Famous Eclipses In History And Literature

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Hank Morgan faced death in the worst way. The king had ordered he be burned at the stake. His heart sank. There was no way out. “I shall never see my friends again—never, never again,” he whispered mournfully. Unless…

Facing his doom, Hank confidently warned, unless the king freed him, “I will smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight; I will blot out the sun, and he shall never shine again; the fruits of the earth shall rot for lack of light and warmth, and the peoples of the earth shall famish and die, to the last man!”

No one believed him… until it was so!

King Arthur released this Connecticut Yankee; thus, scoring the perfect theatrical tension in Mark Twain’s famous story. Ah, the power of fiction. To create worlds that we can only dream of. To craft scenes we can only wish for. To fashion from our imaginations that which could only happen in the land of make believe.

But wait! Twain’s story telling borrowed from actual events (as Hank Morgan attests in the novel). He recalled the story of Christopher Columbus using an eclipse to frighten natives when they threatened him and his marooned crew on the island of Jamaica (see “The Eclipse That Changed History,” Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel, October 12, 2023).

Eclipses have played a prominent role in both history and literature. Ancients (and not-so-Ancients) have seen these heavenly affairs as ominous omens. Researchers have used them to pinpoint dates of historic events. Writers, like Mark Twain, employ them to establish dramatic plot points.

There are three types of solar eclipses. A partial eclipse has the moon block out only a portion of the sun. In a total eclipse, the moon covers up the sun completely. An annular eclipse occurs when the moon, being farther away from the Earth in its orbit, isn’t big enough to blot out the entire disc of the sun. It leaves a spectacular ring of fire in the sky. Imagine how scary that looked!

Solar eclipses aren’t as rare as they seem. There are a minimum of two and a maximum of five solar eclipses per year.

Because of this regularity, ancient astronomers identified a pattern to eclipses. Called “The Saros Cycle,” they have used it to predict when and where eclipses would occur. That’s how Columbus knew there was going to be an eclipse (right when he needed one, it turns out). We know the Chaldeans observed lunar eclipses seem to repeat themselves. The cycle applies to solar eclipses as well.

The Saros Cycle repeats every 6,585.3 days (or 18 years, 11 days, 8 hours). That doesn’t mean the eclipse happens in the same place every 18+ years. The zone of totality, while making roughly the same shape, shifts across the Earth.

The Babylonians kept very precise records of celestial events, including one of the first solar eclipses ever recorded. In 763 BC, the Assyrian empire saw a total solar eclipse that lasted five minutes. The timing of this eclipse coincided with an insurrection in the city of Ashur. Some have linked this event as the cause for the mass repentance in the city of Nineveh, as described in the Book of Jonah.

Further back in time, the oldest known recorded solar eclipse occurred on November 30, 3340 BC in County Meath, Ireland. The people left rock carvings at what it is now called the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument. These symbols have been interpreted as the sun, moon, and horizon. They have been interpreted as evidence the natives observed the 3340 BC solar eclipse.

Half a world away and two centuries later, in 1302 BC, Chinese astronomers documented a total eclipse of the sun that lasted for six minutes and 25 seconds. The notes say “three flames ate the sun, and big stars were seen.” This is consistent with what we see during a total eclipse of the sun—the solar corona and nighttime stars.

The Chinese saw eclipses as omens since the sun was a symbol of the emperor. A 2003 study in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage indicated, following an eclipse, the emperor would eat vegetarian meals and perform rituals to rescue the sun.

Besides A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, eclipses appear in other works of classic literature. Homer uses an eclipse in The Odyssey to predict Odysseus will slay Penelope’s suitors. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Gloucester offers a more dire prophecy.

He says, “These late eclipses in the sun and moon portend no good to us. Nature finds itself scourged by the sequent effects. Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide, in cities mutinies, in countries discord, in palaces treason, and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father… We have seen the best of our time. Machinations, hollowness, treachery, and all ruinous disorders follow us disquietly to our graves.’”

Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

Speaking of hurting, history didn’t need make believe to associate eclipses with death.

The eclipse associated with the Crucifixion of Jesus may provide a clue as to his actual birthdate. Or not. It turns out there were two solar eclipses that occurred in the part of the world where Jesus died. The first happened in 29 AD and lasted almost 2 minutes. The one witnessed in 33 AD lasted more than four minutes.

More definitively, we have the eclipse of 1133 AD. King Henry I, son of William the Conqueror, died during that four minute and 38 second eclipse. That wasn’t the worst of it. The ensuing battle for succession led to a civil war.

Not all eclipses had such tragic consequences. In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington sailed to a small island off the coast of West Africa to observe the May 29th total eclipse of the sun. The British astronomer was there to test Einstein’s gravitational lens theory that predicted how much gravity bends light. The experiment was a success and Einstein’s new Law of Gravitation overtook Newton’s law. This changed our view of life, the universe, and everything.

All thanks to a solar eclipse.


  1. […] of the supernatural. What is it and how has it been used? Read this week’s Carosa Commentary “Famous Eclipses In History And Literature,” and you’ll take a journey from ancient mythology to relativistic […]

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