Solar eclipses in history: A sense of doom turns to awe of science

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Throughout history, humanity has looked to the skies during total solar eclipses, often with a sense of dread, and sometimes with wonder. Many ancient cultures believed eclipses were celestial omens of impending doom, and some believed they were precursors to significant events, often with religious significance.

As people gained more understanding of the astronomical phenomenon of the moon temporarily obscuring the sun, scientists have used them to better understand our place in the universe.

The oldest record of solar eclipses goes back more than 5,000 — carved in stone by Irish Neolithics in 3340 BC. Since then, eclipses have sometimes intersected with important historical events.

Here’s a look at some of the most-historic solar eclipses.

Oct. 22, 2134 BC: China: Ancient Chinese astronomers kept a close eye on the skies, believing that everything from comets to shooting stars revealed the people’s fortunes. Solar eclipses took particular significance, since they were believed to foretell the health and well-being of the Chinese emperor. But in 2134 BC, a total solar eclipse caught royal astronomers Hsi and Ho by surprise — legend has it they were drunk on the job — and their failure to predict what the Chinese called “the dragon devouring the sun” cost them their lives. Emperor Chung K’ang had them beheaded.

April 6, 647 BC: Greece: In ancient Greece, eclipses were seen as messages from the gods on Mount Olympus, and the poet Archilochus wrote about the 647 BC eclipse, capturing the epic sense of dread caused by day becoming night:

“There is nothing beyond hope, nothing that can be sworn impossible, nothing wonderful, since Zeus, father of the Olympians, made night from mid-day, hiding the light of the shining Sun, and sore fear came upon men.”

Later, Greek astronomers would make significant strides predicting both lunar and solar eclipses, which began the change the public’s perception of them from mythic fury to scientific phenomenon.

May 28, 585 BC: Greece: The Greek city states of Lydia and Media had been at war for six years, and were engaged in a fierce battle when suddenly the sky grew dark as a total solar eclipse passed overhead. The event caused such fear on both sides that, according to the Greek historian Herodotus, both sides sued for peace. Based on today’s astronomical calculations, the Battle of the Eclipse occurred on May 28, 585 BC. According to science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov, that makes this the earliest historical event that we can pinpoint by the exact date.

Jan. 27, 632: Arabian Peninsula: In the Muslim faith, a solar eclipse is seen both as a sign of the power of Allah, and as a reminder of the Day of Judgement. It’s also considered a time for prayer. In 632, an annular eclipse (when the moon is far enough away from the Earth to only partially obscure the sun) crossed over what is now Yemen, coinciding with the death of Prophet Mohammad’s infant son Ibrahim. But the Prophet is record as saying “The Sun and Moon are signs of God and do not eclipse for the death or birth of any man.”

Aug. 2, 1133: England: Despite growing scientific evidence that solar eclipses aren’t a maniacal force, superstitions reigned supreme in the Middle Ages, and the eclipse of 1133 fueled the paranoia of people in England. The eclipse occurred right after King Henry I left England on a military campaign in France, and the English believed it was a sign that the King was destined to fail. When King Henry I later died, the English people convinced themselves that the solar eclipse had sealed the monarch’s fate.

July 28, 1851: Norway and Sweden: In 1851, the science world made some of its biggest strides to better understand solar eclipses, launching the first-ever scientific expedition, with astronomers from numerous countries gathering across the Scandinavian path of totality. During this eclipse, scientists determined that the solar corona seen during a total eclipse truly did belong to the sun, and not the moon as some had previously speculated. This eclipse also marked the first time a photograph was taken of the corona stage.

May 29, 1919: Brazil: Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity helped decode some of the secrets of time and space measurement. And in 1919, British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington decided that the May 29 eclipse in Brazil provided the perfect conditions to test the theory. Eddington figured that if Einstein’s theory was correct, the light from stars would be bent by the gravitational field of the sun. During totality, Eddington’s team took pictures of the stars, and the images proved that gravity could bend light.

The confirmation of Einstein’s theory made headlines around the world, and helped cement him as a superstar of science.

Feb. 26, 1979: The Pacific Northwest: The last time a solar eclipse crossed the Pacific Northwest was 38 years ago, when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the radio airwaves were dominated by disco music. In Portland, cloudy skies kept people from seeing the eclipse — things just got very dark when it reached totality. Many high-tailed it out to Goldendale, where clear skies offered a chance to witness the corona. Many who saw it described it as a moment of profound beauty.