Science This! Some Ancient Theories on Eclipses

N.B. This selection is by no means exhaustive.

Xenophanes, fr.  D34

“Xenophanes [says eclipses] come from flames going out and that a different one happens again in the east. He reports in addition that there was an eclipse for an entire month and also a total eclipse that made the day seem like night.”

D34 (A41) Aët. 2.24.4 (Ps.-Plut.) [περὶ ἐκλείψεως ἡλίου]

Ξενοφάνης κατὰ σβέσιν· ἕτερον δὲ πάλιν πρὸς ταῖς ἀνατολαῖς γίνεσθαι· παριστόρηκε δὲ καὶ ἔκλειψιν ἡλίου ἐφ᾽ ὅλον μῆνα καὶ πάλιν ἔκλειψιν ἐντελῆ, ὥστε τὴν ἡμέραν νύκτα φανῆναι.

Xenophanes fr. D35

“Xenophanes says that there are many suns and moons arrayed along the earth’s latitudes, segments and zones. At certain times, he says, the disk falls out of the sky to some uninhabited place of the earth and an eclipse appears because it left empty space.”

D35 =(Stob.; cf. Ps.-Plut.) [περὶ ἐκλείψεως ἡλίου]

Ξενοφάνης· πολλοὺς εἶναι ἡλίους καὶ σελήνας κατὰ τὰ κλίματα τῆς γῆς καὶ ἀποτομὰς καὶ ζώνας. κατὰ δέ τινα καιρὸν ἐκπίπτειν τὸν δίσκον εἴς τινα ἀποτομὴν τῆς γῆς οὐκ οἰκουμένην ὑφ’ ἡμῶν καὶ οὕτως ὡσπερεὶ κενεμβατοῦντα ἔκλειψιν ὑποφαίνειν [. . . = D31].

Anaximander, Fr. 26

“Anaximander says that the [moon] is a wheel nineteen times larger than the earth, like the wheel of a chariot it has a hollow rim filled with fire similar to that of the sun, situated at an angle, like that one. It has a single exhalation point like the mouth of bellows. An eclipse happens when the wheel turns.”

Aët. 2.25.1 (Stob., cf. Ps.-Plut.)

Ἀναξίμανδρος κύκλον εἶναι ἐννεακαιδεκαπλασίονα τῆς γῆς, ὅμοιον ἁρματείῳ τροχῷ κοίλην ἔχοντι τὴν ἁψῖδα καὶ πυρὸς πλήρη καθάπερ τὸν τοῦ ἡλίου, κείμενον λοξόν, ὡς κἀκεῖνον, ἔχοντα μίαν ἐκπνοὴν οἷον πρηστῆρος αὐλόν. ἐκλείπειν δὲ κατὰ τὰς ἐπιστροφὰς τοῦ τροχοῦ.

Heraclitus Fr. 20 (=Stob)

“Herakleitos and Hekateios say that the sun is a burning specter from the sea and that it is bowl-shaped and curved on one-side. They say an eclipse happens because of the turn of the bowl shape so that the hollow side turns up and the curved side turns down to our vision.”

     ῾Ηράκλειτος καὶ ῾Εκαταῖος ἄναμμα νοερὸν τὸ ἐκ θαλάττης εἶναι τὸν ἥλιον. —Σκαφοειδῆ δ’ εἶναι, ὑπόκυρτον. —Γίνεσθαι δὲ τὴν ἔκλειψιν κατὰ τὴν τοῦ σκαφοειδοῦς στροφήν, ὥστε τὸ μὲν κοῖλον ἄνω γίγνεσθαι, τὸ δὲ κυρτὸν κάτω πρὸς τὴν ἡμετέραν ὄψιν.

Empedocles, Fr. D133

“Empedocles says that an eclipse happens when the moon moves under the sun”

D133 = Aët. 2.24.7 (Stob.) [περὶ ἐκλείψεως ἡλίου]

ἔκλειψιν δὲ γίνεσθαι σελήνης αὐτὸν ὑπερχομένης.

Antiphon fr. D21 and D24

 “Antiphon says that [the sun] is made of fire that feeds on the wet mist around the earth and that its rising and setting come from it leaving air that has been consumed as it attaches to air with moisture.”

