‘A total solar eclipse bypasses the brain, with its scientific understanding, and speaks primitively to the heart. It reminds us of our cosmic insignificance.
Eclipses cause far more perturbation when they were unpredictable – and historians have studied ancient responses to them.
One of the oldest known eclipse tales comes from China and relates to two astronomers, Hsi and Hoe, who became drunk and failed to respond adequately to a total solar eclipse, a crime which was punished by death. If this were true it would mean that the first recorded eclipse occurred between 2159 and 1948BC. But it is almost certainly a myth, perhaps a morality tale aimed at civil servants of the time.
The first person to predict totality with success was thought for a long time to have been Thales of Miletus. He is said to have foretold the year and position of an influential eclipse that plunged a battlefield into darkness during an encounter between the Lydians and the Medes. Chastened by the experience, the two sides laid down their arms and agreed a peace deal. Today astronomers cannot see how Thales could have predicted an eclipse given the limited knowledge at the time. It is generally agreed that, while the solar drama may well have ended a war, probably on 28 May 585BC, it was not actually predicted.’