Spotlight: The History Of Eclipses Around The World
Every civilization has looked toward the sun, moon, and stars. Looking to the sky is old as culture itself, but ideas about what’s above have changed over time.
When a solar eclipse traveled coast-to-coast across America for the first time in decades, Worldview hosted a celestial two-hour special.
Astronomer Lee Minnerly, a former archives assistant at Adler Planetarium's Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy, joined Worldview host Jerome McDonnell to discuss how different cultures have interpreted eclipses.
Jerome McDonnell: When was the first recorded eclipse?
Lee Minnerly: Sticking with solar eclipses, the earliest known record of a solar eclipse was found in 1948 on a clay tablet the ancient port city of Ugarit in present-day Syria. This tablet was analyzed and they found it’s dated to to March 5, 1223 BCE, so 3,200 years ago. The Chinese, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Greeks probably had records of it a thousand years earlier.
Total solar eclipses are major astronomical events and they command our attention. Different people and different cultures have accounted for eclipses in different ways.
McDonnell: Tell me more about the Chinese view of eclipses.
Minnerly: They believed that eclipses were caused by a mythical dragon deity that was literally devouring the sun to ward off a bad omen. The Chinese shouted and banged on pots and pans to frighten the dragon away. One account from the 19th century mentions the Chinese navy would fire cannons during an eclipse to ward off the mythical dragon. In other parts of East Asia, but also in the Western Hemisphere, in the Yukon, and southern Germany, people traditionally turned covered wells to protect them from getting contamination from the sun.
McDonnell: A lot of people felt panic during the eclipse, right?
Minnerly: Well not always. In the year 632, there was a partial solar eclipse. That happened to coincide with the death of Muhammad's son, Ibrahim. A lot of people had fear and panic associated with this presumed omen. But the Prophet Muhammad explained to his followers that the eclipse was not an omen of catastrophe, but instead a cosmic event that demonstrated the power and wisdom of Allah himself.
McDonnell: So eclipses aren’t always bad omens?
Minnerly: In some cultures eclipses represent opportunities for reflection and reconciliation. The mythology of the Batammaliba people of Benin and Tonga says that during eclipses the sun and moon fight with each other. The people actively encourage the fighting to stop because this is a time for coming together to resolve old feuds. This belief is still practiced today. For the Navajo, the ideas of harmony and balance with the natural world is fundamental. So for Navajo society, eclipses present special opportunities for reflection. When the eclipses happen, Navajo traditionally stay together in their homes as families. They sing special songs and refrain from eating drinking and even sleeping.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview, which originally aired on August 21, 2017. This segment was produced and edited by Julian Hayda.