A look at eclipses and their meanings throughout history


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – When you see how the night sky looked for much of human history, you can understand why our ancestors paid so much attention to the heavens.

Now thanks to light pollution, the impressive sight of the Milky Way spanning from horizon to horizon is lost to 80 percent of Americans. But a total solar eclipse is one event we can share with the wonder of our ancestors.

In the 2006 film “Apocalypto,” a total solar eclipse is central to the plot. The sight of the eclipse causes the Mayans to scream as the sun disappears and collectively sigh with relief as it reappears. Hollywood and historians agree that for ancient civilizations, eclipses were dramatic events.

The Babylonians made the earliest known record of a total solar eclipse more than 3,000 years ago. It happened on May 3, 1375 BCE.

Both they and the ancient Chinese believed eclipses were bad omens for their rulers. They worked to predict them in order to seat substitutes, so the gods would punish the stand-ins.

PHOTOS: Wadesboro solar eclipse viewing party in 1900

The Mayans were so good at predicting eclipses that their records were accurate centuries after their civilization had ended. They narrowed the occurrence of the July 11, 1991, eclipse to within a day.

Dr. Steve Ruskin, a historian of astronomy, said it took thousands of years before knowledge of the science behind eclipses caught up to the ability of predicting them.

In the meantime, one common belief was that large animals were swallowing the sun or moon.

“In Norse mythology there were these two great wolves that were always chasing the sun and the moon,” Ruskin said. “I kind of picture it like two big celestial tennis balls and whenever they caught them and devoured them that would be what the eclipse was.”

Technology also eventually caught up to better capture eclipses. The first image ever taken of one happened on July 28, 1851.

The May 29, 1919, total solar eclipse helped propel Albert Einstein to international fame, as it proved his theory of general relativity.

Ruskin points to what he calls “America’s First Great Eclipse” that happened in 1878 as a good parallel to what we’ll learn from this coming one.

Instead of testing the capacity of our country’s Transcontinental Railroad, we’ll see how well we all get along on our roads.

“Imagine the Super Bowl times 20, and trying to get out of the parking lot,” Ruskin said. “I think that’s what it’s going to be like across the country.”

So science has put to bed ancient myths about solar eclipses, but if a part of you still thinks this one could be a harbinger of doom, especially in light of what we’re hearing out of North Korea, take heart: a solar eclipse in 585 BCE stopped a war in ancient Greece after the two sides took it as a sign to make peace with each other.


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