     ᾿Αντιφῶν πῦρ ἐπινεμόμενον μὲν τὸν περὶ τὴν γῆν ὑγρὸν ἀέρα, ἀνατολὰς δὲ καὶ δύσεις ποιούμενον, τῷ τὸν  μὲν ἐπικαιόμενον αἰεὶ προλείπειν, τοῦ δ’ ὑπονοτιζομένου πάλιν ἀντέχεσθαι.

 “And Antiphon says [lunar eclipses] happen because of the turn of the bowl-like celestial body and its angles.”

 Ἀντιφῶν κατὰ τὴν τοῦ σκαφοειδοῦς στροφὴν καὶ τὰς περικλίσεις

Anaxagoras, fr. D4.7

“Anaxagoras says that the moon eclipses when the earth is in the way and sometimes because of the celestial bodies below the moon; the sun eclipses because the moon gets in the way during its new phase.”

D4 (< A42) Ps.-Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies

ἐκλείπειν δὲ τὴν σελήνην γῆς ἀντιφραττούσης, ἐνίοτε δὲ καὶ τῶν ὑποκάτω τῆς σελήνης, τὸν δὲ ἥλιον ταῖς νουμηνίαις σελήνης ἀντιφραττούσης.

Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, II 90a (On Lunar Eclipses)

“What is an eclipse? The stealing of light from the moon by the superposition of the earth. Saying “what is an eclipse” is the same thing as saying “why does the moon eclipse”. Because the light of the sun leaves it when the earth gets in the way.”

τί ἐστιν ἔκλειψις; στέρησις φωτὸς ἀπὸ σελήνης ὑπὸ γῆς ἀντιφράξεως. διὰ τί ἔστιν ἔκλειψις, ἢ διὰ τί ἐκλείπει ἡ σελήνη; διὰ τὸ ἀπολείπειν τὸ φῶς ἀντιφραττούσης τῆς γῆς.

Seneca the Younger, Natural Questions 7

“The sun has no audience unless it starts to disappear. No one looks at the moon unless it is eclipsing. Then, cities scream together and everyone makes a ruckus because of silly superstition.”

Sol spectatorem, nisi deficit, non habet. Nemo observat lunam nisi laborantem; tunc urbes conclamant, tunc pro se quisque superstitione vana strepitat.

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This is an Omen; This is Not an Omen

Dionysus of Halicanarssus, II.56

“For they claim that there was a total solar eclipse at the moment when his mother was raped (whether by some mortal or some god) and darkness completely covered the earth as it would it night and that the same thing happened when Romulus died. So, Romulus is said to have obtained this kind of end, the man who was first selected king by Rome and who build the city.

ἔν τε γὰρ τῷ βιασμῷ τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ εἴθ᾿ ὑπ᾿ ἀνθρώπων τινὸς εἴθ᾿ ὑπὸ θεοῦ γενομένῳ τὸν ἥλιον ἐκλιπεῖν φασιν ὅλον καὶ σκότος παντελῶς ὥσπερ ἐν νυκτὶ τὴν γῆν κατασχεῖν ἔν τε τῇ τελευτῇ αὐτοῦ ταὐτὸ συμβῆναι λέγουσι πάθος. ὁ μὲν δὴ κτίσας τὴν Ῥώμην καὶ πρῶτος ἀποδειχθεὶς ὑπ᾿ αὐτῆς βασιλεὺς Ῥωμύλος τοιαύτης λέγεται τελευτῆς τυχεῖν…

Valerius Maximus, 7.1

“The extreme effort of Sulpicius Galus in grasping every type of literature was especially helpful to the republic. For, when he was legate when Lucius Paullus was waging war against king Perses, the moon suddenly eclipsed during a quiet night. Our army was horrified by that as if it were a terrible omen and lost the confidence to meet the enemy in battle. But he returned them quickly to the battle line by offering an expert lecture on the logic of the heavens and the nature of the stars. Thus the liberal arts gave to Galus a means to win that famous Paulline victory—since, if he had not conquered the fear of our soldiers, the general would have been incapable of conquering the enemy.”

