The Human Significance Of Eclipses

Eclipses may have been viewed as being either propitious or portentous by civilizations past and present, but they have influenced our development beyond affecting the outcomes of battles or the deaths of monarchs. Everyone is familiar with the concept of the Sabbath, the one day of rest in seven, taken on disparate days by different religions (Sunday for most Christians, Saturday for Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists, Friday for Muslims). The sabbatical leave (one year in seven, traditionally) of academic staff at older universities is another example.

This is a later adaptation of the original meaning of the Babylonian word sabattu, which was considered to be the "evil day" of the moon goddess Ishtar, a time when she was thought to be menstruating, at full moon. This may have come about because of the aforementioned fact that during a lunar eclipse—which can only occur at full moon—the Moon's disk takes on a blood-red hue. Thus the original meaning of the Sabbath was full moon, a monthly rather than weekly event.

It was much later that the seven-day week developed, through a reinforcement during the Jewish Exile in Babylonia (in the sixth century B.C.) between the astrological seven-day cycle employed there and the Judaic Sabbath cycle, in its present meaning. That's where our week comes from: it started out as an eclipse myth.

This provides one example of how eclipses have affected our timekeeping systems. We will see later that the design of our calendar also derives largely from eclipses. It was eclipse records that provided the yardsticks against which the length of the year could be reckoned to a precision of a few minutes, more than a millennium before the construction of the first mechanical clocks.

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