Throughout history, eclipses have been associated with important and dramatic events – the start or end of wars, the birth or death of a leader and the founding of nations.
The Babylonians, who were keen astral diviners, considered eclipses to be omens from the celestial gods, heralding significant events for the nation – the king in particular. As far as they were concerned, many lunar eclipses were very bad omens, especially for the current ruler, who was often temporarily replaced by a ‘stand in’ during such events so that any evil portents brought about by these occultations would not affect national stability. Given how important the moon was to the Mesopotamians (it determined their calendar, for one thing) the sight of the Moon turning blood red from the shadow of the earth, must have been a terrifying sight.
One exampel of an eclipse omen from a cuneiform tablet in the British Museum gives us an insight into their interpretation of lunar eclipse omens:
1-6 If the moon is eclipsed in Leo and finishes the watch and the north wind blows, Jupiter does not stand (in) the eclipse; Saturn and Mars stand in Aries or in Sagittarius (The Field); variant: in its eclipse [a halo surrounds (the moon) and Regulus stands within it].
7’ For this sign: [the king] of Akkad will experience severe hardship/disease: it will seize him, and in a revolt they will oust him from his throne.
8’–9’ His people will experience great famine; brother will kill his brother, friend his friend, in battle. For three years [. . .] will not return [to the throne of Akkad]; the gods will [abandon] the country; [the people will be scattered, break (= the people) will abandon their shrines; break (= mercy and) well-being will end in the land; Enlil [will maliciously oppress the country . . .]
Later on, the ancient Greeks, including Herodotus and Plutarch, also wrote about eclipses. Not all Greeks saw them as mere astronomical-scientific or natural events. Some such as Arrian, also saw them as astral portents, who reports that before a major battle with Darius, the king of Achaemenid Persia, Alexander the Great and his army witnessed a lunar eclipse, which was interpreted by his seer, Aristander of Telmessos, as a sign of victory for the Greeks. So,‘… Alexander sacrificed to the Moon, Sun and Earth, who are all said to cause an eclipse,’ and went on to win the battle within the month, just as Aristander had prophesied.[i]
Several Roman chroniclers also record eclipse events, mostly typifying them as natural omens, but none are as dramatic as that reported by Cassius Dio on the eve of the Emperor Augustus’ death around the years 17-25 CE when
‘the sun suffered a total eclipse and most of the sky seemed to be on fire; glowing embers appeared to be falling from it and blood-red comets were seen’.[iii]
Certain Biblical scholars think that there may have been an eclipse at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. According to scriptural chroniclers, including the testimony given by the Apostle Peter, when the Moon rose that evening, it was dark and turned ‘the colour of blood’[ii] which sounds very much like a lunar eclipse. The Full Moon, rising opposite the Sun in the eastern horizon as the Sun set in the west, would have taken on a reddish hue as a result of the shadow of the earth, which lies between the two luminaries during this type of event.
The negative interpretation of such an event would also be very much in keeping with Near Eastern prophetic traditions such as those in Babylon, when the king’s life was often considered to be in danger. What is interesting here is the lunar associations with Christ, rather than the later solar associations that became commonplace during the middle ages when Christ was drawn with a solar halo in many images, and in Ireland, the Christian cross became amalgamated with the pagan symbol of the sun to form the Celtic cross.
Joseph Campbell has commented on this rather unusual cluster of lunar imagery around Jesus[iv], whilst Anne Jeffers has written papers on how, ‘despite officially condemning all magicians and divinatory practitioners, the Old Testament/Hebrew Scriptures is replete with references to divination.’
These vary from astrology to lot casting and hepatoscopy (liver divination) and even necromancy.[v] The date of Easter, for example, the festival designed to commemorate the crucifixion, is determined by the Moon.
This soon led to Christians celebrating Easter on different dates. At the end of the 2nd century, some churches celebrated Easter on the day of the Passover, while others celebrated it on the following Sunday.
During the Medieval period, similar viewpoints continued to hold sway. Gregory of Tours, in his history of the Franks, for example, writes of an eclipse in April 581 which he sees as an ominous portent of death and destruction:
‘The moon was darkened and a comet appeared in the sky. A serious epidemic followed among the common people.’[vi]
Perhaps the comet added an extra bit of drama to the mix, making it seem even more of an unusual and potentially meaningful event? In this respect, it is interesting that the first eclipse of 2017 fell on the same day as the appearance of a comet – a potentially ominous portent for the world?
According to Norma Reis, an eclipse in the 9th century so terrified a French king that he died of fright after witnessing it. The story goes that:
‘…Louis of Bavaria, the son of Charlemagne, was head of a great empire when, on May 5, 840 CE, he witnessed a solar eclipse. He was so petrified that he died just afterwards. His three sons then began to dispute his succession. Their quarrel was settled three years later with the Treaty of Verdun, dividing Europe into three large areas, namely France, Germany and Italy.[vii]’
[i] See Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, III,7(6); 15(7)
[iv] Campbell, J and Moyers, B. Sukhavati – Place of Bliss. A Mythic Journey with Joseph Campbell, DVD, Released 2002/7 by Acorn Media
[v] Anne Jeffers, ‘”Nor by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets”: The story of the woman at the pit in I Samuel 28’ in In: Curry, P. and Voss, A. (eds.) Seeing With Different Eyes, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, pp. 129-142.
[vi] Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, Book V, Chapter 41
[vii] Norma Reis, ‘Famous Eclipses of the Middle Ages’, Astronomy Today, http://www.astronomytoday.com/eclipses/middleages-part1.html [accessed August 2013]