Sulpicii Gali maximum in omni genere litterarum recipiendo studium plurimum rei publicae profuit: nam cum L. Paulli bellum adversum regem Persen gerentis legatus esset, ac serena nocte subito luna defecisset, eoque velut diro quodam monstro perterritus exercitus noster manus cum hoste conserendi fiduciam amisisset, de caeli ratione et siderum natura peritissime disputando alacrem eum in aciem misit. itaque inclitae illi Paullianae victoriae liberales artes Gali aditum dederunt, quia nisi ille metum nostrorum militum vicisset, imperator vincere hostes non potuisset.

 

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Eclipse and a Metaphor for Seeing the Real

Plato, Phaedo 99d-e

“So it seemed to me, he said, that after these travails, since I had come away with nothing while examining reality, that I should be careful not to suffer the very thing which people who gaze at the sun during an eclipse do. For some of them go blind, I think, unless they examine the sight in water or something like that. I mulled over this sort of thing and I feared that my soul might be similarly blinded should I try to grasp these matters with my eyes and each of my other senses. That’s why it seemed right to me to retreat into ideas and use them to examine the truth of reality.”

Ἔδοξε τοίνυν μοι, ἦ δ’ ὅς, μετὰ ταῦτα, ἐπειδὴ ἀπειρήκη τὰ ὄντα σκοπῶν, | δεῖν εὐλαβηθῆναι μὴ πάθοιμι ὅπερ οἱ τὸν ἥλιον ἐκλείποντα θεωροῦντες καὶ σκοπούμενοι πάσχουσιν· διαφθείρονται γάρ που ἔνιοι τὰ ὄμματα, ἐὰν μὴ ἐν ὕδατι ἤ τινι τοιούτῳ σκοπῶνται τὴν εἰκόνα αὐτοῦ. τοιοῦτόν τι καὶ ἐγὼ διενοήθην, καὶ ἔδεισα μὴ παντάπασι τὴν ψυχὴν τυφλωθείην βλέπων πρὸς τὰ πράγματα τοῖς ὄμμασι καὶ ἑκάστῃ τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἐπιχειρῶν ἅπτεσθαι αὐτῶν. ἔδοξε δή μοι χρῆναι εἰς τοὺς λόγους καταφυγόντα ἐν ἐκείνοις | σκοπεῖν τῶν ὄντων τὴν ἀλήθειαν.

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While reading this the other day, I discovered I was not the only one:

Nothing Unexpected: An Ancient Poem on Solar Eclipse

Archilochus, fr. 122

“Nothing is unexpected, nothing can be sworn untrue,
and nothing amazes since father Zeus the Olympian
has veiled the light to make it night at midday
even as the sun was shining: now dread fear has overtaken men.
From this time on everything that men believe
will be doubted: may none of us who see this be surprised
when we see sylvan beasts taking turns in the salted field
with dolphins, when the echoing waves of the sea become
dearer to them than the sand, and should the dolphins love the wooded glen…”

χρημάτων ἄελπτον οὐδέν ἐστιν οὐδ’ ἀπώμοτον
οὐδὲ θαυμάσιον, ἐπειδὴ Ζεὺς πατὴρ ᾿Ολυμπίων
ἐκ μεσαμβρίης ἔθηκε νύκτ’, ἀποκρύψας φάος
ἡλίου †λάμποντος, λυγρὸν† δ’ ἦλθ’ ἐπ’ ἀνθρώπους δέος.
ἐκ δὲ τοῦ καὶ πιστὰ πάντα κἀπίελπτα γίνεται
ἀνδράσιν• μηδεὶς ἔθ’ ὑμέων εἰσορέων θαυμαζέτω
μηδ’ ἐὰν δελφῖσι θῆρες ἀνταμείψωνται νομὸν
ἐνάλιον, καί σφιν θαλάσσης ἠχέεντα κύματα
φίλτερ’ ἠπείρου γένηται, τοῖσι δ’ ὑλέειν ὄρος.

