which is marked by the first full moon of Spring. “You need a new moon, not a full moon, for a solar eclipse. Exactly the wrong phase of the moon,” Brother Guy Consolmagno, a research astronomer who is also director of the Vatican Observatory said.
But maybe it was actually a lunar eclipse, rather than a solar eclipse and that fact got lost in the retelling. Scholars think the crucifixion occurred around April 3, 33 C.E. and astronomical records indicate a lunar eclipse occurring on that date. Another bible account in the Book of Acts bolsters the lunar eclipse theory. On the day of Pentecost, as Peter preaches, he quotes a prophecy from Joel 2:31, telling the assembled crowd:
the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood (Acts 2:20).
Indeed, a partial eclipse of the moon may cause it to take on a reddish hue. But, some scientists say that the effects of this partial lunar eclipse may have been so slight as to not be clearly apparent from Jerusalem. Still, it’s possible that a lunar eclipse seen in Jerusalem or elsewhere found its way into the oral accounts of the crucifixion and were eventually conflated for a solar eclipse by the time the gospels were actually written down decades later.
Another explanation for the darkness described in the Gospels with better scientific evidence is a sandstorm associated with an earthquake. The gospels also tell of a great trembling that occurred upon Jesus’ death on the cross. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 27, mentions that an earthquake coincided with the crucifixion:
“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.”
In 2012, geologists found evidence of seismic activity near Jerusalem during this period. According to NBC, “varves, which are annual layers of deposition in the sediments, reveal that at least two major earthquakes affected the core: a widespread earthquake in 31 B.C. and a seismic event that happened sometime between the years 26 and 36.”
Or perhaps it was just a metaphor. That is the view held by modern scholars. Two biblical scholars, W. D. Davies and Dale Allison conclude “It is probable that, without any factual basis, darkness was added in order to wrap the cross in a rich symbol and/or assimilate Jesus to other worthies.”
Or, for the faithful, it may just be a miracle. “From a theological perspective,” Ryan Maderak, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Benedictine College, a Catholic college in Atchison, Kansas said, “if God is omnipotent, then he has sort of a little, shall we say, a little leeway to override the laws of physics.”
The Old Testament also records a solar eclipse. “I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the Earth in the clear day,” reads a passage o the book of Amos 8:9. This may be a reference to the eclipse observed at Nineveh in ancient Assyria on June 15, 763 B.C., which was recorded on an Assyrian tablet.
Death of Kings
Superstitious ancient societies sometimes went to great lengths to avert the dark events eclipses were thought to portend, specifically the death of kings. Clay cuneiform tablets dating from 2300 and 1800 B.C. found in Mesopotamia document a bizarre ritual around eclipses. Eclipses were thought to precede the death of a king within 100 days. To prevent this, the king would abdicate the throne, temporarily changing his vocation to farmer with a convicted criminal taking his place. The criminal would be assassinated within 100 days, fulfilling the prophesy and allowing the king to safely return to the throne. Problem solved.
King Henry I of England, the son of William the Conqueror, died in A.D. 1133 soon after a solar eclipse. As the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,” recorded it: “In this year King Henry went over sea at Lammas, and the second day as he lay and slept on the ship the day darkened over all lands; and the Sun became as it were a three-night-old Moon, and the stars about it at mid-day. Men were greatly wonder-stricken and were affrighted, and said that a great thing should come thereafter. So it did, for the same year the king died on the following day after St Andrew’s Mass-day, Dec 2 in Normandy.”
King Louis XIV of France, the “sun king”, whose emblem was a golden sun, died following an eclipse too.
Eclipses have also ushered in scientific advances. Helium was discovered during an eclipse in 1868 when English astronomer Norman Lockyer observed a yellow line in the spectral signature of light from the corona of a total eclipse that year, correctly recognizing the signature of a new chemical element, which he named helium.
An eclipse in 1919 allowed astronomer Arthur Eddington to confirm Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. using calculations based on bending light during an eclipse.
A major prediction of Einstein’s theory is that the gravity of a massive object, such as the sun, would bend light in a phenomenon called gravitational lending. Eddington set out to test this theory in an eclipse that occurred May 29, 1919 by measuring the bending of light from the Hydes star cluster as it passed by the sun. By comparing the observed position of the light from the star compared to its calculated position, Eddington was able to confirm that indeed the light had indeed been bent by the sun’s gravity. When it was announced later that year, the finding made Einstein an instant worldwide celebrity as the scientist who had upended Newton’s theory of gravity.
“Light’s All Askew in the Heavens” the New York Times headline of December 10, 1919 declared. “Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations. EINSTEIN’S THEORY TRIUMPHS,” proclaimed the subheadings.
Throughout the centuries, eclipses have pulled on our imaginations. They’ve marked the passing of kings, punctuated great battles, inspired fear and hope and given rise to advances in human understanding. It is fitting that we should witness “The Great American Eclipse” in 2017, a year sure to be remembered as one of the stranger moments in our history.