Opinion: Ancient superstitions about eclipses paved the way for this scientific truth

CNNIn ancient Mesopotamia, a solar eclipse was a cause for deep concern. The ancient peoples of the Near East feared that eclipses, especially of the sun and moon, but also of the planets, were an “evil portent” that signaled great danger for the health and life of the king. To save the ruler from a dire fate, they would appoint a temporary king for a brief period and murder him, thus fulfilling the portent of the king’s death and allowing the usual occupant of the throne to return to office unharmed.

Now, a rare solar eclipse is crossing the United States ahead of an American election contest featuring both the current president and his predecessor in a rematch many voters say they don’t want. While an election loss is only a figurative political death, it’s hard not to feel at least a little of that ancient Mesopotamian unease mixing in with the excitement and joy of watching one of nature’s most spectacular light shows.

Even in this age of science, superstitions die hard, and even the most rational of us sometimes believe in omens. Today, eclipses retain a little bit of their historic role as harbingers of doom.

On social media, far-right fearmongers offer nonsensical conspiracy theories about the eclipse signaling an attack on American cities by undocumented migrants. But the fact that most of us now understand that a sign in the sky as dramatic as an eclipse doesn’t dictate events on Earth is an important reminder of immutable scientific truths in an age of conspiracy theories.

Around the ancient world, solar eclipses sparked fear because they seemed to happen at random, and their cause was not fully understood, prompting anxiety about whether the sun would reappear.

Where knowledge failed, myth filled the gaps. Many cultures imagined a solar eclipse occurred when a mythological being ate the sun. In Vietnam, it was a frog. In the Andes, a puma. Among the native peoples of North America, animals from squirrels to bears did the job. In ancient China, a dragon was responsible. In other cultures, eclipse myths revolved around a meeting or marriage between the sun and the moon.

Over time, ancient people began to try to record and understand eclipses scientifically, though these efforts were still mixed with magical thinking. More than 2,500 years ago, Chinese astronomers compiled records of solar eclipses, but they saw them as dark omens for the emperor, who had to avoid meat and perform rites to “rescue” the sun.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Thales of Miletus was the first to predict a solar eclipse, and when the prediction came true, the Medes and Lydians, who were then at war, took it as an omen, ceased their battle and sought peace.

Some modern scholars dispute that Thales ever made such a prediction, but by c. 100-300 CE, scholars from the Mediterranean to China had begun calculating the timing of solar eclipses, though they could not predict where on Earth they’d be visible. That skill took until 1715 to master.


As science worked out the mechanics of eclipses, some of the traditional terror abated, at least among the educated. By the early modern period (c. 1400-1600 CE), European writers instead tried to reclaim that sense of divine fear by recording how the natural world cowered before eclipses.

Stories abounded of horses and other beasts of burden refusing to move during an eclipse. Birds, some said, fell from the sky, “seized with fear.” Nocturnal creatures ran riotous outside their appointed hours. (Today, science tells us many animals think night is approaching and act accordingly.)

Even among some humans, especially those with little scientific training, eclipses remained terrifying for centuries, even as late as the 19th century. When a total solar eclipse approached France in 1654, an anonymous pamphlet attributed to the astronomer Pierre Gassendi tried to reassure residents of Paris that the eclipse would bring no harm. Nevertheless, the message didn’t sink in; the French literacy rate was around 30% and many Parisians locked themselves in their cellars to ride out an anticipated disaster that never came.

Christopher Columbus is said to have awed the Arawak people he was attempting to violently colonize by correctly predicting a solar eclipse — but that story is incorrect. Columbus in fact predicted a lunar one. Many people confuse the Columbus tale with one from a much later novel. In 1889, Mark Twain had told a similar story, with a more dramatic solar eclipse, to save the hero of his novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” from execution. In both cases the stories were intended to contrast modern practitioners of science against people benighted with superstition.

With the expansion of public education and increased literacy, eclipses became less a source of fear than one of excitement and entertainment. By the 19th century, large crowds gathered for eclipse-watching parties, gazing through smoked glass to protect their eyes from the sun.

During the solar eclipse of 1842, 20,000 people of all social classes gathered in Perpignan, France, and applauded the sun’s performance. But even at that late date, some poor, illiterate farmers reported feeling terror at the eclipse. “The sky was serene, and yet the light of day diminished, and every object grew shadowy, and then all at once we were in the dark. We thought that we had become blind,” one told the astronomer François Arago.

Eclipses have always brought with them a heady mix of science and superstition, but today, thanks to education and the media, nearly everyone knows what an eclipse is and how to view one safely. This triumph of scientific education gives us a ray of hope that even in an age of fake news, misinformation and alternative facts, scientific knowledge eventually wins out. It just might take a few thousand years.