12 Famous Eclipses in History

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No astronomical event stirs the human imagination like a lunar or solar eclipse. Often seen as an ominous portent, eclipses have changed the fate of battles and empires, marked the deaths of kings, and helped us pinpoint dates in ancient history. In modern times, eclipses have helped prove some of our most important scientific discoveries. Just to recap middle school science: A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes directly between the Earth and the Sun, and a lunar eclipse happens when the Moon enters the Earth’s shadow. Either event is an awe-inspiring spectacle. Here are 12 unique eclipses that influenced battles, literature and other aspects of history.


12. The Eclipses of Shakespeare

Shakespeare referred to eclipses in a couple of his plays.

Solar eclipse, Oct. 3, 2005; Photo credit: Pandiyan V

Shakespeare lived in interesting astronomical times. Comet hunter David Levy notes the Bard may have witnessed the Great Star of 1572, which we now know as Tycho’s Supernova, and his plays refer to eclipses, most notably in Macbeth and King Lear, in which Shakespeare wrote, “These late eclipses of the Sun and Moon portend no good to us.” In Shakespeare’s time, the total solar eclipse of Oct. 12, 1605 would have been visible from his native England, following a partial lunar eclipse visible from the British Isles two weeks earlier. Eclipses often occur in pairs, and this may well have inspired their incorporation into some of the greatest works of English literature.


11. The Death of Herod

A lunar eclipse supposedly preceded the death of King Herod.

Photo credit: Lucien Rudaux paining, lunar eclipse from moon’s surface.

A lunar eclipse may have coincided with the death of one of the most notorious kings of all time. Historian Flavius Josephus notes that an eclipse of the Moon preceded the death of the biblical king Herod. Three eclipses fit the bill as occurring in the right time frame and being visible from the Middle East, but the favorite contender is the March 23, 4 B.C. rising total lunar eclipse that may have marked the demise of Herod.


10. Eclipse Over the Battlefield

A key battle in the Zulu War took place during a solar eciipse.

Solar eclipse, Aug. 1, 2008; Photo credit:  The Exploratorium

In 1879, the English were embroiled in a series of running conflicts in South Africa known as the Zulu War. On Jan. 22, 1879, a numerically superior Zulu force overwhelmed a smaller but technologically more advanced British contingent, in what became known as the Battle of Isandlwana. By coincidence, an annular solar eclipse (where the Moon is visually too small to cover the Sun) occurred around 2:30 p.m. at the tail end of the skirmish. The event would have been a deep partial from the battlefield, and the name “Isandlwana” in Zulu means “the day of the dead moon.”


9. A Witch’s Eclipse

A medieval witch who tried to stir panic by predicting an eclipse was outsmarted by an astronomer.

Lunar eclipse, Sept. 7, 2006; Photo credit:  Jim Champion

Sometimes, a little astronomical knowledge can be a dangerous thing, even to those who possess it. A tale from medieval England is passed down from the chronicles of the scholar Thomas Bradwardine of a witch who attempted to force her will on the people through knowledge of an impending eclipse. Bradwardine, who had studied astronomical predictions of Arabian astronomers, saw through the ruse, and matched the prediction of the July 01, 1349 A.D. lunar eclipse with a more precise one of his own. No word survives as to the fate of the accused, but one can only suspect banishment or worse.


8. Ancient Solar Eclipse Helps Date History

One ancient eclipse helped historians fix dates in history.

Solar eclipse, May 31, 2003; Photo credit: Dorcas Sinclair

An eclipse more than 27 centuries old is regarded as one of the earliest events that can be pinpointed by scholars of the Near East. The June 15, 762 B.C. total solar eclipse is mentioned in Assyrian texts as well as the Book of Amos in the Hebrew Bible. While hotly debated (at least among archeo-astronomical types, who love to debate such things) the mention of this eclipse serves as a valuable reference point between ancient Assyrian and Hebrew chronology.


7. The Constantinople Eclipse

A lunar eclipse preceded the fall of Constantinople.

Lunar eclipse, June 15, 2011; Photo credit: Harm Kruyshaar/Shutterstock.com

A lunar eclipse fulfilled an omen for many prior to one of the red-letter dates in medieval history. On May 22, 1453 a partially eclipsed Moon rose over the city of Constantinople. One can only imagine the fear that it inspired in the embattled city that had already been under siege for a month. It certainly didn’t raise morale that legends had foretold that an eclipse would mark the fall of the Byzantine Empire. In a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, the city fell to the Ottomans seven days later.


