A Brief History of Total Solar Eclipses and the Wacky Superstitions Surrounding Them

Unless you’re living under a rock, you know at least something about the impending Total Solar Eclipse happening on August 21st, 2017. But let me give you the basics firstly. A total solar eclipse happens somewhere on the earth every one to two years. Specifically, a total eclipse of the sun happens when the moon completely blocks the visible solar disk, casting a shadow on Earth.

To see a total eclipse, you need to be in the darkest part of this shadow, known as the umbra. People in the lighter part of the shadow, or the prenumbra, will see a partial eclipse. Depending on where along this pathway you are, the moon will cover the entire sun for up to 2 minutes and 40 seconds.(National Geographic Andrew Fazekas 2017).

What makes the Great American Eclipse so special? Well it’s been a very long time coming. The path for last total solar eclipse was in March 2016 which crossed parts of Indonesia but was otherwise visible only from the waters of the Pacific Ocean. And the continental U.S. hasn’t seen a total solar eclipse since February 1979! In contrast, the August 21st eclipse will cross the U.S. from coast to coast, with totality visible within several major cities and other locations that are pretty easily accessible to millions of people. The last time this happened was in June 1918, when the path of totality crossed the country from Washington State to Florida. We are lucky so many cities will be within the path of totality. That is very rare.

As well as just being interesting in nature, the history of solar eclipses and the mythology that surrounds them is quite astounding. It turns out people have been fascinated by them for a long long time. There are historical records from ancient China and Babylonia dating back over 4,000 years ago. Ancient Egypt recorded astronomical data as old as 4,500 years ago.

In ancient China, total eclipses were regarded as heavenly signs that foretold the Emperor’s impending doom or prosperity. The Emperor would hire Astrologers to help predict this. Failure to do so could even result in death. In fact, over four millenniums ago, two Chinese astrologers were murdered for this very reason. The Chinese believed when a solar or lunar eclipse happened it was a celestial dragon eating the sun or moon. They would often bang pots and clang symbols to ward off the great celestial dragon. This ritual stayed with China for hundreds of years. In some countries, they even still bang pots and make loud noises during an eclipse. The term for eclipse in Chinese is “chih” which means to eat. During the 19th century the Chinese navy fired off canons to scare the dragon away from eating the moon. Talk about taking a superstition quite literally.

Astronomical computations enable astronomers to predict and calculate the dates and times of eclipses with great accuracy. Examining and analyzing data from eclipses helps aid in this process.

The Chinese weren’t the only ones awestruck with this phenomenon. Astronomy also flourished in Mesopotamia, the plain between the two great rivers Tigris and Euphrates, during the dawn of civilization. Like the Chinese and Egyptian astronomers, the Babylonians observed the motions of the Sun, Moon and planets carefully and kept records of the celestial events during various eclipses. The Babylonians are credited with remarkable contributions to ancient astronomy.

Three famous solar eclipse records were made in Mesopotamia; one was that of the eclipse of May 3rd 1375 BC, which was visible in the city of Ugarit (located in present Syrian Arab Republic), a total eclipse “that turned day into night” was found to be the eclipse of July 31st 1036 BC, as well as an Assyrian record of the solar eclipse of June 15th 763 BC that was observed in the city of Nineva.

Muslims pray five times daily, but during eclipses they perform a special “eclipse prayer”. This was one of the traditions of Prophet Mohammad. The purpose of this prayer is to remember the might and gifts of their God Allah.

Nearly all we know about ancient Egyptian civilization’s knowledge of astronomy comes to us from tomb paintings, various temple inscriptions, and a handful of papyrus documents such as the Rhind Papyrus. Unfortunately, the Great Library in Alexandria was burned during the time of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar destroying thousands of historical documents. Later fires in AD 390 and AD 640 destroyed an estimated 400,000 books on Egyptian secular literature, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy! A devastating loss of history.

All that survives is fragments that some scholars see as merely the faded ghosts of Egyptian intellectual legacy. The Egyptian astronomer Ibn Yunus who was regarded as one of the greatest observational astronomers of his time made precise observations of lunar and solar eclipses in Cairo. Since we are missing such huge amounts of historical documents when it comes to the Egyptian’s astronomical discoveries, it cannot be proven just how knowledgeable they were when it comes to eclipses, however it is pertinent to note that Greek writers, without exception, gave priority to Egypt in astronomical knowledge. It wouldn’t be a hard to stretch to assume they knew and discovered a lot. Still, there has not yet come to light an Egyptian document specifically mentioning solar eclipses. However, that the Egyptians possessed accurate knowledge of eclipses is evident from external sources.

Eclipses are indeed fascinating to all as well as their history and the mythology that has surrounded them for centuries. Make sure to catch your chance at seeing this very rare one coming August 21st!

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