Literary Archaeology: The Unexpected Night: Eclipses and HistFic

By Jon Black

2017 Eclipse at totality. Steelville, Missouri.

On August 21, 2017, millions of people in the United States witnessed a total solar eclipse. In the days leading up the event, eclipse-talk dominated watercooler conversations, social media, and even the national news. That eclipses command such attention in a scientific and technological era, when their processes and mechanics are fully understood, testifies to the grip such displays of cosmic forces have on us. One can only imagining how profound such events were during times and places lacking the paradigm to understand what was transpiring in the heavens above them.

All of that is a long, flowery way to say that the recent eclipse gave me an easy topic for this fortnight’s HistFic blog. Because of the significance ascribed to them, eclipses can be a powerful element in historical fiction. They, of course, offer an unforgettable backdrop for events. But it would be easy to take them one step further, making them a major plot point within a story.

At the Beginning

The ruins of Ugarit, site of the earliest known record of a solar eclipse.

For peoples with no understand of celestial mechanics, the disappearance of the sun was, understandably, an awe-inspiring, profound, and often terrifying event. Eclipses were often intended as divine omens or portents. The context of an eclipse recorded by Herodotus was a battle between the Lydians and Medes. Interpreting the eclipse as the gods’ displeasure with their warring, the armies sat down their weapons and made peace (to whatever extent we can take Herodotus at face value). An eclipse witnessed in China during 1302 BC was interpreted to mean the emperor had lost divine favor. He had abstain from meat and engage in other rituals to restore the sun … and his favor with the Celestial Court.

While it would take us beyond HistFic into the realm of time travel, historical fantasy, or alt-history … a character with foreknowledge of an eclipse (or the ability to accurately predict one) would appear to wield phenomenal and likely supernatural powers in pre-modern world before heliocentrism, the scientific method, or calculus.

The first conclusively recorded solar eclipse, written in cuneiform on clay tables from ancient Mesopotamia, occurred on May 3, 1375 BC (Coincidently, 3,090 years to the day before the first verifiably predicted eclipse).

Predicting Eclipses

Diagram of Eclipse, Georg von Peurbach, 15th Century

Herodotus (an entertaining but not always reliable source) alleges that the philosopher Thales of Miletus successfully predicted an eclipse (see above). No information is offered by Herodotus regarding how the prediction was made and considerable skepticism exists regarding this assertion. But, if true, it was likely the eclipse of May 28, 585 BC.

Early Chinese astronomers placed considerable emphasis on eclipses. Attempts to understand them were underway by the Warring States Period of the First century BC. The Chinese deduced the cause of Solar Eclipses by 20 BC and there is evidence they could predict eclipses with some reliability by the Third century AD and could even estimate the fraction of coverage by the Fourth century. 

The first absolutely verifiable prediction, however, was by Edmond Halley (of Halley’s Comet fame) who predicted a May 3, 1715 event visible over Britain and northern Europe.

Map of Halley’s 1715 Eclipse.

A Selection of Eclipses

The historicity of some of the eclipses presented below is debatable. Nevertheless, because they were (or are) widely believed in and constituted part of a cultural worldview for various peoples at various points in time they have been included along with their better documented counterparts.

July 31, 1063 BC, China. Another eclipse recorded by Chinese astronomers (no word if the emperor had to go vegetarian this time).

June 15, 763 BC, Mesopotamia. Documented by Assyrian astronomers at Nineveh.

33 AD, the Levant:  The darkness described as occurring during the Crucifixion of Jesus has long been interpreted by some people as referencing a literal solar eclipse. From the 16th to 19th centuries, it was fashionable among amateur (and not so amateur) astronomers and theologians alike to try to establish Good Friday’s exact date by dating the eclipse.

569 AD, Arabian Peninsula: The Quran records a total solar eclipse at the birth of Mohammed. Interestingly, Muslims traditionally do not ascribe any special portent to the celestial event, with Mohammed himself ascribed to have said “the sun and moon do not suffer eclipse for anyone’s life or death.”

1100 AD, North Africa. A total solar eclipse was described by Arab scientist and astronomer Ibn Yunus from his observatory near Cairo.

1131 AD: A solar eclipse is associated with the death of Henry I of England. Historian William of Malmesbury wrote that the “hideous darkness” unnerved the English people. More contemporary historians have speculated that chaos and social unrest sparked by the eclipse may have caused or deepened the civil war following Henry’s death.

June 8, 1918: Japan, the Pacific, and Western US. Occurring amidst the Spanish Influenza Epidemic and with WWI still in full swing, even a thoroughly modern person might be forgiven for thinking this eclipse a dire portent (Attention writers of period horror!).

[PHOTO 5: Painting of 1918 event by American Artist Howard Russel Butler. 

Painting of 1918 event by American Artist Howard Russel Butler.

May 29, 1919: South America to Africa. Occurring at a time when causes of eclipses were understood and their prediction well established, this event remains notable for helping confirm Einstein’s theory of general relatively. With the sun’s light obscured, scientists were able to measure the distortion of light from other stars caused by the sun’s gravity.

February 26, 1979: US Pacific Northwest and Northern Great Plains. The last total solar eclipse visible in the US prior to 2017, this event created unprecedented multi-state traffic jams along interstates and highways as Americans took the roads to journey toward to totality. For writers, such a situation provides a fertile ground for Kerouacian chance encounters with almost every type of person possibility on the road, yet not going anywhere fast.

Leading up to the 2017 eclipse, speculation was rife that a larger population (nearly 90 million greater than in 1980) and ease of access to online information about the eclipse might lead to even more titanic traffic snarls. This proved not to be the case. One plausible interpretation is that the internet was an actually an asset rather than a liability. Dependent only on limited media coverage and word of mouth about the eclipse and with no equivalent of online maps or navigation apps, the 1979 event may have put more people onto fewer roads compared with today.

Photo of 1919 Eclipse taken by the expedition of Sir Arthur Eddington from the island of Principe.