Lunar Eclipses of History
|Part 1: Lunar Eclipses of Ancient Times|
|Part 2: Lunar Eclipses of the Middle Ages|
|Part 3: Lunar Eclipses of the Modern Era|
Since the very beginning of history, people have been amazed by what they see when they look up at the sky. Indeed, looking at the celestial sphere without the unpleasant interference of city lights is magnificent. It can sometimes mesmerise us with a deep desire of traveling out to these celestial spheres to directly experience what our eyes cannot see. Human imagination has no boundaries, but the universe is infinite! However, most ancient civilizations have viewed changes in the sky with great fear and apprehension. Comets, meteor showers, supernovae, lunar and solar eclipses were viewed as bad omens by most societies.
The Sun and the Moon are the main actors in the celestial theatre, the former being vital for life on Earth. The Moon, by its turn, has served as special inspiration for poets, writers, and lovers. The Sun and Moon have also been associated with religion and mythology, and sometimes regarded as gods with influence on the destiny of both societies and individuals.
"Desolation des Peruviens pendant L'Eclipse de Lune. Voyage Historique de l’Amerique Meridionale."
The Spanish explorer Don Juan described the Peruvians' despair during an eclipse.
Source: The Philadelphia Print Shop Ltd.
Solar and lunar eclipses were usually regarded as a disturbance in the natural order of the sky - as an indication that something was going wrong. Many historical events coincided with solar or lunar eclipses: battles, crowning or dethroning of emperors, peace treaties, and so forth. It is our nature as human beings to attribute meaning to events by whatever history, tradition or thought is available to us. The same is true for eclipses throughout the centuries.
Unlike comets, which for a long time were regarded as unpredictable events, eclipses were accurately predicted at the earliest stages of mankind's history. Early astronomers were able to predict eclipses by around 2300 BCE. Their predictions were based on empirical relationships, governing the recurrence of events by which the relative positions of the Earth, Sun and Moon reoccur the same way after 6,585 days. The existence of a regular eclipse cycle, such as the Saros cycle, resulted from these coincidences involving complex combinations between the movements of the Moon, Earth, and Sun. This more detailed knowledge of eclipses started to be acquired during the second century BCE, the golden age of Greek astronomy.
But the general population did not understand these relationships. As governors began to realize the influence astronomical phenomena exerted over the population, they used this knowledge as an instrument of power to influence people's psyche. The population would follow rituals and say prayers in order to prevent the supposed dire effects. Governors wanted to pretend they could influence the obscure powers involved, and likewise, astrologers and astronomers sometimes attempted to use their knowledge to manipulate and influence governors. A negative or positive correlation with an eclipse could affect the outcome of a battle.
Only in the last five hundred years or so, or certainly since the invention of the telescope in 1609, have we come to understand these cosmic concurrences primarily in terms of the natural order of the universe. As previously mentioned, these events are no longer feared, but viewed as singular opportunities to better understand the universe. In this article, we present some important solar and lunar eclipses throughout time and their impact on people, societies, and science.
This page focuses on Lunar Eclipses of History. At the conclusion of each historical eclipse description is a link to a map and detailed predictions for the eclipse. A companion article covers Solar Eclipses of History.
Part 1: Lunar Eclipses of Ancient Times
Olympic Games (413 BCE)
An eclipse of the Moon occurred on August 28, 413 BCE, during the 91st Olympiad and influenced a battle in the Peloponnesian War. The Athenians were ready to move their forces from Syracuse when the Moon was eclipsed. It brought disastrous consequences to an Athenian army thanks to the lack of decisive leadership by Nicias, the commander. The Athenian army was confronted in Sicily by the Syracusan army and, having somehow failed, it was decided that they should embark and leave the island.
Everything accordingly was prepared for embarkation, and the enemy paid no attention to these movements, since they did not expect them. But in the night there happened an eclipse of the Moon, at which Nicias and all the rest were struck with a great panic, either through ignorance or superstition. As for an eclipse of the Sun, which happens at the Conjunction, even the common people had some idea of its being caused by the interposition of the Moon; but they could not easily form a conception, by the interposition of what body the Moon, when at the full, should suddenly lose her light, and assume such a variety of colors. They looked upon it therefore as a strange and supernatural phenomenon, a sign by which the Gods announced some great calamity. And the calamity came to pass, but only indirectly was it caused by the Moon.
- Plutarch, Life of Nicias
Indeed, soldiers and sailors were very frightened by this celestial omen and were reluctant to leave. Nicias consulted the soothsayers and postponed the departure for twenty-seven days. This delay gave an advantage to the Syracusans, who defeated the entire Athenian fleet and army, killing Nicias.
