Eclipse Week 4: Beware of Assyrians bearing crowns

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Solar eclipses were often thought of during early history as being portents of the supernatural. In ancient China for instance it was thought that the Sun was being eaten by a dragon. These events were almost always associated with bad luck.

Perhaps the most striking example of superstition in ancient societies comes from Assyrian Empire. There lunar or solar eclipses were regarded as portents for the death of the king. Hence for the period around a solar eclipse a temporary king or “sar puhi” was appointed. This was usually a man condemned to death who was given the title of king while the actual king was disguised as a peasant. After the period around the eclipse was over (usually 100 days) the true king was reinstated to the throne. Some sources suggest the temporary king was then bumped off.

However as science developed, superstitions became much less common. En route to a battle against the Spartans, the Athenian general Pericles noticed that his troops were terrified by a solar eclipse. Removing his cloak he demonstrated that an eclipse was just a shadow cast on the Earth remarking “What is the difference, then, between this and the eclipse, except that the eclipse has been caused by something bigger than my cloak?”

As Arab, Chinese and European astronomers became more and more advanced the idea that the eclipse was the moon casting a shadow on the Earth (probably first proposed by Chinese astronomers) became more accepted and refined and eclipses became easier to predict.

By the 19th century eclipses were being used to make new scientific discoveries. During a solar eclipse in India in 1868 Frenchman Pierre Janssen observed a previously unknown spectral line. It looked similar to lines from sodium so was put down to that element. however later that year the line was also observed by English astronomer Norman Lockyer. He correctly identified it as a new element which he named Helium after the Greek word for the Sun.

And then of course there was the eclipse of 1919……

Just to add: as has been pointed out to me, the Assyrian temporary king ritual could be performed for many omens, a solar eclipse being just one of them.

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