6. The Discovery of Helium

A solar eclipse in 1868 led to the discovery of helium.

Solar eclipse, India, July 22, 2009; Photo credit: Jingyi Li

Not all eclipses have tales of bad omens attached to them. On Aug. 18, 1868, astronomer Jules Janssen turned the newly invented spectrograph to the Sun during a total solar eclipse over India. He discovered an unusual spectral signature in the Sun’s chromosphere that was visible only during the eclipse. The new element took time to gain acceptance as the lightest of the noble gases we now know as helium, which derives its name from the Greek word for Sun, Helios.


5. Lunar Eclipse Turns the Tide of Battle

A key battle in the Peloponnesian War turned on one side's superstitious fear of an eclipse.

Lunar eclipse, Dec. 21, 2010; Photo credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The ancient city of Syracuse suffered heavily under siege by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian War. A turn of events occurred during the Second Battle of Syracuse: on Aug. 28, 412 B.C. a lunar eclipse occurred, causing the superstitious Athenians to delay departure. The Syracuseans took advantage of Athenian indecision and decisively defeated the unprotected Athenian expedition as it sat exposed in the harbor.


4. The 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Over U.S.

A total solar eclipse will cover the United States in 2017.
This is the only future eclipse on the list. While mostly of casual interest, a proposal is already afoot to do a cross-continental movie of the eclipse utilizing amateur footage. This eclipse will cross a large populated swath of the continental United States on Aug. 21, 2017, an area that hasn’t seen a total solar eclipse since 1979. And if you live in the Illinois-Indiana-Kentucky tri-state area, stick around; another eclipse crosses in 2024.


3. The Lunar Eclipses of Columbus

Columbus struck fear into natives on Jamaica by predicting a lunar eclipse in 1504.
Columbus had extensive astronomical knowledge that he used for navigation and other purposes. He famously used a lunar eclipse in an attempt to measure his longitude at sea while en route to the New World. In one legendary case, Columbus also shrewdly used his celestial knowledge to save his crew. On Feb. 29, 1504, Columbus and his men had been shipwrecked in Jamaica for eight months, relying on the local natives to feed them. After six months, the natives cut off the charity. Columbus, who had an astronomical almanac with him, summoned the native leaders and warned that if the natives did not reconsider, God would make the Moon disappear. When, as Columbus had predicted, the Moon became fully eclipsed that night, the natives panicked. Columbus told the natives that if they brought food for his crew, God would restore the Moon. The natives agreed and the Moon reappeared. The incident inspired plot devices in several novels, most notably Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.


2. The Crucifixion Solar Eclipse

Historians, astronomers and biblical scholars debate the exact date of an eclipse mentioned in the Gospels.

Solar eclipse, Oct. 3, 2005; Photo credit: Sancho Panza

This is the most controversial eclipse on this list. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke allude to a “darkness” the day of Jesus’ crucifixion that sounds tantalizingly like a solar eclipse. However, the Gospel of John makes no mention of such an event. Some scholars note that a total solar eclipse did in fact occur over the Middle East on Nov. 24 in 29 A.D. and might have been the one referred to in connection to the crucifixion of Jesus. This would have been a deep, 98 percent partial eclipse as seen from the Holy Lands. One problem exists, however: Jesus was known to have been on trial and crucified around Passover, which occurs at the full Moon. Solar eclipses can only occur at new phase. A deep, rising lunar partial over Jerusalem does fit the bill. If there was indeed an eclipse during the crucifixion of Christ, the April 3, 33 A.D. partial lunar eclipse may have been the inspiration for the references in the Gospels.


1. Proof of Relativity

A solar eclipse in 1919 helped prove Einstein's theory of relativity.

Photo of 1919 solar eclipse taken by Arthur Eddington.

One of the most scientifically significant eclipses occurred on May 29, 1919. One of the fundamentals of Albert Einstein’s famous theory of general relativity stated that gravity should bend light. After the end of World War I, Great Britain sent observers to two sites to study starlight passing near the largest mass in our solar system; the Sun. With the sun’s light temporarily muted, astronomer Arthur Eddington and his team observed that the light from distant stars was, in fact, bent by the Sun’s gravitational pull. The observation proved that relativity is indeed a reality in our universe, and Einstein became an overnight celebrity.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.