How have Eclipses shaped history?


How have Eclipses shaped history?

Time and time again, the eclipse has changed the course of major events - for better and for worse, the BBC writes.

One of the first time travel novels, published in 1889, Mark Twain wrote about a man whose life was saved by an eclipse.

In Twain's novel, "A Connecticut Yankee" in King Arthur's court, the protagonist Hank Morgan falls unconscious and wakes up in 6th century England. He soon finds himself in trouble and is punished by being tied to a stake and burned.

Luckily for him, his execution was scheduled on the same day as an eclipse. Knowing it was coming, Morgan tricked the king and his men into believing he controlled the Sun and Moon. His knowledge and understanding led to his sentence being forgiven.

It is a fictional story, but it may have been inspired by real-world events.

Explorer Christopher Columbus did something similar and may have saved his life. Indeed, throughout history, various eclipses have occurred at key points: influencing people's decisions, changing the outcome of battles, and even transforming what we once believed about the nature of the Universe.

Eclipses have influenced humanity in many ways, intertwining with a multitude of cultures, belief systems and mythologies.

Over the centuries, people have associated these cosmic events with gods, transcendental forces, demons, and an astonishing array of animals.

In western Asia, for example, there was a dragon devouring the sun, in Peru it was a puma, some Native Americans told of a hungry bear, and the Vikings spoke of a pair of sky wolves.

But every now and then, the eclipse can actually change the course of historical events.

"One of the earliest known examples of an eclipse provoking a different outcome was during a battle more than 2,000 years ago," said writer Mark Littmann of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who co-authored the book "Totality : The Great North American Eclipse of 2024”.

Writing in 430 BC, the Greek historian Herodotus told of a war between the Lydians, who occupied the regions of present-day Turkey, and the Medes, an ancient Iranian people.

After six years of fighting, with stalemates, victories and defeats on both sides, the opponents met again.

"However, this time, the day suddenly turned into night", wrote Herodotus.

"The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased to fight, and were equally anxious to agree on terms of peace," he said.

"In the 1800s, astronomers pointed out that Herodotus must have been describing a solar eclipse on May 28, 585 BC," Littman said.

Another account by Herodotus describes how Xerxes, the leader of the Persian army, saw an eclipse before invading Greece.

Xerxes was so alarmed that he consulted his Zoroastrian priests. They told him that God was warning the Greeks of the impending destruction of their cities. "The Sun prophesies for them, and the Moon for us," they suggested.

"Xerxes, thus instructed, went on his way with great joy of heart," wrote Herodotus.

It turned out to be terrible advice. Xerxes successfully attacked Athens, but after his fleet was destroyed, he was forced to retreat. On his return, his armies were crushed. Then, in 465 BC, he was killed.

However, it would not be the last time that an eclipse would be decisive.

Fast forward more than 1,000 years, and Christopher Columbus is on his last voyage.

"In 1503, he beached his sinking ships in Jamaica with his crews in despair, most of his anchors lost and his ships worm-eaten," according to one biography.

Fearing starvation and conflict, Columbus forbade his crew from leaving their base and in advance traded Spanish trinkets and jewelry for food and water with the people who lived there.

“Danger was always present – ​​one of his groups was defeated and captured by hostile natives when exploring the easternmost point of Jamaica. To make matters worse, in January 1504, some of the crew mutinied and fled to the island. They abused and mocked the islanders, stole food, and committed every possible deed," Columbus' biographer wrote.

After a few weeks, the locals lost patience. Tolerance gave way to contempt and hatred, and the food trade ceased. Columbus and the remaining crew faced the crisis of starvation.

But as the end signaled, Columbus remembered that an astronomical event was approaching: a lunar eclipse.

On March 1, he gathered the leaders of the local communities, reprimanded them for withdrawing provisions, and warned them: "The Lord who protects me will punish you... this very night the moon will change its color and lose its light her, in witness of the evils that will be sent to you from heaven".

It worked. Frightened locals retreated, providing food again. Columbus promised to perform a rite that would “forgive him.

Through modern eyes, it's a disturbing story. The indigenous people probably had every right to avoid marauding Europeans, and it was hardly ethical diplomacy to use scientific knowledge and false threats to get their way.

But still, the question arises as to what would have happened to Columbus if the lunar eclipse had not occurred that March. Rescue would not arrive until June. Perhaps it would have been better for his reputation if he had died in Jamaica. The rest of his life was far from glorious: he returned to Spain in poor physical and mental health, seeking official recognition and money. His defenders doubted his mental state and ignored his pleas. He lived unsatisfied until his death in 1506.

"Intriguingly, lunar eclipses like those of Columbus seem to occur at key times than solar eclipses," Littmann said.

“This is because of the number of people who can see them. While there are more solar eclipses, lunar eclipses last longer and are visible to more than half of the Earth. It's easier for them to influence the story," he explained.

Eclipse of the leader Tecumseh

However, a solar eclipse played an important role in US history. In the 1800s, Shawnee Native American leader Tecumseh and his brother, a self-styled prophet, were seeking to unite their people and preserve traditional ways.

The territory's appointed governor, William Henry Harrison – a future US president – ​​had other ideas and began persuading the leaders to surrender their land.

He knew that Tecumseh and his brother stood in the way, so – hoping to discredit them – he asked them for a sign: if the prophet was so powerful, why not stop the Sun in the sky?

It turned out the opposite. Tecumseh's brother announced that the Sun would stand still on April 16, 1806. "At the right moment, he came out in full view and pointed to the Sun and said, 'go dark,'" Littmann said.

It is unclear how Tecumseh and his brother knew there would be an eclipse that day. But it was certainly effective, strengthening the siblings' influence and reputation among their people.

"Shawnee didn't need that kind of proof, but it certainly didn't help William Henry Harrison's cause," Littmann said.

Sadly, the 'longest lasting in the history books' consequence was a return to war.

Relative benefits

For Littmann, the most historically important eclipse, however, came at the beginning of the 20th century: the one in 1919 that proved Albert Einstein right about general relativity and made him one of the world's most famous scientists.

"In my opinion, that was the real impact on world history. This was a turning point, in terms of science, in terms of our understanding of the Universe and human attitudes," said Littmann.

"The universe is much more difficult to understand than we assumed at the time of Newtonian physics," he added.

In short, the 1919 solar eclipse allowed scientists to see that the Sun's gravity was bending starlight, a key prediction of Einstein's.