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Lunar Eclipse of -0412 Aug 28
Eclipse of Alexander (331 BCE)
Just some eleven days before the victory of Alexander the Great over his rival Darius, in Assyria on the battlefield of Arbela, Plutarch and Pliny mention that there was a total eclipse of the Moon. Plutarch's words (Life of Alexander) are as follows:
"There happened an eclipse of the Moon, about the beginning of the festival of the great mysteries at Athens. The eleventh night after that eclipse, the two armies being in view of each other, Darius kept his men under arms, and took a general review of his troops by torch-light."
Battle of Arbela.
This seems to have created considerable tumult in the Assyrian camp, a fact noticed by Alexander. His friends suggested an attack on the enemy’s camp at night, but Alexander preferred that the Macedonians should have a good night’s rest. It was then that he uttered the celebrated answer, "I will not steal a victory." This eclipse happened on September 20, 331 BCE, and the celebrated battle of Arbela, by its turn, was fought on October 1, 331 BCE.
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Lunar Eclipse of -0330 Sep 20
Augustus' Eclipse (14 CE)
Soon after the death of Augustus, Tacitus mentions a lunar eclipse, which has been identified with the eclipse of September 27, 14 CE. Tacitus says:
"The Moon in the midst of a clear sky became suddenly eclipsed; the soldiers who were ignorant of the cause took this for an omen referring to their present adventures: to their labors they compared the eclipse of the planet, and prophesied 'that if to the distressed goodness should be restored her wonted brightness and splendor, equally successful would be the issue of their struggle.' Hence they made a loud noise, by ringing upon brazen metal, and by blowing trumpets and cornets; as she appeared brighter or darker they exulted or lamented."
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Lunar Eclipse of 0014 Sep 27
The Crucifixion Eclipse (29-33 CE)
According to the evangelists, Jesus was crucified on a Friday afternoon, some hours prior to the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. It is recorded that Jesus was crucified during the period when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea (26-36 CE). However, there is no consensus on the date of the crucifixion. Evidence suggests April 3, 33 CE, while others suggest it was April 7, 30 CE. There are various allusions in the Bible to the Moon being dark and turned to blood when it rose in the evening after the crucifixion, which sounds like a lunar eclipse.
The crucifixion eclipse. According to the evangelists, the sun darkened during the crucifixion of Christ.
Later, the event was associated with an eclipse that was visible at Jerusalem.
Credit: © Valenciennes, Musee des Beaux Arts, photo R.G. Ojeda.
In Acts of the Apostles, Peter also refers to a Moon that is the colour of blood and a darkened sky. There is other evidence that on that day the Moon appeared like blood. The so-called Report of Pilate, a New Testament Apocryphal fragment, states:
"Jesus was delivered to him by Herod, Archelaus, Philip, Annas, Caiphas, and all the people. At his crucifixion the Sun was darkened; the stars appeared and in all the world people lighted lamps from the sixth hour till evening; the Moon appeared like blood."
This may be the result of a dust storm caused by the khamsin, a hot wind from the south. Under such circumstances - a lunar eclipse while there is much suspended dust - one would expect the Moon to appear the dark crimson of blood. The reason why the Moon is blood red is that, although it is geometrically in the Earth's shadow, sunlight is refracted through the Earth's upper atmosphere, where normal scattering will prevent blue light from penetrating. But this refracted light would be much weaker than direct light from even a small portion of the Sun and the blood colour associated with the eclipse would not be visible to the unaided eye. However, the Moon would have an amber colour from atmospheric absorption, similar to any other occasion when the Moon is low in the horizon.
Another hypothesis is that of a solar eclipse visible at Jerusalem on November 24, 29 CE. The Greek historian Phlegon mentions this eclipse in his History of the Olympiads, and says that it was accompanied by an earthquake. The Greek writer Phlegon reported that:
"In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad, there was an eclipse of the Sun which was greater than any known before and in the sixth hour of the day it became night; so that stars appeared in the heaven; and a great Earthquake that broke out in Bithynia destroyed the greatest part of Nicaea."
In fact, mention is also made in the Bible of the Sun being darkened earlier that day: "The Sun shall be turned into darkness."
There is controversy among researchers whether this was a solar or a lunar eclipse, and also controversy about the date. In any case, an eclipse occurring in the very same night of the crucifixion would have been seen by believers as a supernatural sign and influenced the change of mind of the Jews and Pilate towards the body of Christ, leading to the placing of a military guard on the tomb.