 

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Occult and Medical in the Ancient Eclipse

Historia Augusta The Three Gordians, 23.2-4

“The consulship went to Gordian, the boy. But there was a sign that Gordian would be emperor for a short time. It was this: there was a solar eclipse so much like night that it was not possible to do anything without burning torches. And yet, afterwards,  the Roman people distracted itself with pleasures and entertainment, in order to soften the memory of the things that had happened.”

Gordiano puero consulatus. sed indicium non diu imperaturi Gordiani hoc fuit quod eclipsis solis facta est, ut nox crederetur, neque sine luminibus accensis quicquam agi posset, post haec tamen voluptatibus et deliciis populus Romanus vacavit, ut ea quae fuerant aspere gesta mitigaret.

Hippocrates of Cos, The Sacred Disease, IV

“If they pretend to know how to summon down the moon and obscure the sun, to make it storm or sunny, to bring rain or drought, to render the sea non-navigable and the earth fallow and other types of miracles, whether they say they can do with from magic rites or from some other ability or practice, which  ‘experts’ say are possible, then they seem to me to be impious, to be atheists, without any strength but unlikely to refrain from any of the craziest actions.”

IV. Εἰ γὰρ σελήνην καθαιρεῖν καὶ ἥλιον ἀφανίζειν καὶ χειμῶνά τε καὶ εὐδίην ποιεῖν καὶ ὄμβρους καὶ αὐχμοὺς καὶ θάλασσαν ἄπορον καὶ γῆν ἄφορον καὶ τἄλλα τὰ τοιουτότροπα πάντα ὑποδέχονται ἐπίστασθαι, εἴτε καὶ ἐκ τελετέων εἴτε καὶ ἐξ ἄλλης τινὸς γνώμης καὶ μελέτης φασὶ ταῦτα οἷόν τ᾿ εἶναι γενέσθαι οἱ ταῦτ᾿ ἐπιτηδεύοντες, δυσσεβεῖν ἔμοιγε δοκέουσι καὶ θεοὺς οὔτε εἶναι νομίζειν οὔτε ἰσχύειν οὐδὲν οὔτε εἴργεσθαι ἂν οὐδενὸς τῶν ἐσχάτων.

Pliny, Natural History 36.69

“Even on its own, flames have medical applications. It is known that if fires are set they bring many types of relief to the diseases which are caused by a solar eclipse.”

LXIX. Est et ipsis ignibus medica vis. pestilentiae quae obscuratione solis contrahitur, ignes si fiant, multifariam auxiliari certum est. Empedocles et Hippocrates id demonstravere diversis locis.

Manetho, On Festivals, Fr. 84.( Joannes Lydus, De Mensibus, IV, 87)

“We should note that Manetho in his work On Festivals says that a solar eclipse imposes a wretched influence on people, especially in their head and stomach.”

Ἰστέον δέ, ὡς ὁ Μανέθων ἐν τῷ περὶ ἑορτῶν λέγει τὴν ἡλιακὴν ἔκλειψιν πονηρὰν ἐπίρροιαν ἀνθρώποις ἐπιφέρειν περί τε τὴν κεφαλὴν καὶ τὸν στόμαχον.’’

Pseudo-Lucian, The Patriot 24

“So they were inquiring like men who have their heads in the clouds how things were in the city and the world. I said, “All are happy and they will be happy still”. They looked askance and said “If this is true, the city is knocked up with evil”.

I said I was of the same opinion and then: “Because you are raised so high and looking down at everything from a distance, you have noticed these things most perceptively. But how are affairs of the sky? Will the sun go into eclipse? Will the moon rise straight up? Will Mars take a quarter turn toward Jupiter and will Saturn stand directly opposite to the sun? Will Venus share its path with Mercury and bear those Hermaphrodites you love so much? Will they send soaking rain? Will they pour out drifts of snow on the earth? Will they cast down hail, disease, plague, hunger and drought? Is the thunderbolt pail empty? Is the lightning box full again?”

ὡς δ᾿ ἀεροβατοῦντες ἐπυνθάνοντο, Πῶς τὰ τῆς πόλεως καὶ τὰ τοῦ κόσμου; ἦν δ᾿ ἐγώ, Χαίρουσί γε πάντες καὶ ἔτι γε χαιρήσονται. οἱ δὲ ἀνένευον ταῖς ὀφρύσιν, Οὐχ οὕτω. δυστοκεῖ γὰρ ἡ πόλις.

