Total eclipse of the Sun, June 8, 1918, Howard Russell Butler

The Life and Death Power of Eclipses in the Ancient World

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On Monday, August 21, people living in the continental United States will be able to see a total solar eclipse.

Humans have been alternatively amused, puzzled, bewildered and sometimes even terrified at the sight of this celestial phenomenon. A range of social and cultural reactions accompanies the observation of an eclipse . In ancient Mesopotamia (roughly modern Iraq), eclipses were in fact regarded as omens, as signs of things to come.

Solar and Lunar Eclipses

For an eclipse to take place, three celestial bodies must find themselves in a straight line within their elliptic orbits. This is called a syzygy, from the Greek word “súzugos,” meaning yoked or paired.

Solar lunar eclipse diagram.

Solar lunar eclipse diagram. ( Tomruen (Own work) , CC BY-SA 4.0 )

From our viewpoint on Earth, there are two kinds of eclipses: solar and lunar. In a solar eclipse, the moon passes in between the sun and Earth, which results in blocking our view of the sun. In a lunar eclipse, it is the moon that crosses through the shadow of the Earth. A solar eclipse can completely block our view of the sun, but it is usually a brief event and can be observed only in certain areas of the Earth’s surface; what can be viewed as a total eclipse in one’s hometown may just be a partial eclipse a few hundred miles away.

By contrast, a lunar eclipse can be viewed throughout an entire hemisphere of the Earth: the half of the surface of the planet that happens to be on the night side at the time.

Eclipses as Omens

More than two thousand years ago, the Babylonians were able to calculate that there were 38 possible eclipses or syzygys within a period of 223 months: that is, about 18 years. This period of 223 months is called a Saros cycle by modern astronomers, and a sequence of eclipses separated by a Saros cycle constitutes a Saros series.

Lunar Eclipse

Lunar Eclipse ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

Although scientists now know that the number of lunar and solar eclipses is not exactly the same in every Saros series, one cannot underplay the achievement of Babylonian scholars in understanding this astronomical phenomenon. Their realization of this cycle eventually allowed them to predict the occurrence of an eclipse.

Rituals to Preempt Royal Fate

According to Babylonian scholars, eclipses could foretell the death of the king. The conditions for an omen to be considered as such were not simple. For instance, according to a famous astronomical work known by its initial words, “Enūma Anu Enlil” – “When (the gods) Anu and Enlil” – if Jupiter was visible during the eclipse, the king was safe. Lunar eclipses seem to have been of particular concern for the well-being and survival of the king .

In order to preempt the monarch’s fate, a mechanism was devised: the “ substitute king ritual ,” or “šar pūhi.” There are over 30 mentions of this ritual in various letters from Assyria (northern Mesopotamia), dating to the first millennium BC. Earlier references to a similar ritual have also been found in texts in Hittite , the Indo-European language for which we have the earliest written records, dating to second-millennium Anatolia – modern-day Turkey.

Saving the King

In this ritual , a person would be chosen to replace the king. He would be dressed like the king and placed on the throne. To avoid confusion with a real coronation, all this would occur alongside the recitation of the negative omen triggered by the observation of the eclipse.

The real king would keep a low profile and avoid being seen. If no additional negative portents were observed, the substitute king was put to death, therefore fulfilling the prophetic reading of the celestial omen while saving the life of the real king. This ritual would take place when an eclipse was observed or even predicted, something that became possible to do in later periods .

The presence of this ritual among the corpus of Hittite texts in second-millennium Anatolia has led to the assumption that it must have existed already in Mesopotamia during the first half of the second millennium BC.

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