When the Day Darkens: Eclipse in History

Well, we all had a grand time on the day of the partial solar eclipse (20 March 2015). As fair weather members of an astronomy club, we knew all about the event and arrived at the clubhouse in the forestry centre at 8.20 am.

There was a stunning collection of telescopes all pointed at the sun. There were also – thankfully –  a lot of home-made devices ranging from colanders, tin foil and cardboard to intricate plastic contraptions. There were information posters and how to look safely at the event as well as those explaining the phenomenon.

Unfortunately, for me, there were no posters telling us about eclipses in history. Well, that’s my job isn’t it?

People were very aware of the skies throughout history and many eclipses have been documented. Even before writing came about we have seen drawings of strange things in the sky. Maybe they were eclipses or perhaps aliens or UFOs. However, when writing was the method, references to the darkening sky are everywhere. What has changed through time is what we attach to eclipses and other celestial events. Nowadays most of us do not think that an eclipse is an omen or a message from God.

That said, many historians have used the reports of eclipses to try to date significant events. The solar and lunar eclipses (as with much of the heavenly bodies) are cyclical so we can pinpoint when eclipses occur. Three of the Gospels in the New Testament claim that the sky darkened when Jesus was crucified, although one Gospel does not mention it.  We know that there was a partial lunar eclipse over the Middle East on 3 April 33AD. Given that Jesus was crucified around the time of the Jewish festival of Passover, which is during the full moon, this could be the one. A solar eclipse cannot happen during the full moon phase. The nearest full solar eclipse was on 24 November 29AD, but this does not tie in with Passover. Other historians have argued that a lunar eclipse would not have been visible at that time of day so there must have been another reason for the darkness, such as clouds or a storm.

Eclipses were mentioned in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. “Here, the event is linked to Earthly events: “the Moon was as if it had been sprinkled with blood, and Abp. [Abp. denotes “Archbishop”] Tatwine and Beda died and Ecgberht was hallowed bishop.” The reference to blood was to the copper colour phenomenon that sometimes happens during a lunar eclipse, which also links to the blood of death. This happened on 24 January 734.

On Christmas day 828, the Chronicle says: “In this year the Moon was eclipsed on mid-winter’s Mass-night, and the same year King Ecgbert subdued the kingdom of the Mercians and all that was South of the Humber.” Again the link was made between events in the sky and on Earth


In Gulfyrian I used an eclipse to denote the death of one of my main characters. I had done my research, though, although there may be a bit of poetic licence involved too. 15 November 654 was the date of the eclipse, but I’m not sure if it was visible over the area of the battle. I’m also not sure if the battle was fought in 654 or 655. But I’ll go with whenever the eclipse was. It serves as an omen after all.


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