ἦν δ᾿ ἐγὼ κατὰ τὴν αὐτῶν γνώμην· Ὑμεῖς πεδάρσιοι ὄντες καὶ ὡς ἀπὸ ὑψηλοῦ ἅπαντα καθορῶντες ὀξυδερκέστατα καὶ τάδε νενοήκατε. πῶς δὲ τὰ τοῦ αἰθέρος; μῶν ἐκλείψει ὁ ἥλιος, ἡ δὲ σελήνη κατὰ κάθετον γενήσεται; ὁ Ἄρης εἰ τετραγωνίσειτὸν Δία καὶ ὁ Κρόνος διαμετρήσει τὸν ἥλιον; ἡ Ἀφροδίτη εἰ μετὰ τοῦ Ἑρμοῦ συνοδεύσει καὶ Ἑρμαφροδίτους ἀποκυήσουσιν, ἐφ᾿ οἷς ὑμεῖς ἥδεσθε; εἰ ῥαγδαίους ὑετοὺς ἐκπέμψουσιν; εἰ νιφετὸν πολὺν ἐπιστρωννύσουσι τῇ γῇ, χάλαζαν δὲ καὶ ἐρυσίβην εἰ κατάξουσι, λοιμὸν καὶ λιμὸν καὶ αὐχμὸν εἰ ἐπιπέμψουσιν, εἰ τὸ κεραυνοβόλον ἀγγεῖον ἀπεγεμίσθη καὶ τὸ βροντοποιὸν δοχεῖον ἀνεμεστώθη;

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Science This! Some Ancient Theories on Eclipses

N.B. This selection is by no means exhaustive.

Xenophanes, fr.  D34

“Xenophanes [says eclipses] come from flames going out and that a different one happens again in the east. He reports in addition that there was an eclipse for an entire month and also a total eclipse that made the day seem like night.”

D34 (A41) Aët. 2.24.4 (Ps.-Plut.) [περὶ ἐκλείψεως ἡλίου]

Ξενοφάνης κατὰ σβέσιν· ἕτερον δὲ πάλιν πρὸς ταῖς ἀνατολαῖς γίνεσθαι· παριστόρηκε δὲ καὶ ἔκλειψιν ἡλίου ἐφ᾽ ὅλον μῆνα καὶ πάλιν ἔκλειψιν ἐντελῆ, ὥστε τὴν ἡμέραν νύκτα φανῆναι.

Xenophanes fr. D35

“Xenophanes says that there are many suns and moons arrayed along the earth’s latitudes, segments and zones. At certain times, he says, the disk falls out of the sky to some uninhabited place of the earth and an eclipse appears because it left empty space.”

D35 =(Stob.; cf. Ps.-Plut.) [περὶ ἐκλείψεως ἡλίου]

Ξενοφάνης· πολλοὺς εἶναι ἡλίους καὶ σελήνας κατὰ τὰ κλίματα τῆς γῆς καὶ ἀποτομὰς καὶ ζώνας. κατὰ δέ τινα καιρὸν ἐκπίπτειν τὸν δίσκον εἴς τινα ἀποτομὴν τῆς γῆς οὐκ οἰκουμένην ὑφ’ ἡμῶν καὶ οὕτως ὡσπερεὶ κενεμβατοῦντα ἔκλειψιν ὑποφαίνειν [. . . = D31].

Anaximander, Fr. 26

“Anaximander says that the [moon] is a wheel nineteen times larger than the earth, like the wheel of a chariot it has a hollow rim filled with fire similar to that of the sun, situated at an angle, like that one. It has a single exhalation point like the mouth of bellows. An eclipse happens when the wheel turns.”

Aët. 2.25.1 (Stob., cf. Ps.-Plut.)

