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How solar eclipses have shaped civilizations throughout history

A crowd of people look at a 1911 solar eclipse in Paris, France.
Eugène Atget
U.S. Library of Congress
A crowd looks at a 1911 solar eclipse in Paris, France.

In April, when a total solar eclipse crosses North America (including the area just south of St. Louis), it will mark nearly 4,161 years since the earliest recorded solar eclipse.

“The first recorded solar eclipse we have knowledge of was recorded by Chinese astronomers,” Washington University physicist Manel Errando told St. Louis on the Air.

The last eclipse to cross the U.S., in 2017, drew a massive public response. Eclipses have long carried weight: In 2137 B.C., Chinese astronomers Hi and Ho worked to notate and predict the movements of the sun and moon, as well as solar eclipses, in order to keep track of the calendar for the emperor’s court. On Oct. 22 of that year, they slacked on their duty. Their fate is detailed in the Book of Documents, an ancient Chinese text.

“It looks like they were out drinking instead of doing their calculations about when the eclipse would happen. Then, when the eclipse happened — and they had not notified the emperor that this eclipse would happen and they had failed to make the prediction — let's say that the emperor wasn't very happy about it,” Errando said. “They were executed.”

Shadows on the snow in 1940 along the mountains in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. The unusual crescent shaped light in patches in the shadows were caused by the eclipse of the sun.
Russell Lee
U.S. Library of Congress
Shadows on the snow in 1940 along the mountains in Bernalillo County, New Mexico. The unusual crescent-shaped light in patches in the shadows was caused by the eclipse of the sun.

Errando observed that throughout most of human history, across multiple civilizations and continents, lunar and solar eclipses were considered to be bad omens.

“It makes sense,” he said. “The moon and the sun are our first calendars, and if you're living off of the land, it’s very important to know when the seasons are changing, when your hunting is going to be better in certain areas, when it's going to get colder, when you need to store food. …. But at the same time, there's things that happen in the sky that are not related to the seasons or to our calendar, like solar eclipses, comets, [or] a new star that shows up in the sky that they didn't know.”

When something bad happened in a community surrounding an eclipse, negative associations were drawn.

“They would have rituals to protect themselves from these potentially bad things,” Errando said. “There's different interpretations about what the eclipses were. … In Chinese culture, there was a dragon eating up the sun, and they would try to protect the sun from this dragon that was eating it because, of course, they needed the sun.”

While Greek philosophers got closer to a scientific understanding of the cosmos, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the science behind eclipses was truly understood.

Errando will host a talk titled “Eclipses Through Time: Unveiling the Celestial Tapestry of Human History” on Saturday at Washington University. The event will be followed by two eclipse-themed lectures on Feb. 24 and March 2.

The physicist joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss the historical and cultural significance of solar eclipses and how they broaden our knowledge of the universe.

To learn more about historic eclipses, including one that ended a six-year war in Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and another that is credited for propelling Albert Einstein to fame, listen to the episode on Apple Podcast, Spotify or Google Podcast, or by clicking the play button below.

WashU physicist Manel Errando joins "St. Louis on the Air"

Related Event
What: Saturday Science Lecture with Manel Errando on Eclipses Through Time: Unveiling the Celestial Tapestry of Human History
When: 10 a.m. Feb. 17
Where: Crow Observatory (Crow Hall on Washington University’s campus), St. Louis, MO 63105

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.