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10 Most Famous Historical Solar Eclipses

Total solar eclipses are a rare and auspicious event.

It has been nearly a century since the last total solar eclipse was visible from coast-to-coast in the United States, and almost 40 years since a total solar eclipse was visible in the U.S. at all.

On August 21, 2017 the “Great American Eclipse” will be seen by observers in a band that stretches all the way across the continental United States. People have prepared for the big eclipse by picking up or making their own eclipse-viewing glasses, planning eclipse parties, and more.

Total solar eclipses—when the moon passes between the earth and the sun—are rare enough that they have tended to make waves whenever they happened throughout history.

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In fact, there is evidence that “eclipse anxiety,” the feeling of unease that often accompanies a solar eclipse as day turns suddenly to night, may have helped spark early astronomy. It comes as no surprise that history is full of significant solar eclipses, complete with uncanny coincidences linked to the movements of heavenly bodies.

1374 BCE, Babylon

Known as the “Ugarit eclipse” for the port city where it was observed, this is one of the earliest eclipses ever recorded. Witnesses at the time wrote that the sun was “put to shame” as the moon passed in front of it. The date of this eclipse has lately been contested, with some historians claiming that it could have occurred as late as 1223 BCE, rather than 1374 BCE. 

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1302 BCE, China

A total solar eclipse observed in China was seen as a warning to the emperor. Afterwards, the emperor is said to have eaten only vegetarian meals and engaged in a variety of rituals to help “rescue” the sun.

800-701 BCE, Babylon

solar eclipse
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Babylonians are believed to have been among the first people to predict eclipses. Their tool, later called the “Saros cycle”, was designed to predict both lunar and solar eclipses. However, some modern historians claim that the Babylonians would have only been able to accurately predict lunar eclipses because solar eclipses are visible only in certain geographic regions. The ancient Babylonians believed that eclipses were ill omens foretelling the deaths of kings. During times of eclipse, a substitute ruler would be put in the king’s place in the hopes that the stand-in king would die instead of the real one. 

29 or 33 CE, Jerusalem

The Bible mentions “darkness” on the day that Jesus was crucified, which some historians believe may have been a reference to a solar eclipse lasting nearly two minutes which occurred in 29 CE or a longer eclipse lasting just over four minutes that took place in 33 CE. This was treated by contemporary Christians as a miracle. 

569 CE, Mecca

Jesus wasn’t alone in being linked to portentous eclipses. The Koran also mentions an eclipse in 569 CE that preceded the birth of Mohammed. There was also an eclipse lasting nearly two minutes after the death of Mohammed’s son, although Mohammed himself rejected the idea that this was a sign from God. 

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840 CE, East Francia (modern Germany)

solar eclipse
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne, was the ruler of a great empire that had already been riven with internal conflict even before he witnessed a solar eclipse in 840 CE. The celestial event struck him so forcibly that some have linked it to his death more than a month later. His death led to a full-blown civil war and, eventually, the Treaty of Verdun which gave rise to modern-day Europe. 

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1133 CE, England

Eclipses are often believed to be linked with bad omens and, particularly, to be tied to the deaths of kings. So it seems uncanny indeed that this four-minute long solar eclipse was visible in England and Germany the day after King Henry I departed for Normandy. There, while campaigning for the safety and unity of his kingdom, Henry I would take ill and die. 

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1605 CE, England

Shakespeare mentioned eclipses in several of his plays, including King Lear and Macbeth. This may have been because he witnessed a solar eclipse himself in England in 1605. The total solar eclipse was particularly impressive, as it had followed on the heels of a partial lunar eclipse just a few weeks before. 

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1868 CE, India

solar eclipse
  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

During a solar eclipse visible in India, an astronomer named Pierre Jules César Janssen directed a spectrograph toward the sun and somewhat unexpectedly discovered the element helium. Helium is visible in the spectrum of the sun during an eclipse as a bright yellow line. Helium derives its name from helios, the Greek word for the sun. 

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1919 CE, United States

The last total solar eclipse that was visible coast-to-coast in the United States also set another historic precedent: It helped to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity. Scientists were able to observe the sun’s gravity bending the light of nearby stars during the eclipse.

Throughout the centuries, eclipses, especially total solar eclipses, have been viewed as omens and portents. While we like to think of ourselves as less superstitious today, a solar eclipse is still an awe-inspiring sight. Many people across the United States are looking forward to witnessing the Great American Eclipse as it makes its way across the country on August 21, 2017.

Featured photo: thekarmapolice / Flickr (CC

Published on 16 Aug 2017

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