From the Depths of Time The Earliest Recorded Eclipses

Zeus, the father of the Olympic Gods, turned mid-day into night, hiding the light of the dazzling Sun; and sore fear came upon men.

Archilochus, referring to the total solar eclipse of 648 B.C.

Eclipses have had a profound and startling effect upon the cultural development of humankind. Let us begin by asking which Eclipse has exerted the greatest influence over our affairs.

In this opening chapter we will describe various famous historical eclipses, such as those that presaged several great battles in antiquity, interpreted by one side as an auspicious omen, by the other as a portent of doom. We will also mention the eclipse that seems to have followed the death ofJesus Christ on the cross, and left a strong impression upon His followers and foes alike. But in my opening paragraph I was not asking about any such eclipse in the sky.

With a little sleight of hand, I capitalized the word Eclipse there. The most famous Eclipse of all time was an eighteenth-century British racehorse by that name, which happened to be born at the time of a solar eclipse visible in England in 1764. He continues to affect everyday life because every thoroughbred carries a few of his genes.

Never beaten in a race, after retirement from the track Eclipse spent almost 20 years at stud. After his death in 1789, the great horse's skeleton was mounted at the Royal Veterinary College in London, at least one hoof was turned into a snuffbox, and in several countries there are annual races called the Eclipse Stakes. In the United States a set of annual awards recognize the top thoroughbreds in various categories, and these are called the Eclipse Awards. For the actual horse, then, it is a postmortem mixture of abasement and honor.

But those are trivialities. Is horseracing as a whole so important as to justify my claim? While I am not an aficionado of the so-called Sport of Kings, I recognize its significance. In terms of economic turnover, horseracing and the associated activities (like gambling) are reckoned to represent one of the largest industries in many nations. In Britain, Ireland, and France it is an especially large slice of the economy. One has only to visit the Kentucky Derby or the Happy Valley racecourse in Hong Kong to see that the equine Eclipse has a continuing sway upon human activity, 200 years after his death.

If you look up the word "eclipse" in a dictionary of quotations, among the entries the following will often appear: "Eclipse first, and the rest nowhere." Those words are often uttered as a prognosis on any sporting contest in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Dennis O'Kelly, the owner of Eclipse, famously coined the phrase when he wagered that he could place the first three horses in a race.

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