"Nothing there is beyond hope, nothing that can be sworn impossible, nothing wonderful, since Zeus, father of the Olympians, made night from mid-day, hiding the light of the shining Sun, and sore fear came upon men."Dateline 08/03/99
We may know there's a scientific explanation for them, but solar eclipses continue to exert an almost magical power over us. It's not at all clear we've decreased in gullibility since the days when Columbus used his fore-knowledge of an eclipse to hoodwink the [www.earthview.com/ages/mystified.htm] Jamaicans. And even though we know better, during each total solar eclipse, there will be people blinded by the too tempting sight of an eclipsed sun.
The Eclipse Dragon
On the other hand, we don't beat drums, fire arrows into the sky, and stand up to our necks in water in an effort to appease the gods as did the ancient Chinese and Indians. Both the Chinese and the Indians thought a snake attacked the sun during an eclipse. Noise making was an effort to scare the creature away. The earliest recorded eclipse was in China on October 22, 2134. According to an About.com Astrology Guide [URL = http://astrology.about.com/library/weekly/aa101599.htm], then two court astrologers lost their heads because, since they had failed to predict it, the emperor had been caught unprepared to make the necessary dragon-scaring noise. Almost a millennium later, in the fourteenth century B.C., an eclipse was described by a Chinese seer as three flames eating the sun.
Eclipses have been seen as evil omens whose presence changed the course of battle. In the eclipse of 585 B.C. -- the one Thales of Miletus, is said to have predicted -- five years of fighting ended between the Medes and Lydians as a result of an eclipse. In 413, the frightened Athenians suddenly abandoned their plan to move from Syracuse when a lunar eclipse appeared. The result was a rout by the Syracusans.
Eclipses may not have been universally feared. The people who built Stonehenge may have derived a sense of control from performing calculations of solar eclipses. Oddly, there is nothing in Egyptian literature about eclipses, although there is speculation that some of the symbols may be ecliptically based.
Scientific Understanding of Eclipses
The Babylonians have been credited as the first to calculate the regular intervals at which eclipses occur*. It was through contact with the East that Thales of Miletus was able to make the prediction that marked the beginning of the Greek scientific/philosophic era. While there is some doubt as to whether Thales accurately predicted the eclipse attributed to him -- because he didn't fully understand all the cycles necessary to calculate the date and because Herodotus' reporting leaves room for doubt -- he is credited with predicting the May 25, 585 B.C. eclipse.
*Update (07/25/09) from email:
"The most remote eclipse record is likely a Rg-Veda description of a solar eclipse observed by Atri about 3928 B.C." in my new article:
Eclipses, Cosmic Clockwork of the Ancients
From http://www.csudh.edu/phenom_studies/ greekphil/greek01.htm: History Of Philosophy In The Classical Period (600 B.C.-600 A.D.):
Thales predicted a total solar eclipse which was visible in Asia Minor in the midst of the battle between Media and Lydia. Herodotus mentioned in his Historia, Book 1, 74: "Suddenly a total solar eclipse took place in the midst of the battle between Lydia and Media. Thales of Miletus had predicted that that solar eclipse would occur at that time and at that place."
Today we can calculate the dates of the total solar eclipses which could be seen in Asia Minor where that battle took place: September 30, 610, June 21, 597 and May 28, 585. In his Natural History, Pliny says of Thales: " ...it was the fourth year during the 48th panathenaia." Since the first Olympic Games took place in 776, the 48th Olympic Games took place approximately 588 B.C. -- in other words, the May 29th, 585 date.
Addendum (2009): According to Early Greek Philosophy, by John Burnet, the date given by Thales, according to Pliny (NH ii/53), is OLXLVIII.4. "Olympiadis XLVIII anno quarto praedicto solis defectu...."
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