Eclipses & History

Eclipses down the ages…

Throughout history, eclipses have been associated with important and dramatic events – the start or end of wars, the birth or death of a leader and the founding of nations.

The Babylonians, who were keen astral diviners, considered eclipses to be omens from the celestial gods, heralding significant events for the nation – the king in particular. As far as they were concerned, many lunar eclipses were very bad omens, especially for the current ruler, who was often temporarily replaced by a ‘stand in’ during such events so that any evil portents brought about by these occultations would not affect national stability. Given how important the moon was to the Mesopotamians (it determined their calendar, for one thing) the sight of the Moon turning blood red from the shadow of the earth, must have been a terrifying sight.

One example of an eclipse omen, from a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum, gives us an insight into their interpretation of lunar eclipse omens:

1-6 If the moon is eclipsed in Leo and finishes the watch and the north wind blows, Jupiter does not stand (in) the eclipse; Saturn and Mars stand in Aries or in Sagittarius (The Field); variant: in its eclipse [a halo surrounds (the moon) and Regulus stands within it].

7’ For this sign: [the king] of Akkad will experience severe hardship/disease: it will seize him, and in a revolt they will oust him from his throne.

8’–9’ His people will experience great famine; brother will kill his brother, friend his friend, in battle. For three years [. . .] will not return [to the throne of Akkad]; the gods will [abandon] the country; [the people will be scattered, break (= the people) will abandon their shrines; break (= mercy and) well-being will end in the land; Enlil [will maliciously oppress the country . . .]

Eclipses during the Graeco-Roman period

Later on, the ancient Greeks, including Herodotus and Plutarch, also wrote about eclipses. Not all Greeks saw them as mere astronomical-scientific or natural events. Some such as Arrian, also saw them  as astral portents,  who reports that before a major battle with Darius, the king of Achaemenid Persia, Alexander the Great and his army witnessed a lunar eclipse, which was interpreted by his seer, Aristander of Telmessos, as a sign of victory for the Greeks.

So,‘… Alexander sacrificed to the Moon, Sun and Earth, who are all said to cause an eclipse,’ and went on to win the battle within the month, just as Aristander had prophesied.[i]

Eclipses were often depicted on Roman coins. Generally speaking they, like the Babylonians, saw eclipses as terrifying omens of disaster

Several Roman chroniclers also record eclipse events, mostly typifying them as natural omens, but none are as dramatic as that reported by Cassius Dio on the eve of the Emperor Augustus’ death around the years 17-25 CE when:

‘The sun suffered a total eclipse and most of the sky seemed to be on fire; glowing embers appeared to be falling from it and blood-red comets were seen’.[iii]

Eclipses & Biblical History

Certain Biblical scholars think that there may have been an eclipse at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. According to scriptural chroniclers, including the testimony given by the Apostle Peter, when the Moon rose that evening, it was dark and turned ‘the colour of blood’[ii] which sounds very much like a lunar eclipse. The Full Moon, rising opposite the Sun in the eastern horizon as the Sun set in the west, would have taken on a reddish hue as a result of the shadow of the earth, which lies between the two luminaries during this type of event.

The negative interpretation of such an event would also be very much in keeping with Near Eastern prophetic traditions such as those in Babylon, when the king’s life was often considered to be in danger. What is interesting here is the lunar associations with Christ, rather than the later solar associations that became commonplace during the middle ages when Christ was drawn with a solar halo in many images, and in Ireland, the Christian cross became amalgamated with the pagan symbol of the sun to form the Celtic cross.

Joseph Campbell has commented on this rather unusual cluster of lunar imagery around Jesus[iv] which he not only relates to the earlier tradition of Mithras (the solar god who kills the bull = time and bondage to the past or to mortal life) but also its links to the sacred marriage of the Sun and Moon in alchemical terms, which, for many, represents:

The “mystical union of opposites,” with the bride representing the “incarnate self” and the bridegroom representing the “disincarnate Self.”

Sacred Marriage: The Secret Key to Christian Spirituality by Cynthia Avens

Anne Jeffers has also written papers on how, ‘despite officially condemning all magicians and divinatory practitioners, the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures is replete with references to divination.’ These vary from astrology to lot casting and hepatoscopy (liver divination) and even necromancy.[v]

The date of Easter, for example, the festival designed to commemorate the crucifixion, is determined by the Moon. According to the Bible, Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred around the time of the Jewish Passover, which was celebrated on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. This soon led to Christians celebrating Easter on different dates. At the end of the 2nd century, some churches celebrated Easter on the day of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the following Sunday.

