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> Eclipse: A mystery in the ancient times Issue: 2007-3 Section: Astronomy



The sun has always been considered very important for earthly life because it gives us heat, light and, in a certain sense, even protection. Our life would not exist without the sun. We are certainly able to understand, therefore, what happened in the ancient populations when the sun, owing to unknown and mysterious reasons for those times, disappeared in the middle of the day. Even today a total eclipse of sun stirs up some very strong emotions. I was lucky enough to witness this event in March 2006 in Turkey, on the occasion of a Meeting of EPMagazine and I must say that it has been one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever had. In fact, within a few minutes, everything became dark, temperature fell down many degrees and a light wind suddenly appeared. I not only realized how infinitely small we are in comparison with the bigness of the universe but even how the latter is really dynamic. The first people that decided to record this marvellous event were Chinese. On 22nd October 2134 B.C. they wrote, in fact, that The Sun and the moon did not meet in harmony. From this we can understand that they saw the event like something catastrophic and extremely negative. This is also proved by the fact that two astronomers, Hi and Ho, were put to death because they didn't succeed in foreseeing the event: Here lie the bodies of Hi and Ho, whose fate, although sad, is laughable; killed because they could not perceive the eclipse that was invisible. Another testimony arrives from the ancient Greek poet Archiloco who with a few lines succeeded in describing, about the half of the VII century B.C., the extraordinary phenomenon of the eclipse: there is nothing unbelievable, nothing undeniable, nothing absurd, since Zeus father of the Olimpis turned midday into night and damped every light of a shining sun. A cold fear fell on men. Besides, in a lot of occasions, eclipses have so much disturbed man's mind as to make entire populations be reconciled. An impressive example arrives from the historian Herodotus that narrates about a war between the Lydians and the Medes, two people that fought incessantly for five years without coming to an agreement. The historian in fact, writes that While they continued the war with equal fortune, in the sixth year they clashed and, during the battle, unexpectedly the day became night... The Lydians and the Medes then stopped the fight and they both did their best to make peace. This original episode is very meaningful because it makes us understand even better, how the power and the mystery of inexplicable natural phenomena had their influence on populations.

Hence people tried to oppose this appalling phenomenon developing some characteristic rituals for every culture, which still today in some parts of the world take place. For example the ancient Chinese, since they thought the eclipse to be caused by a dragon that devoured the sun, tried to send it away and to frighten it making a lot of noise playing drums and having thousand of arrows vibrate in the sky. In Japan, the population covered the wells to avoid the poison coming from the darkened sky. This could pollute water provoking therefore a greater damage. There were also some positive beliefs and explanations as concerning the eclipses. For example some ancient Eschimo tribes think that this phenomenon is due to the divine benevolence. In fact, the sun and the moon, to check that on earth everything goes well, leave their place in the sky. Eclipses were seen, even as the loving union between the sun and the moon. But man, in the course of the history has also tried to give a scientific explanation to this extraordinary event. While initially he attributed the eclipse to awful punishments of gods or even to dragons, many Greek philosophers or thinkers of the last centuries before Christ began to propose some new hypotheses. In fact, they succeeded in formulating three principal theories on the origin of the solar eclipse:


  • the first one identifies as a cause the moon that, interposing between the earth and the sun, prevents the solar rays from reaching our planet leaving it in the dark;
  • the second one identifies, instead, as a cause some clouds present in the universe containing elements that would prevent the combustion; these clouds, would succeed in extinguishing temporarily the sun provoking therefore a total obscuring in proximity;
  • the third theory identifies finally as a cause a vacant celestial body in the space and able to attract all the bright rays in one point of its surface.


But, despite this first attempt of rational explanation, a negative conception of the eclipses remained always rooted in society, tied up to a divine will and also to negativeness. Particularly also in the Middle Ages and at the beginning of the modern age people thought that the happening of an eclipse portended evils. And it is only since the XVII century that this phenomenon has been studied, setting apart myths, fears and legends handed down for centuries. Particularly Johannes Kepler, on the occasion of the eclipse of sun of October 12th 1605 was the first one to describe the apparition of the solar crown. Also the royal English astronomer Edmund Halley, with the eclipse of 1705 succeeded in making the same observation also individualizing some prominences. Beginning from the second half of 19th century, thanks to the observation of eclipses, important discoveries were made. In fact, in 1851 the first daguerreotype of the solar crown was made, in 1860 Dry Angel and Warren de the Rue took some photos of the solar crown.

Thanks to these pictures it was possible to prove that the prominences are not optical effects but they are part of the solar atmosphere. Finally a new element that was called helium was identified in the sun. In short, even if there are still people that sometimes elaborate absurd theories, we can say that today the eclipse is not a mystery anymore or an event to fear, but only a show not to be lost for the great charm and the load of emotions that it succeeds in transmitting in a few minutes.



  • Coppermine photo gallery,, 07.04.2006
  • Jens Kleemann,, Wissens-Quiz , Hamburg, 31.01.2008
  • John E. Huerta,, General Counsel Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 22.07.2003
  • R. Baglioni,, Dipartimento di Astronomia e Scienza dello Spazio, Firenze, 22.01.2008
  • Tomaso Belloni,, Osservatorio astronomico di Brera, Brera, 27.07.2007
  • Marco Lolli,, Osservatorio astronomico di Bologna, Bologna, 20.05.2004