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Solar eclipses in history

The solar eclipse has been the center of attention in history and is linked to many myths and traditions. These days it is still a special occasion for eclipse enthusiasts all over the world.

Eclipse History
Many myths & traditions surround solar eclipses.
©iStockphoto.com/wynnter

The solar eclipse in Chinese history

As far back as 2800 BCE the ancient Chinese observed a rhythm in the occurrence of solar eclipses, although they believed a dragon was devouring the sun. Chinese astrologers wrote of an eclipse occurring more than 4000 years ago. Historians and astronomers believe that it was an eclipse that occurred on October 22, 2134 BCE. According to legend, two astrologers at the time, Hsi and Ho, were executed because they failed to predict this eclipse.

Many ancient civilizations believed the occurrence of an eclipse was a demon eating the sun. They thought that the best way to get rid of the “demon” that was consuming their sun was to unite and make as much noise as possible to scare it away. At the first sight of an eclipse, everyone would immediately gather to bang drums and shout or scream as loudly as possible.

Ancient Greeks and solar eclipses

The ancient Greeks believed that an eclipse was a sign of angry gods, therefore it was thought of as a bad omen. Solar eclipses have even altered the course of human history. In 585 BCE the Lydians and Medes were engaged in battle in what is present-day Turkey.

The Greek historian Herodotus recorded that at the height of a particularly fierce battle, darkness fell upon the land. Apparently the two armies waged a war close to the path of a solar eclipse. The armies took this as a sign and stopped fighting instantly, making peace with each other.

The ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus tried to understand eclipses by using them to make scientific observations. Around 130 BCE, from observations of a solar eclipse seen from Hellespont and Alexandria, Hipparchus determined that the moon was about 429,000 kilometers (268,000 miles) away – only about 11 percent more than today’s accepted distance.

European view of solar eclipses

The oldest known testament to people’s attempt to understand the eclipse is Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England. Stonehenge is believed to have been used to measure the motions of the sun and moon. Although most authorities agree that none of the people who constructed and used Stonehenge could predict exactly when an eclipse would occur, they may have issued warnings on the likelihood of an eclipse in the order of days or even weeks before it happened.

Although early eclipse pioneers, including Chinese astronomer Liu Hsiang, showed initiative and advanced thinking in their conclusions, it was not until 1605 when astronomer Johannes Kepler recorded a scientific observation of a total solar eclipse. More than a century later Edmund Halley published his account of a total solar eclipse that occurred in 1715 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in London. He described the sight although he misinterpreted much of what he saw.

During the eclipse of August 16, 1868, Sir Joseph Lockyer of England and Monsieur Pierre Janssen of France independently discovered the telltale signs of helium in the sun's corona. Helium became the first chemical element to be discovered outside the Earth. It takes its name from the Greek word for the sun - Helios.

Solar eclipses in modern times

On May 29, 1919, a total solar eclipse was used to prove Albert Einstein's theory of general relativity by showing that gravity can bend light. These days, astronomers also use total solar eclipses to photograph and study the composition of the sun's corona. They time the eclipse accurately to calculate the exact dimensions of the sun.

Topics: Astronomy, Eclipses, Moon, Earth, Sun

In this Article

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All about solar eclipses

  1. Types of solar and lunar eclipses
  2. Total solar eclipses
  3. Partial solar eclipses
  4. Annular solar eclipses
  5. Solar eclipses in history
  6. Eye safety during solar eclipses
  7. Make a pinhole projector

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