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Solar Eclipse of 0029 Nov 24
Part 2: Lunar Eclipses of the Middle Ages
The Eclipses of Tatwine and Beda (734 CE)
An Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that on January 24, 734 CE, "the Moon was as if it had been sprinkled with blood, and Abp. [Abp. denotes "Archbishop"] Tatwine and Beda died and Ecgberht was hallowed bishop." The inference apparently is that the Moon was somehow connected with the deaths of the two ecclesiastics. It is clear from the description of the Moon on that occasion that it exhibited the well-known coppery shade that is a recognisable feature of many lunar eclipses.
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Lunar Eclipse of 0734 Jan 24
European Eclipses (828 CE)
Two lunar eclipses were seen in Europe, the first on July 1, 828 CE, very early in the morning, and the second in the morning of Christmas day. Totality occurred after midnight. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle thus speaks of the second eclipse: "In this year the Moon was eclipsed on mid-winter's Mass-night, and the same year King Ecgbert subdued the kingdom of the Mercians and all that was South of the Humber."
A Witch's Eclipse (1349 CE)
On June 30 / July 1, 1349, there was a total eclipse of the Moon visible in London, which Archdeacon Churton connects with the following incident:
The worthy Archbishop Bradwardine, who flourished in the reign of the Norman Edwards, and died A.D. 1349, tells a story of a witch who was attempting to impose on the simple people of the time. It was a fine summer's night, and the Moon was suddenly eclipsed. 'Make me good amends,' said she, 'for old wrongs, or I will bid the Sun also to withdraw his light from you.' Bradwardine, who had studied with Arabian astronomers, was more than a match for this simple trick, without calling in the aid of the Saxon law. 'Tell me', he said, 'at what time you will do this, and we will believe you; or if you will not tell me I will tell you when the Sun or the Moon will next be darkened, in what part of their orb the darkness will begin, how far it will spread, and how long it will continue.'
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Lunar Eclipse of 1349 Jul 01
Fall of Constantinople (1453 CE)
The Roman Emperor Constantine, in 324 CE, moved the capital of his realm to ancient Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople. This capital ruled the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region for more than a thousand years, providing a strong government and continuation of the Roman Empire after it collapsed elsewhere.
Siege of Constantiople (painted in 1499)
By the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire, in a large expansion, set out to conquer Constantinople. The Turks laid siege to it in 1402 and 1422, without success, the city being surrounded by impenetrable walls. In 1453, the troops of Sultan Mohammed II returned to the walls. In addition to 250,000 men, the Turks brought a new eight meter long cannon, capable of firing 600-kg cannonballs. Despite everything, the city’s defenders, scarcely 7,000 men in number, repelled three assaults and repaired their damaged walls each night. They were confident in old predictions, according to which Constantinople would never fall. The full Moon rose in eclipse on May 22 and their morale collapsed. Six days later, Mohammed II tried a new assault and succeeded, routing the defenders.
A postern gate had been accidentally left open and some Turks entered the city. As the Sultan's men passed the walls, the fight turned into a tumult and Constantinople's defense collapsed. The terrible sack of Constantinople that followed lasted three days and was a major shock to western civilization. In this case, the eclipse had been seen as a bad omen by the Constantinople side and could have contributed to their losing the battle.
Map and eclipse predictions: Partial Lunar Eclipse of 1453 May 22
Part 3: Lunar Eclipses of the Modern Era
Christopher Columbus' Eclipse (1504 CE)
After a long trip to the Americas in 1503, in his fourth voyage, Columbus was stranded on the island of Jamaica. In principle, he managed to obtain provisions from the Caciques natives in exchange for some trinkets and rubbish. As the months went by, novelty and hospitality started to decrease and also the sailors became more aggressive with the natives in order to obtain food. Then the native Jamaicans communicated to the Spanish that they would not provide any more supplies.
Christopher Columbus presents a lunar eclipse to Native Americans.
Columbus became desperate with the threat of famine and came up with an ingenious plan. He checked his Calendarium, which contained predictions of lunar eclipses for several years. In particular, it predicted a total eclipse of the Moon on the Antilles on February 29, 1504 CE (March 01, 1504 CE). That evening, he invited the Caciques onboard his Capitana for a serious conversation. He told them that they were Christians and their God did not like the way they had been treating them and would punish the Indians with famine and pestilence and, as a sign of dissatisfaction, he would darken the Moon. As soon as he said that, the Earth's shadow started to cover the white disk. Terrified, the natives begged Columbus to bring back the light. According to Ferdinand Columbus (second son of Christopher Columbus), cited by Sinnot (1992):
The Indians observed this [the eclipse] and were so astonished and frightened that with great cries and lamentations they came running from all directions to the ships, carrying provisions and begging (...) and promising they would diligently supply all their needs in the future.