Eclipses in Medieval Europe

The great Platonic philosophers, Averroes and Porphyry of Tyre, no doubt discussing their differing ideas about the cosmos, as depicted in a medieval illustrated manuscript

During the Medieval period, similar viewpoints continued to hold sway. Gregory of Tours, in his history of the Franks, for example, writes of an eclipse in April 581 which he sees as an ominous portent of death and destruction:

‘The moon was darkened and a comet appeared in the sky. A serious epidemic followed among the common people.’[vi]

Perhaps the comet added an extra bit of drama to the mix, making it seem even more of an unusual and potentially meaningful event? In this respect, it is interesting that the first eclipse of 2017 fell on the same day as the appearance of a comet – a potentially ominous portent for the world?

According to Norma Reis, an eclipse in the 9th century so terrified a French king that he died of fright after witnessing it. The story goes that:

‘…Louis of Bavaria, the son of Charlemagne, was head of a great empire when, on May 5, 840 CE, he witnessed a solar eclipse. He was so petrified that he died just afterwards. His three sons then began to dispute his succession. Their quarrel was settled three years later with the Treaty of Verdun, dividing Europe into three large areas, namely France, Germany and Italy.’[vii]’

William Lilly & the Eclipse of 1639

The famous English astrologer, William Lilly, who helped to popularise astrology for the masses through his bestselling woodcuts and pamphlets and whose ‘uncannily accurate forecasts about events of national importance.’ helped win his both friends and enemies in high places, based his prediction about the fortunes of the ill-fated Charles I as a result of the Parliamentarian uprisings during the English Civil war, on the horary chart of the solar eclipse which took place in May 1639.

In his publication entitled, ‘Monarchy or No Monarchy’ (1651), he published a horoscope of the Eclipse of the Sun on 22 May 1639, the only eclipse visible from England that year – in which he saw an omen of ill-fortune: the beginning of the political troubles for the Stuart monarch that would end with his beheading in 1645 by the rebellious Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell.

In keeping with the ancient prophetic tradition of Babylonian court astrologer-priests, whose job it was to protect the king and the land from coups, famines, enemy invasions and other dangers through eclipse forecasting, he states that, ‘This eclipse signified unto the King much treachery and damage by his friends the Scots,’ noting that the degree of the luminaries (11 Gemini) was almost exactly opposite that of the Charles’ natal Sun at 8 Sagittarius – not a good omen in any astrologer’s books.

Perhaps for dramatic effect, he adds:

His Majesty was in the field against the Scots at the very time of the Eclipse, and some that were there with him said that the Eclipse they felt not a more sharp cold day in all their lives than that cold. was , the seaſon of the year, and height of the Sun considered….

Monarchy or No Monarchy, 1659, p.97

However, no doubt to avoid claims of heresy from the clergy, who were not really fans of his by this stage, as well as censorship from the authorities, he does hastily qualify this prediction by saying that:

Although the eclipse was in Gemini, which sign is the Ascendant of London, yet certainly, that eclipse did, in a natural way, threaten or portend much damage unto them [the civilians or citizens of the city…but was not the cause.

An important distinction – one emphasised by philosophers and astrologers before him such as Plotinus, who had a more nuanced view of fate than their Mesopotamian predecessors, and so were at pains to insist that: ‘The circuit of the stars indicates definite events to come but without being the cause direct.’ [vii]’

His caution was probably wise, for as David Plant relays:

On 25th October 1666, he was summoned to appear before a parliamentary committee investigating the causes of the Great Fire of London, which he had predicted in 1652 in the form of a coded drawing or ‘hieroglyphic’.

‘The Life & Work of William Lilly’, Skyscript

The close relationship between rulers and eclipses that as established by the Babylonians seems to have continued into the modern age – the uncanny synchronicity between eclipses and key events in the British Royal family is particularly interesting and well documented. You can find out more in the next section of this series.

Read more: Eclipses & Current Affairs

References


[i] See Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, III,7(6); 15(7)

[iii] See his Roman History, LV II, 4 and LVI, 29. Cornelius Tacitus, Dio Cassius and Eusebius/Jerome also mention this event. See: http://hbar.phys.msu.su/gorm/atext/ginzele.htm

[iv] Campbell, J and Moyers, B. Sukhavati – Place of Bliss. A Mythic Journey with Joseph Campbell, DVD, Released 2002/7 by Acorn Media

[v] Anne Jeffers, ‘”Nor by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets”: The story of the woman at the pit in I Samuel 28’ in In: Curry, P. and Voss, A. (eds.) Seeing With Different Eyes, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, pp. 129-142.

[vi] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Book V, Chapter 41
[vii] Norma Reis, ‘Famous Eclipses of the Middle Ages’, Astronomy Today, http://www.astronomytoday.com/eclipses/middleages-part1.html [accessed August 2013]

[viii] Plotinus, ‘Whether the Stars are Causes’, Enneads II.3, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Enneads/Are_the_Stars_Causes%3F [accessed January 2023]


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