History and the eclipse

I learned that tomorrow, Aug. 21, at 11:44 a.m., from our vantage, the solar eclipse will begin. At 1:09 p.m., 96.65 percent of the sun will be blocked by the moon. The eclipse will end at 2:34 p.m. While researching these facts, I also learned the concept of the “presidential self-pardon” was first conceived before 2000 BC in Mesopotamia.

The ancient Babylonians and Assyrians believed that within a hundred days of an eclipse the king would die for sins he absorbed into his hair, clothes and skin via the actions and sorceries of his enemies. The only way to dodge this condemnation was to make someone else king for the period of the hundred days of the eclipse and let him be the one to die … the ritual of the substitute king.

The king, his councilors and sorcerers would choose a suitable person, often a condemned man, and move him into the palace as a temporary king while the authentic king moved out to a short-term residence and was now referred to as ‘the farmer’ in order to make clear to Samas, the Sun god, that this guy wasn’t the king…he was just a farmer.

While in his temporary residence the king … I mean the farmer … don’t want to tip off Samas … would perform an elaborate, seven station cleansing ceremony called bit rimki. The substitute king, while heavily guarded twenty-four hours a day, would be conferred small investitures of kingship. He would be given the royal insignia, wear the royal robes, allowed to hold some semblance of royal court and was even married to a substitute queen. Then he would be killed, thus fulfilling the prophecies and all would be well … for the king.

Eclipses have affected history beyond their intrinsic, spectacular phenomenon. During the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta there was this guy, Nicias. Nicias was rich. He owned silver mines. He was a politician, a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, he supported all the local religions and he was a general of the Athenian armed forces. Even though he was a general, he preferred diplomacy to conflict. His military exploits were unremarkable. He was a careful sort of man. Nicias was nice.

Nicias negotiated a peace between Sparta and Athens. Another general, Alcibiades, didn’t like this idea. While Nicias was forging peace in Sparta, Alcibiades was arguing in the Athenian senate for more aggression. Alcibiades offered a plan, which he said would only require 60 ships, to invade Syracuse on Sicily, a Spartan commonwealth, thereby securing Sicily’s wealth for Athens.

Upon returning to Athens, Nicias tried his best to dissuade the Athenians from attacking Syracuse. The senate wasn’t much impressed by the peace he had just negotiated with Sparta and was leaning towards invasion. Nicias tried to change their minds by pointing out the extraordinary cost of such an invasion. He exaggerated and said it would take not 60 ships but 140 galleys, 5100 foot soldiers and 1300 archers. So…the senate gave Nicias 140 galleys, 5,100 foot soldiers and 1,300 archers to go lay siege to Syracuse. They also made Alcibiades his co-general for the campaign.

The siege of Syracuse was going quite well when the Athenian politicians back home sent a ship to the Syracuse harbor to order Alcibiades to return to Athens to stand trial for crimes against the gods. On his way back to Athens, Alcibiades made a little detour to Sparta and defected. Alcibiades ratted out Nicias and the Spartans promptly sent ground troops, the Delta Forces of the Greek world, to protect Syracuse.

The ground battle turned against Nicias and his troops withdrew to the safety of the ships in the harbor. Nicias was about to set sail for open sea where the Athenians had a clear advantage…but…an eclipse occurred. Nicias was counseled that this was a bad omen and that he should wait twenty-seven days before he set sail. Nicias, being what was then thought of as a pious sort of guy, placing great stock in oracles and omens and such, concurred. During this time the Spartans had assembled enough ships to block the harbor where the Athenian ships were packed so tight they couldn’t maneuver. Athens lost 140 ships. And tragically, 5,100 foot soldiers and 1,300 archers were killed or enslaved. Nicias also lost his life … dang eclipses.

Humans developed the ability to predict eclipses early in our history. Eclipses were profound occurrences and were recorded in the most ancient of the cuneiform clay tablets of Mesopotamia. The Babylonian king’s councilors and sorcerers, as did Christopher Columbus, knew that eclipses occurred every 6,583 days. Columbus had occasion to use this knowledge.

On May 11, 1502, Columbus left Spain on his fourth and last voyage to the Americas. He began this journey with four ships. While at sea he was plagued by an epidemic of shipworms. The shipworms were eating holes in his ships. He was forced to abandon two ships at sea and then later, on June 25, 1503, had to beach the other two on an island we now call Jamaica.

A civilization of over three million souls called the Taino lived on the island. The Taino had a well-functioning system of governance. They built ocean worthy canoes that held 100 paddlers. They made yucca edible by straining the cyanide from the plant, made cotton textiles, developed a pepper gas for warfare and played field games with a rubber ball. But, to their demise, didn’t know much about eclipses.

The Taino were hospitable toward the Europeans and provided them sustenance while they worked on their ships. But Columbus’s men cheated and stole from the Taino even though it was the Taino who were feeding them. After about seven months of this, the Taino started having second thoughts about their guest and halted the room service.

Columbus had a copy of Abraham Zacuto’s astronomical almanac in which he found that on the evening of Thursday, Feb. 29, 1504, a total lunar eclipse would occur. So … Columbus told the Taino his God was displeased with them and that he would turn the moon “angry red” if they didn’t continue their help. “Yea! Right!” say the Taino. But the moon did turn an angry red. The Taino reconsidered their position and asked Columbus to ask his God for forgiveness. Columbus retreats to his cabin. Knowing the eclipse was going to last 58 minutes, he came out just short of that time and announced his God had forgiven them. The moon again became bright. The food supplies resumed and by 1550 the Taino were wiped out by smallpox, slavery and genocide.

Eclipses are rare things in our lives. They only occur once every 18 years and are not visible from everywhere on the planet. One day, there will be no more total eclipses of the sun. Every year the moon’s orbit moves about a half inch further from the earth and will in the future, about 750 million years from now, be too far away to totally block out the sun. I hope the weather cooperates. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at whatjimhaslearnedtoday@yahoo.com