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154463.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 5:56 am Reply with quote


Q: What gets burned up in an Eclipse?


154464.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 5:59 am Reply with quote

Mat (or anyone) - do we know of any sources for those stories about laughably primitive people banging pots and pans during eclipses to drive away the sun-eating dragon? They sound like bollocks to me.

154477.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 6:30 am Reply with quote

The chinese for a solar eclipse is "resh" or "Sun-eat".

According to this from the beeb, but they also say:

If they knew an eclipse was coming, the Chinese would shoot fireworks and bang gongs to scare it away.

154558.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 9:02 am Reply with quote

The Choctaw certainly had an eclipse legend - they believed that an eclipse was caused by an mischievous black squirrel attempting to eat the sun, and they attempted to remedy this by doing their special squirrel chant and by, indeed, banging pots and pans about.

One of the major works on Choctaw history is History of the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Natchez Indians by Horatio Cushman (1899, Headlight Printing, Greenville TX - reissued 1999 by University of Oklahoma Press, Norman OK). Cushman's book is written in a rather condescending tone, but is generally regarded as reasonably factually accurate.

Anyways, Cushman's relating of the eclipse legend is also to be found here:

154578.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 10:45 am Reply with quote

My reason for doubting these legends is

1) that solar eclipses come into each person's life quite a bit less than once in a blue moon, can't be foreseen other than by means of some quite insightful astronomy, and last for very short periods. I mean, no sooner would you run indoors for your pot and maybe a pan to whack against it, than the crisis would be past. (Gray tells me that they last for longer if you're near the equator, but the one in Cornwall in 1999 was a total crock, frankly); and

2) that I haven't bothered to do any research, so I'm just wondering.

I do accept that a solar eclipse is sufficiently odd to cause a very profound impression, of course - ie, it's quite possible that one happened, the court astrologers were asked for an explanation and came up with the dragon or the squirrel or whatever, and that the next generation of astrologers remembered this two hundred years later - but I do wonder how the great pot-banging masses were made aware of it. Remember that the ability to predict an eclipse is predicated on knowing that it isn't caused by squirrels.

154581.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 10:57 am Reply with quote

Q: When's the last total solar eclipse?
A: In 600 million years' time.

Lame question, too lame to consider, I think - but interesting enough for the notes:

Due to tidal acceleration, the orbit of the Moon around the Earth becomes approximately 3.8 cm more distant each year. It is estimated that in 600 million years, the distance from the Earth to the Moon will have increased by 23,500 km, meaning that it will no longer be able to completely cover the Sun's disk. This will be true even when the Moon is at perigee, and the Earth at aphelion.

A complicating factor is that the Sun will increase in size over this timescale. This makes it even more unlikely that the Moon will be able to cause a total eclipse. We can therefore say that the last total solar eclipse on Earth will occur in slightly less than 600 million years.


154584.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 11:01 am Reply with quote

the ability to predict an eclipse is predicated on knowing that it isn't caused by squirrels

Or at least, you'd think so - but:

Herodotus wrote that Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse which occurred during a war between the Medians and the Lydians. Soldiers on both sides put down their weapons and declared peace as a result of the eclipse. Exactly which eclipse was involved has remained uncertain, although the issue has been studied by hundreds of ancient and modern authorities. One likely candidate took place on May 28, 585 BC, probably near the Halys river in the middle of modern Turkey.

154587.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 11:13 am Reply with quote

The next partial solar eclipse visible from the UK will be on August 1st 2008. and the next total will be on Sep 23rd 2090.

Frederick The Monk
154588.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 11:23 am Reply with quote

The BBC has a little something on rituals performed in Asia during the 1999 eclipse here.

154593.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 11:35 am Reply with quote

The ancient Chinese document Shu Ching records that "the Sun and Moon did not meet harmoniously." The story goes that the two royal astronomers, Hsi and Ho, had neglected their duties and failed to predict the event. Widespread Oriental belief held that an eclipse was caused by an invisible dragon devouring the Sun. Great noise and commotion (drummers drumming, archers shooting arrows into the sky, and the like) were customarily produced to frighten away the dragon and restore daylight. When this eclipse took place, the emperor was caught unprepared. Even though the Sun returned, the angry ruler ordered the astronomers beheaded!

