Great Moments in Eclipse History

A brief look into astronomical eclipses in ancient history.

Play the accompanying video attachment to get a sense of the mystic of ancient eclipses while reading the piece. The song was performed at Pompeii by Pink Floyd.

The west coast will be the best coast in America to view the solar eclipse this Sunday, and one of the few places on Earth where it can be seen.

However, the astronomical phenomenon that we call an “eclipse” has been viewed by many throughout history and has played a critical role in both mankind’s spiritual evolution, and its scientific understanding of the natural world.

For the Navajo the word for eclipse means “eating the sun”. Considered an auspicious event, many tribe members will not only avoid catching a glimpse of the ring of fire, but will fast and cease activities altogether. For others throughout history, the eclipse had many different meanings and outcomes.

Ancient China: Hsi and Ho, 2137 B.C.

The earliest recorded eclipse dates back to sometime around 2137 B.C. and was recorded by Hsi and Ho, two royal Chinese astronomers, according to NASA. Although, the date is simply a scientific guess.

According to the ancient Chinese document Shu Ching, the two men wrote that “the Sun and Moon did not meet harmoniously” during the event, according to sacred-texts.com. At the time, ancient Chinese believed that solar eclipses were caused by dragons devouring the sun. According to Earthview.com, drummers and archers firing arrows into the air were customary during the astronomical event.

The story goes that the emperor was so upset because the two astronomers failed to predict the event accurately they were subsequently beheaded. The emperor did not like being caught off-guard.

Ancient Persia:  Battle of the Eclipse, 585 B.C.

Herodutus, a Greek historian, recorded that Thales of Milete was able to predict an eclipse during a time when the Medians, whose kingdom was located near Tehran, and Lydians, modern day Turks, were at war.

Many historians believe that Thales was able to predict the event using ancient Egyptian techniques of land measurement. However, no one knows for sure how he was able to make the prediction or how vague it was, according to wired.com.

Subsequently, during a battle between the king of Lydia, Aylattes, and Cyaxares, king of the Medes, near what is now known to be central Turkey— the moon enveloped the sun.

Under the dark heavens, the soldiers from the two armies were so astonished that they laid down their bloodied weapons. Not long after the battle, peace between the two warring kingdoms was reached with the help of the diplomatic Babylonians.

Night and Day: The Peloponnesian War, 416 B.C.

During the Peloponnesian War, a lunar eclipse had a different influence than its solar counterpart in ancient Persia. According to ancientgreece.com, the Athenian armies were ready to move their forces from Syracuse to attack and conquer Sicily, which was a long held dream of the Athenians.

The Athenians, under the guidance of Alcibiades, were also at war with ancient Sparta and Syracuse at the time. Fortunately for the Sicilians, Alcibiades was called back to Athens to stand trial for crimes against religious statues and Nicias was installed as the new leader, according to ancientgreece.com.

The delay gave Syracuse, Sicilian cities and Sparta enough time to raise formidable forces against the Athenian fleet. Having received word of the buildup of forces, the Athenians eventually decided to retreat from Sicily.

However, a lunar eclipse, which was viewed as a bad omen, delayed the retreat. The postponement led to the Athenian fleet’s defeat and Nicias died during the battle.

For a complete chronology for historical events during solar eclipses, click here.

This Sunday’s Solar Eclipse

This Sunday, the eclipse will only be visible from parts of China, northern Taiwan, southern Japan and the western United States. The annular eclipse -- also known as a ring of fire -- will appear in the east as the sun rises, intensify over the northern Pacific Ocean and culminate its spectacular display in the western United States. 

At its height, the eclipse will last for nearly six minutes in an area near the sparsely populated Aleutian Islands of Alaska, coincidentally located along the Pacific Rim of Fire.

While the eclipse’s path sweeps directly along the path of Redding, CA on its 200-mile “journey” across the sky, it will appear as a partial eclipse for miles beyond. In such instances, it may appear in a crescent shape. 

This includes Los Angeles, where it will last for about two hours from 5:24-7:42 p.m., with a maximum peak time of 6:38 p.m., according to the Griffith Observatory, one of several places to host viewing gatherings. The observatory will provide the public with free telescopes, and will have glasses and filters available for purchase in the gift shop.

Eclipses of the solar kind happen when the moon passes between the sun and Earth. Annular is a reference not to its punctuality but rather alludes to the ring shape the sun takes on, known as an annulus, a kind of illusion created when the apparent diameter of the moon is smaller than that of the sun as its path aligns with the Earth. Annulus means "little ring" in Latin. 

The orb's ring will appear to be thick, however, due to the moon's apparent diameter that is 94 percent of the sun’s, according to NASA’s web site. The last annular solar eclipse in the U.S. occurred nearly two decades ago, on May 10, 1994.

Eclipses occur in Saros, which is a kind of family determined by geometric similarities. The  event occurring on May, 19, 2012 is in the family Saros 128. 

Families usually span a period of about 12 or 13 centuries and are comprised of 70 or more eclipses. Lasting about 1,298 years, Saros 128 was born in 984 AD and will conclude its series of celestial displays a couple of centuries from now, in the year 2282.

To ensure future viewings of the amazing if not auspicious occurrence, use special solar filters or No. 14 welder's glass, or build your own pinhole camera--click here for a how-to courtesy of space.com, which will also provide complete eclipse coverage.

Click here to view NASA’s list of American cities where Saturday's eclipse can be seen.

For suggestions on where to watch the eclipse within a 100 mile radiuis of Hermosa Beach, click here.


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