How Cultures Have Explained the Eclipse

Total Solar Eclipse
Total Solar Eclipse | Image by NASA

Much of the southern and eastern U.S. will witness the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon of a total solar eclipse on April 8, including residents of Dallas.

Throughout history, cultures have viewed eclipses as an omen, often one of doom. Dating back to at least the Babylonians and the Assyrians, cultures saw the eclipse as a warning of a king’s death. Ancient Mesopotamian astronomers were able to calculate and predict when eclipse cycles.

“So we have what we call omen texts. These are collections of entries of a type like if a solar eclipse happens in the first month of the year, the king will die, there will be famine,” Eckart Frahm, a professor of Assyriology at Yale University, said in an interview with NPR. “But we also have letters exchanged between the Assyrian kings of that time and their scholars and astronomers.”

The Babylonian kings stationed astrologers to record the movement of the planets, the moon, and the sun for a period that covered more than 800 years, what Frahm describes as “the longest research project of all time.”

The fear of the eclipse as an omen of a king’s death has some historical value. It is said that a lunar eclipse occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, leading religious historians to believe the date of Jesus’ death was April 3, AD 33, as the eclipse would have been visible in Jerusalem on that day.

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, Cameron Gibelyou of the University of Michigan said in an interview with USA Today ahead of the 2017 eclipse.

The son of the Prophet Mohamed is said to have died during an eclipse in 632, and King Henry I of England died shortly after an eclipse in 1133. King Monkut, Rama IV, of Siam, also died shortly after an eclipse. Monkut is known to Westerners as the central character in the play The King and I.

Various other beliefs held that monsters ate the sun during an eclipse: Vikings believed the “monsters” to be wolves, the Chinese believed it was dragons, and the Mayans thought they were snakes.

A solar eclipse has even stopped war because of the belief in the phenomenon as an omen. As Greek historian Herodotus recorded, an eclipse on May 28, 585 BC, ended the war between the Lydians and Medes.

According to Gibelyou, cultures such as the Aborigines, the native Tahitians, and others have viewed the eclipse differently. In these cultures, the eclipse is viewed as an “amorous interaction” between the sun and the moon.

Frahm said that according to some cultures when Jupiter was visible, the doom of an eclipse was considered to be less likely. He added that Jupiter would be visible throughout April 2024.

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