Eclipses have always been spectacular events! Many of us are looking forward to the total solar eclipse on April 8th, 2024, but there have been many famous eclipses in history. So what did our ancestors think of these astronomical events? Let’s see in their own words! 

In 71 AD/CE, Greek philosopher Plutarch wrote about an eclipse seen in the Mediterranean. He states: 

“Now, grant me that nothing that happens to the sun is so like its setting as a solar eclipse. You will, if you call to mind this conjunction recently which, beginning just after noonday, made many stars shine out from many parts of the sky and tempered the air in the manner of twilight. If you do not recall it, Theon here will cite us Mimnermus and Cydias and Archilochus and Stesichorus besides and Pindar, who during eclipses bewail ‘the brightest star bereft’ and ‘at midday night falling’ and say that the beam of the sun ‘(is sped) the path of shade’.”
– “De facie in orbe lunae (On the face on the moon)” in Plutarch’s Moralia XII by Plutarch 

In 1133 AD/CE, historians across Eruope noted an eclipse that darkened the sky. It was seen as a bad omen, and in England, foreshadowed the death of King Henry I. 

“In this year King Henry went over sea at Lammas, and the second day as he lay and slept on the ship, the day darkened over all lands; and the Sun became as it were a three-night-old Moon, and the stars about it at mid-day. Men were greatly wonder-stricken and were affrighted, and said that a great thing should come thereafter. So it did, for the same year the king died on the following day after St Andrew’s Mass-day, Dec 2 in Normandy.”
– The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Of course, there were keen astronomical observers across the globe. The Maya in modern-day Mexico had incredibly detailed calendars that predicted eclipses through the twentieth century. Unfortunately, much of their detailed notes and predictions were destroyed by invading forces who worked to wipe out Maya religious practices. 

A total solar eclipse occurred across the Americas in 1806 and is often called Tecumseh’s Eclipse after Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. He was working hard to unite his nation against encroaching United States expansion as people of European descent pushed further into Native American lands. Governor Harrison of the Indiana territory led the charge against the Shawnee. Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, was known as “The Prophet,” and was considered a great man among the Shawnee.

The Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa. c.1820. Charles Bird King (1785-1862). Commissioned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Harrison challenged Tenskwatwa and wrote; “wrote: “If he (Tenskwatawa) is really a prophet, ask him to cause the Sun to stand still or the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves.”

In response, Tenskwatawa gathered the Shawnee and said: “Fifty days from this day there will be no cloud in the sky. Yet, when the Sun has reached its highest point, at that moment will the Great Spirit take it into her hand and hide it from us. The darkness of night will thereupon cover us and the stars will shine round about us. The birds will roost and the night creatures will awaken and stir.” He was predicting a total solar eclipse. On noon, June 16, 1806, a total solar eclipse crossed the region. The correct prediction strengthened the resolve of the Shawnee confederacy in their resistance to U.S. encroachment.

 

What’s your favorite historical eclipse or celestial event? Tell us! 

 

 

Rebecca McCormick is a writer and editor based in Fairfax, Virginia. She has a passion for history education and holds an MA in History of Decorative Arts. Rebecca believes that hands-on history and interacting with objects helps learning come alive for children and adults.