Did you know that Mark Twain used a solar eclipse as a plot device in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? Hank, the protagonist, time-travels to Camelot. He avoids execution by “predicting” an eclipse.

Long before Twain created Hank, ancient astronomers observed the heavens and recorded their observations. Let’s look at what some of them learned.


Ancient Mesopotamia’s moon god, Nanna, appeared in Sumerian writings as early as 3500 B.C.E. The Babylonians and Assyrians also worshipped Nanna.

The Great Ziggurat was built as a place of worship, dedicated to the moon god Nanna in the Sumerian city of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia. Today, after more than 4000 years, the ziggurat is still well preserved in large parts as the only major remainder of Ur in present-day southern Iraq. Defense Dept. photo by Cherie A. Thurlby (released)

Ur’s Great Ziggurat is dedicated to him. Nanna was also the god of wisdom and could predict the future. During the new moon’s darkness, Nanna judged the souls of the dead (Mark 2017).

Ancient Sumerians believed that eclipses happened when demons tried to steal the moon’s light. Babylonian astronomers predicted eclipses and used an eclipse’s date and location to foretell the future (Koch-Westenholz 2001, 71-74). Some Mesopotamian cultures believed eclipses were especially dangerous for the king. They “enthroned” a fake king before a predicted eclipse and executed him afterward to protect the true king (75). In Uruk and Assyria, priests and townspeople played kettledrums to protect the king during an eclipse (80).


Chang E, the Moon Goddess. Samuel M. Nickerson Collection, Art Institute of Chicago/Public Domain

Chang’e was ancient China’s moon goddess. Chang’e’s archer husband, Hou Yi, saved the world with his arrows. His reward was the elixir of immortality. Chang’e consumed the elixir — to become immortal herself, to keep Hou Yi’s apprentice from achieving immortality, or because thieves startled her — stories differ. Immortal Chang’e flew to the Moon with her pet rabbit. Hou Yi mourned his wife and made mooncakes in her honor (“Mid-Autumn Festival” 2020).

The ancient Chinese believed that eclipses were bad omens that happened when a dragon ate the Sun or Moon. Eclipses were thought to be especially dangerous for the Emperor, so royal astronomers studied them closely and learned to predict them (Vahia 2015, 3).

Australia and the Torres Strait Islands

Indigenous Australians living in Australia and the Torres Strait islands tracked the Sun, Moon, and celestial bodies. They created stories and rock art to explain what they saw.

The Yolngu people, like many other Aboriginal Australian groups, believed that the Moon was male and the Sun was female. Wives of the Moon-man, Ngalindi, attacked him with axes every month, chopping him until he died — hence the new Moon. Ngalindi rose anew, growing in strength, until his axe-bearing wives struck again. Eclipses happened when Walu, the Sun-woman, and Ngalindi had romantic encounters (Norris and Hamacher 2011, 99-102).

Greece and Rome

Bust of Selene in a clipeus, detail from a strigillated lenos sarcophagus. Roman artwork. Museum of the Baths of Diocletian, Rome. Marie-Lan Nguyen/Public Domain

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that the moon goddess Selene (Luna in the Roman pantheon) drove her moon chariot across the sky each night. The goddess Artemis (Roman Diana) was also a moon deity, but Selene physically moved the Moon through the heavens (“Selene” secs. 1, 3, 11-12, 18).







Antikythera Mechanism, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Tilemahos Efthimiadis/Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 DEED

Ancient Greeks and Romans thought eclipses predicted disaster, even total abandonment by the gods. Thales was probably the first Greek astronomer to predict a solar eclipse in 585 B.C.E. Greek and Roman astronomers used eclipse data to show that Earth is spherical (Carrier 1998,17). The Greeks even built a mechanical device, the Antikythera Mechanism, that could track planetary positions and forecast eclipses (Mark 2022).




Further Reading

Carrier, Richard C. “Cultural History of the Lunar and Solar Eclipse in the Early Roman Empire.” Accessed March 28, 2024. https://richardcarrier.info/culturaleclipse.pdf.

Koch-Westerholz “Babylonian Views of Eclipses,” Academia, in Démons et merveilles d’Orient, Res Orientales, XIII (2001), 71-84. https://www.academia.edu/493058/_Babylonian_Views_of_Eclipses.

Mark, Joshua J. “Greek Astronomy.” World History Encyclopedia. Last updated February 14, 2022. https://www.worldhistory.org/Greek_Astronomy/.

Mark, Joshua J. “Nanna.” World History Encyclopedia. Last updated February 8, 2017. https://www.worldhistory.org/Nanna/.

Norris, Ray P., and Duane W. Hamacher. “Astronomical Symbolism in Australian Aboriginal Rock Art.” Rock Art Research 28, no. 1 (2011), 99-106. https://rockartresearch.com/index.php/rock/article/view/78/74.

“Selene.” Theoi Greek Mythology. Last updated 2017. https://www.theoi.com/Titan/Selene.html.

“The Story Behind China’s Mid-Autumn Festival.” The Beijing Center. Last modified October 29, 2020. https://thebeijingcenter.org/the-story-behind-chinas-mid-autumn-festival/.

Vahia, Mayank. “Eclipses in Ancient Cultures.” 2015. https://www2.nao.ac.jp/~mitsurusoma/WS2014/vahia.pdf.

Guest post by Nancy Parode. Nancy is a writer and independent researcher from Maryland. Nancy holds an MA in American History and is an experienced social studies, English, and biology teacher. She loves sharing stories from the past and once helped her ancient history students dress up as Japanese namahage (mountain monsters from the Oga Peninsula) to surprise other classes with Japanese snacks and scare their fellow students into doing their homework.