Historical Interpretations Of An Eclipse I Oxford Open Learning


    Historical Interpretations Of An Eclipse

    How Have Earlier Cultures Interpreted An Eclipse?

    April 8th, 2024, saw a spectacular total solar eclipse – for the lucky Americans, Mexicans, and Canadians beneath its path at least! Us Britons 4000 miles away to the west will have to settle for a partial eclipse at about 8pm, which will be a less spectacular but still fascinating sight.

    What Is An Eclipse?

    A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth, blocking (total eclipse) or partially obscuring (partial eclipse) the sun’s light, creating a momentary but dramatic dimming of the sky. Today, such events are a well-understood branch of science known as celestial mechanics, but historically, cultures without the benefit of science attached some strange interpretations to solar eclipses.

    China’s Celestial Dragon

    For example, the ancient Chinese associated an eclipse with a celestial dragon devouring the sun, and as a result, crowds would bang drums and make loud noises to scare this beast away.

    The Incas And The Mayans

    The ancient Inca civilisations interpreted solar eclipses as The Sun God Inti’s displeasure. Spiritual leaders would attempt to understand why god was angry and, having done this, offer an appropriate sacrifice. The Mayans, in particular, believed that ‘Star Demons’ (the planets) were eating the sun and moon during eclipses. These demons were depicted as insects or snakes within historical stories and imagery.

    Religious Interpretation In Europe

    While there was good evidence that the science of solar eclipses was understood in medieval northern Europe, Christians at that time still attached mystical qualities to such events and often saw them as a sign from God, whether good or bad. This led to prayer and penance among the populace to try to either appease or thank God.


    Perhaps one of the most fascinating pseudo-scientific interpretations of the solar Eclipse was in Mesopotamia (the region that is modern-day Iraq and Kuwait) during the 10th Century BC. Scholars at that time were well learned and had developed the skills to actually predict eclipses and so had some understanding of celestial mechanics. However, in a big leap of imagination, the priests believed that if the planet of Jupiter was visible at the time of the Eclipse, the King was doomed. In advance of such events, the priests invoked the protective ‘substitute King ritual’ called šar pūḫi, which is perhaps one of the most elaborate and unique human sacrifice rituals ever known. This would involve the real king going into hiding while the substitute was put in his place anywhere from 3 days to 3 months ahead of the event. This was, of course, a bizarrely luxurious stay of execution: the substitute king would be allowed all the trappings of regency but always doomed to be ritualistically killed when the eclipse duly arrived, sometimes with a poisonous drink, sometimes a more violently. At that point, the real king, who had been waiting (or rather, hiding) in the wings quietly, working on the administrative affairs of regency, would return to public duties.

    Solar eclipses, with their mesmerising beauty and profound symbolism, have left an indelible mark on human history and culture.

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    I am a practising HR consultant working with several start-ups on an ongoing and ad-hoc basis in the London and M4 area, and am a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development or CIPD. I am the Director of thecareercafe.co.uk; thecareercafe.co.uk is a resource for start-ups and small business. It includes a blog containing career advice, small business advice articles, HR software reviews, and contains great resources such as HR Productivity Apps.