He replied that he needed to consult his God. He shut himself in a cabin for nearly two hours. Just before the end of totality, he reappeared and announced that God had given his pardon, and would bring them back the Moon provided that the Christians were given provisions. Immediately, the Moon reappeared. Astonished, the natives immediately provided Columbus and his crew their needed provisions until they were able to return to Europe.
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Lunar Eclipse of 1504 Mar 01
The use of eclipses as a tool to manipulate populations less knowledgeable about eclipses is also present in diverse works of fiction. In 1889, Mark Twain published A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a novel envisioning life in the sixth-century England. The author has Hank Morgan, the yankee in the title, hoodwinking the ignorant folk of that era by invoking prior knowledge of a solar eclipse on June 21, 528 CE. Twain has Morgan, who is jailed awaiting execution, threaten King Arthur with a blanking out of the Sun:
Go back and tell the king that at that hour 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 not rot for lack of light and warmth, and the peoples of the Earth shall famish and die, to the last man!
The description provided by Twain is accurate in many senses, except for the fact that there was no solar eclipse at all visible in England in 528 CE. There are more examples of this theme in literature, such as The Adventures of Tintin by Georges Remi and King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard.
General Gordon and Fatal Eclipses (1863 and 1885 CE)
An ancient Chinese aphorism says that every dynasty starts with the replacement of an old, degenerate regime ruled by corruption and ineffectiveness. But as time goes by, new governors, in principle virtuous, come into the same vices and the so-called "Mandate of Heaven" (as they reign by divine gift) is passed on. In such a society, signs of the sky can greatly influence politics. The Ch'ing dynasty began in 1644, and achieved great splendor. By the mid-19th century, however, it started to become ineffective and corrupt. At this time, the British general Charles Gordon was charged by the western powers to help the Emperor of China and his dynasty in their fight against the Taiping revolt. Skilled with military genius and leadership, Gordon commanded an army of Chinese mercenaries and had many victories.
On November 25, 1863 CE, a partial lunar eclipse frightened his troops during the siege of Soochow (Suzhou) in Kiangsu (Jiangsu). The superstitious Chinese interpreted the event as a bad omen for the Emperor. Soochow was not conquered and the Taiping revolt was settled peacefully. The effect of this eclipse can thus be seen as a cause of General Gordon's first defeat. Another eclipse - solar this time - on March 16, was directly responsible for his death. In 1886, he was in charge of the defense of Khartoum, the capital of the Sudan, under attack by a charismatic religious leader, the Mahdi. A solar eclipse demoralized Gordon's troops. The city was taken before British troops could arrive with reinforcements and the British general did not survive the massacre.
Eclipse of Lawrence of Arabia (1917 CE)
"By my diary there was an eclipse. Duly it came, and the Arabs forced the post without loss, while the superstitious soldiers were firing rifles and clanging copper pots to rescue the threatened satellite."
During the First World War, Thomas Edward Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, advised the Arabs in their revolt against the Ottoman Empire. One of his greatest exploits was the capture of Aqaba, a fortified port on the Sinai Peninsula, with a small troop of 50 Bedouin. In the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he reports a lunar eclipse in Egypt that helped him overcome the first defensive position, Kethira:
Aqaba was taken a few days later. Thanks to this strategic port having fallen to the British, the Allies soon recaptured Jerusalem and Damascus. The Turkish soldiers had another reason to fear the eclipse: according to an Islamic tradition, the Day of the Last Judgment is linked to an eclipse in the middle of the month of Ramadan, and this was precisely the case on that date.
Map and eclipse predictions: Total Lunar Eclipse of 1917 Jul 04
First Eclipses of the Third Millennium (2001 CE)
The first eclipse of the third millennium happened on January 9, 2001. This was a lunar eclipse that was total as viewed from most of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the eastern seaboard of North America. In Nigeria, the eclipse caused great consternation, and its advent was blamed on sinners. In the northeastern part of the country, there were rampages by gangs of youths. Similar destruction occurred in other towns. "The immoral acts committed in these places are responsible for this eclipse," explained one of the leaders of the riots.
Five months later, on June 21, 2001, the first total solar eclipse of the third millennium was also witnessed in Africa. As the track passed over Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and finally the southern part of the island of Madagascar, thousands of tourists watched the spectacle, along with millions of local inhabitants. Elsewhere much wailing and gnashing of teeth accompanied what was considered the "rooting of the Sun", from which the world would never recover. The world did recover of course, quite promptly, and here we are waiting for the next meeting between the two celestial bodies in their marvelous space ballet.
This article Lunar Eclipses of History is presented on EclipseWise.com with permission from the author Norma Reis. Please contact the author (NormaReis at mec dot gov dot br) with questions or corrections.