The Significance Of Eclipses Revisited

The great English poet Thomas Hardy (1840—1928) began one of his verses as follows.

At a Lunar Eclipse

Thy shadow, Earth, from Pole to Central Sea, Now steals along upon the Moon's meek shine In even monochrome and curving line Of imperturbable serenity.

He got the geometry right—the "curving line" of the terrestrial shadow—but one wonders what he meant by "monochrome." People nowadays imply "black and white" by that term, the usage postdating the invention of television, but the lines were written in 1903. Strictly the meaning of monochrome is "one color only," and with that intended meaning Hardy would be correct: the sole color is red.

This coloration has been recognized for eons. In the opening Chapter I mentioned the lunar eclipse that preceded the victory of Alexander the Great at the Battle of Gaugamela (or Arbela) in 331 B.C.; one account tells how the newly risen orb appeared: "But about the first watch the Moon in eclipse hid at first the brilliance of her heavenly body, then all her light was sullied and suffused with the hue of blood." When next you see a lunar eclipse, imagine Alexander rallying his troops, urging them on, telling them with assuredness how they will conquer the Persians after being blessed with this sign. He convinced them that it augured well for their endeavors, and their futures.

Of such human foibles and barbarity, Thomas Hardy despaired:

How shall I like such sun-cast symmetry With the torn troubled form I know as thine, That profile, placid as a brow divine, With continents of moil and misery?

Let me close with one of the most famous eclipses of antiquity, about which the arguments continue. We met it in Chapter 3. It remains a notable episode, a prime example of how eclipses have affected the affairs of humankind. Thales may have guessed that a solar eclipse was due in 585 B.C., but one doubts whether he predicted its date and location, the history being invented after the fact. Herodotus, writing more than a century later, gave this account:

. . . there was war between the Lydians and the Medes for five years . . .They were still warring with equal success, when it chanced, at an encounter which happened in the sixth year, that during the battle the day turned to night. Thales of Miletus had foretold this loss of daylight to the Ionians, fixing it within the year in which the change did indeed happen. So when the Lydians and Medes saw the day turned to night, they ceased from fighting, and both were the more zealous to make peace."

Whether promoting peace or provoking renewed fighting, without eclipses history would have been quite different, and this book would never have been written, or read.

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