The Death of a King, End to a War, and the Solar Eclipse

Posted on Fri, May 12, 2017
  • by: Zachary Hullings, Astronomy Education Intern

The United States will play host to an extraordinary phenomenon known as a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. A solar eclipse occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth.  Eclipses have occurred throughout history, and some have fascinating stories associated with them. Take the following two tales for example.

A King’s Demise
Perhaps one of the most famous total solar eclipses occurred on August 2, 1133 CE over England. While the totality of an eclipse, the moment when the Moon completely covers the Sun, normally lasts approximately two and a half minutes, this particular eclipse lasted for more than four minutes. The reason for this solar eclipse being so widely remembered is that it coincided with the death of King Henry I of England. Historian William of Malmesbury was quoted as saying that the “hideous darkness agitated the hearts of men.” William turned out to be right in a way. Shortly after King Henry’s death, the country was thrown into chaos and a civil war brewed. Of course, it is only coincidence that the total solar eclipse occurred around the same time as the king’s death, as solar eclipses themselves are a natural phenomenon and not responsible for any negative occurrences. In fact, eclipses have also been linked with positive events as well.

Portrait painting of man with beard, crown, and robes.

King Henry I by Unknown artist, oil on panel, 1597-1618, NPG 4980(2). Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London.

A Sign of Peace
Solar eclipses have been interpreted throughout history in many different ways. It is said that a total solar eclipse brought two warring nations to an agreement of peace. The Greek historian Herodotus tells us that in the fourth century BCE, a border war near present day Turkey and the Halys River raged between the Lydians and the Medes. The war had gone on for over five years, when everything was brought to a halt by a sign from the skies. On May 28, 585 BCE, the sounds of fighting slowly came to a halt as the sky darkened and day turned to night. This was interpreted by both sides as a sign to end the war. In order to seal the agreement, Aryenes, daughter of the king of Lydia, was married to the son of the king of Medes. What the Lydians and Medes failed to realize was this sign from the skies was a total solar eclipse.

Globe diagram with lines plotted against it.

A prediction by NASA based on eclipse data that shows a total solar eclipse is likely to have passed over the area where the Lydians and Medes battled on May 28, 584 BCE. Image: Fred Espenak and Jean Meeus (NASA GSFC)

Remember, the next total solar eclipse will cross over the continental United States, the first such occurrence in over 100 years. What historic event might this eclipse be tied to for future historians to discover?

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