Ἀναξίμανδρος κύκλον εἶναι ἐννεακαιδεκαπλασίονα τῆς γῆς, ὅμοιον ἁρματείῳ τροχῷ κοίλην ἔχοντι τὴν ἁψῖδα καὶ πυρὸς πλήρη καθάπερ τὸν τοῦ ἡλίου, κείμενον λοξόν, ὡς κἀκεῖνον, ἔχοντα μίαν ἐκπνοὴν οἷον πρηστῆρος αὐλόν. ἐκλείπειν δὲ κατὰ τὰς ἐπιστροφὰς τοῦ τροχοῦ.

Heraclitus Fr. 20 (=Stob)

“Herakleitos and Hekateios say that the sun is a burning specter from the sea and that it is bowl-shaped and curved on one-side. They say an eclipse happens because of the turn of the bowl shape so that the hollow side turns up and the curved side turns down to our vision.”

     ῾Ηράκλειτος καὶ ῾Εκαταῖος ἄναμμα νοερὸν τὸ ἐκ θαλάττης εἶναι τὸν ἥλιον. —Σκαφοειδῆ δ’ εἶναι, ὑπόκυρτον. —Γίνεσθαι δὲ τὴν ἔκλειψιν κατὰ τὴν τοῦ σκαφοειδοῦς στροφήν, ὥστε τὸ μὲν κοῖλον ἄνω γίγνεσθαι, τὸ δὲ κυρτὸν κάτω πρὸς τὴν ἡμετέραν ὄψιν.

Empedocles, Fr. D133

“Empedocles says that an eclipse happens when the moon moves under the sun”

D133 = Aët. 2.24.7 (Stob.) [περὶ ἐκλείψεως ἡλίου]

ἔκλειψιν δὲ γίνεσθαι σελήνης αὐτὸν ὑπερχομένης.

Antiphon fr. D21 and D24

 “Antiphon says that [the sun] is made of fire that feeds on the wet mist around the earth and that its rising and setting come from it leaving air that has been consumed as it attaches to air with moisture.”

     ᾿Αντιφῶν πῦρ ἐπινεμόμενον μὲν τὸν περὶ τὴν γῆν ὑγρὸν ἀέρα, ἀνατολὰς δὲ καὶ δύσεις ποιούμενον, τῷ τὸν  μὲν ἐπικαιόμενον αἰεὶ προλείπειν, τοῦ δ’ ὑπονοτιζομένου πάλιν ἀντέχεσθαι.

 “And Antiphon says [lunar eclipses] happen because of the turn of the bowl-like celestial body and its angles.”

 Ἀντιφῶν κατὰ τὴν τοῦ σκαφοειδοῦς στροφὴν καὶ τὰς περικλίσεις

Anaxagoras, fr. D4.7

“Anaxagoras says that the moon eclipses when the earth is in the way and sometimes because of the celestial bodies below the moon; the sun eclipses because the moon gets in the way during its new phase.”

D4 (< A42) Ps.-Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies

ἐκλείπειν δὲ τὴν σελήνην γῆς ἀντιφραττούσης, ἐνίοτε δὲ καὶ τῶν ὑποκάτω τῆς σελήνης, τὸν δὲ ἥλιον ταῖς νουμηνίαις σελήνης ἀντιφραττούσης.

Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, II 90a (On Lunar Eclipses)

“What is an eclipse? The stealing of light from the moon by the superposition of the earth. Saying “what is an eclipse” is the same thing as saying “why does the moon eclipse”. Because the light of the sun leaves it when the earth gets in the way.”

τί ἐστιν ἔκλειψις; στέρησις φωτὸς ἀπὸ σελήνης ὑπὸ γῆς ἀντιφράξεως. διὰ τί ἔστιν ἔκλειψις, ἢ διὰ τί ἐκλείπει ἡ σελήνη; διὰ τὸ ἀπολείπειν τὸ φῶς ἀντιφραττούσης τῆς γῆς.

Seneca the Younger, Natural Questions 7

“The sun has no audience unless it starts to disappear. No one looks at the moon unless it is eclipsing. Then, cities scream together and everyone makes a ruckus because of silly superstition.”

Sol spectatorem, nisi deficit, non habet. Nemo observat lunam nisi laborantem; tunc urbes conclamant, tunc pro se quisque superstitione vana strepitat.

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