History Lesson: Solar Eclipse

Rooster dives into the history of the solar eclipse on this edition of History Lesson.

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Zeus, the father of the
Olympic Gods, turned
mid-day into night, hiding the light
of the dazzling Sun;
and sore fear came upon men.” – Archilochus

Sure, we all know what a solar eclipse is – the moon comes directly between the earth and the sun. We know exactly when they happen down to the minute. But think about the people who didn’t have an understanding of science and physics like we do. Suddenly, a sunny day turns dark with no warning. Something moves in front of the sun, but what the fuck is it? Back when you needed to pray for rain or make a sacrifice to Odin for a favorable wind, an eclipse would have been terrifying.

One of the earliest solar eclipses recorded was in 2134 BC by the Chinese, who believed a giant dragon was trying to eat the sun. Two royal astronomers were appointed to predict the occurrence so that archers could be prepared to defend the sun from the dragon. Many cultures believed something was eating the sun: the Vietnamese believed it was a giant frog, while the Norse thought giant wolves. Traditionally, people banged pots and pans to scare away whatever demon or creature was eating the sun. Because anything that can eat the sun is obviously going to be scared of pots and pans.

An eclipse also ended a war. Herodotus wrote of the Lydians and Medes warring for five years over present-day Turkey in 585 BC. “As, however, the balance had not inclined in favour of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night.” Both sides stopped fighting and stood in awe.

The Greeks believed that an eclipse was a sign of angry gods, so they took this as a sign that the gods wanted the conflict to end and thus they laid down their weapons and formed a truce. Thanks to the eclipse, we’ve been able to actually put an exact date to this battle – May 28, 585 BC. This eclipse was said to have been predicted by Thales, which would make it the first recorded eclipse that was predicted beforehand.

The man who brought philosophy to Athens, Anaxagoras, was the first person to give an accurate description of what was happening during an eclipse. He was also the first to explain rainbows, meteors, and that the moon shines with the sun’s reflected light. He was a pretty smart dude, though he still believed the earth was flat. These scientific explanations led him to be charged with impiety, and eventually exiled.

Knowledge of the eclipse grew, and eventually the Greeks devised a method of prediction which spread to Eurasia. But superstitions didn’t die. Even today, some cultures ask pregnant women and children to stay indoors; Indians fast, because some believe any food cooked during the eclipse is poisonous; some say it is the harbinger of the apocalypse; and some crazy ass people think you need special sunglasses to look at a dark sun.

So, the next time we see an eclipse, make sure to do your part and bang some pots and pans, juuuuust in case there is a sun-eating demon afoot. No point in taking that risk.

Rooster stars in the history/spooky/society and culture/current events/everything show, Phone It In. She also covers the broad, daunting topic of ‘general history’ on History Lesson. Follow her on Twitter @SoBroRooster

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