Eclipses: Om Nom Nom Nom Nom

Eclipses_Om_Nom_Nom_Nom_Nom

The monster theory of eclipses was the favorite theory of eclipses of premodern people all over the world, and likely for nearly all of our species’ existence. Here are some eclipse monsters that were believed to exist:

 

  • Scandinavia: two wolves
  • The Mayas: a snake
  • Some North American First Nations people: a bear
  • India: Rahu, a demon
  • China: a dragon
  • Korea: fire dogs
  • Vietnam: a frog
  • The Philippines: a dragonlike snake

An alternative to the monster theory was the sorcery theory. The Roman historian Plutarch stated about a certain Aglaonike that she was “thoroughly acquainted with the periods of the full moon when it is subject to eclipse, and, knowing beforehand the time when the moon was due to be overtaken by the earth’s shadow, imposed upon the women, and made them all believe that she was drawing down the moon.” Nearly 1500 years later, Christopher Columbus did the same thing.

Many people made noise to try to stop eclipses, and some people shot flaming arrows to re-ignite the Sun. In the Roman Empire and the late Republic, some educated people were very annoyed at the noise that many ordinary people made to try to stop eclipses.

Some people went further, believing that eclipses are bad omens. Around 413 BCE, the Athenian general Nicias led an expedition to try to conquer Syracuse in eastern Sicily, an ally of Athens’s enemy Sparta. He was not very successful, and he decided to return home to Athens. But then, there was an eclipse of the Moon, and Nicias was spooked enough to decide to stay in Sicily for some three weeks before leaving. The Syracusans and their allies soon defeated Nicias’s army.

Some years before that, Athenian leader Pericles had a problem. The pilot of his ship was made very scared by a partial eclipse of the Sun. So Pericles tried to reassure him by using his cloak to make a shadow.

We don’t know who first proposed the shadow theory of eclipses, but Anaxagoras of Clazomenae was one of the first, and Pericles likely learned it from him. Anaxagoras also proposed that the celestial bodies were hot rocks and that the Sun was bigger than the Peloponnesus, the southernmost part of mainland Greece. Over the centuries, it became part of the common knowledge of educated people.

Historian Richard Carrier did his master’s thesis on Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire. He selected that subject because eclipses were an early triumph of science, and because eclipses are spectacular — and scary to many people. The Sun and the Moon getting eaten away, and the Moon getting eaten away when it was biggest and brightest. He also noted some class conflicts about eclipses, with the lower classes preferring to believe that eclipses were caused by monsters or black magic and the more educated members of the upper classes believing in the shadow theory of eclipses. Complete with looking down on the lower classes as grossly superstitious.

 

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