(but to my eye it isn't clear from this quote whether the 'widespread belief' is referred to in the Shu Ching or whether this is interpolated by the modern writer)

What is probably the most famous eclipse of ancient times ended a five-year war between the Lydians and the Medes. These two Middle Eastern armies were locked in battle when "the day was turned into night." The sight of this total solar eclipse (the date is fixed as May 28, 585 B.C.) was startling enough to cause both nations to stop fighting at once. They agreed to a peace treaty and cemented the bond with a double marriage. The eclipse was predicted by Thales, the celebrated Greek astronomer and philosopher, but the prediction was probably not known to the warring nations.

Medieval historian Roger of Wendover reported on the total eclipse of May 14, 1230, which occurred early in the morning in Western Europe: "... and it became so dark that the labourers, who had commenced their morning's work, were obliged to leave it, and returned again to their beds to sleep; but in about an hour's time, to the astonishment of many, the Sun regained its usual brightness."

Many cultures have also developed superstitions about how to counteract the effects of an eclipse. The Chinese would produce great noise and commotion (drumming, banging on pans, shooting arrows into the sky, and the like) to frighten away the dragon and restore daylight. In India people may immerse themselves in water up to their necks, believing this act of worship will help the Sun and Moon defend themselves against the dragon. In Japan, the custom is to cover wells during an eclipse to prevent poison from dropping into them from the darkened sky. And as recently as the last century, the Chinese Imperial Navy fired its ceremonial guns during an eclipse to scare off the invisible dragon.

154595.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 11:37 am Reply with quote

Flash wrote:
that solar eclipses come into each person's life quite a bit less than once in a blue moon, can't be foreseen other than by means of some quite insightful astronomy, and last for very short periods.

Whilst the totality may be very brief (although it can last for up to 7 minutes), the solar eclipse itself can take quite a while.

For the total eclipse on March 29th last year, you can find the timings for various places here:

Looking at Alexandria in Egypt, for example, you can see that the eclipse started at 09:27 but totality wasn't reached until 10:47. That's an hour and 20 minutes of noticing that the sun is slowly being eaten away by something. More than enough time to go and find some pots and pans to bang together.

154596.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 11:40 am Reply with quote

The Rider Haggard-style cliche of using foreknowledge of an eclipse to overawe one's primitive captors and make a quick switch from sacrificial victim to god might be based on this, perhaps?

Columbus in his fifth expedition in Jamaica, inspired fear and respect in superstitious Indians, by asking his Christian god to send a celestial warning (a lunar eclipse of 29 February 1504). This enabled him to negotiate good provision of food and protection for his troops, allowing them to survive until arrival of the next vessel.

154598.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 11:54 am Reply with quote

Very many sites assert the business about the dragon, but this is the only one I've found that attempts to justify the statement (and even this one doesn't cite its source:

In the Chinese language, the term for eclipse was "chih" which also means "to eat". One ancient Chinese solar eclipse record describes a solar eclipse as "the Sun has been eaten".


It also says this, again unsupprted:
By 20 BCE,Chinese astronomers realized the true nature of solar eclipses, and by CE 206, Chinese astronomers were able to predict solar eclipses by analyzing the motion of the Moon.

Here, there's a list of references to eclipses in ancient China, none of which refers to dragons.

154600.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 12:01 pm Reply with quote

This sounds convincing, and it's from NASA so I guess not totally flaky. It says that Chinese astronomers knew it wasn't dragons by 20BC at any rate.

By 2300 BC, ancient Chinese astrologers, already had sophisticated observatory buildings, and as early as 2650 BC, Li Shu was writing about astronomy. Observing total solar eclipses was a major element of forecasting the future health and successes of the Emperor, and astrologers were left with the onerous task of trying to anticipate when these events might occur. Failure to get the prediction right, in at least one recorded case in 2300 BC resulted in the beheading of two astrologers. Because the pattern of total solar eclipses is erratic in any specific geographic location, many astrologers no doubt lost their heads. By about 20 BC, surviving documents show that Chinese astrologers understood what caused eclipses, and by 8 BC some predictions of total solar eclipse were made using the 135-month recurrence period. By AD 206 Chinese astrologers could predict solar eclipses by analyzing the Moon's motion.

Enough, already.

154604.  Wed Mar 07, 2007 12:09 pm Reply with quote

Smart of them to have distinguished it from all those other phenomena that clearly are caused by dragons. Well done them.


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