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  • Total Eclipse February 12, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Modern , trackback


    A reader – Moonman to friends – has written in to remind Beachcombing of the old ‘cover thy face’ trick whereby ‘the civilised’ with knowledge of an eclipse, show their power over the elements by ‘ordering’ the sun to disappear in the presence of the unenlightened. Beachcombing knows this trick from Hergé’s Prisoners of the Sun where Tintin saves his own life and, rara avis, those of his friends, by using his knowledge of total eclipse of the sun against the Incas of Peru. Hergé incidentally always regretted this plot device because he came to feel, perhaps reasonably, that the sun-obsessed Incas would have known all about such games.

    Moonman points Beachcombing in the direction too of Mark Twain in the Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court playing a similar trick. Did Hergé steal from MT? And if so who did Twain steal from because this cannot have been MT’s idea? (It just isn’t in character) Then far more importantly, to the sound of bugles, the key question: has this trick ever been carried out in the real world?

    One example that always made Beachcombing wonder is Herodotus’ reference to Thales of Miletus predicting an eclipse in 585 BC. In the Histories this is associated with the Persians and Lydians ceasing to fight in a battle, shocked by the vanishing sun.

    The romantic in Beachcombing sometimes wondered if Thales could be credited with predicting the eclipse during the battle, perhaps even – forgive Beachcombing… – with engineering the battle to take place as the sun had its holiday. However, Herodotus tells us that Thales made the prediction that the eclipse would take place within a year, lacking Hank’s and Tintin’s exactitude.

    But if Thales’ prediction and the battle are just two unconnected events, tied together by the Father of Lies then Beachcombing does have an example of a clever European getting one up on the natives. Beachcombing has had reason before to mention Robert Felkin for that author’s remarkable descriptions of African Caesarean sections: in fact, Beachcombing will never again be able to look at banana wine in the same way…

    Well, in a study by Peter Dunn we learn that in the late nineteenth-century

    ‘[Felkin] travelled up the Nile to Khartoum, where he met General Gordon, and then on through what was then wild and unmapped country to the Great Lakes. There he met Emin Pasha, the Governor of the Equatorial Province, and was presented to King M’tesa, whose personal physician he became in 1879. When a Muslim anti-missionary movement threatened the lives of his fellow Christians, Felkin warned the King that, should any harm come to them, a great disaster would befall his people. As a sign he foretold that the sun would be darkened; in due course the anticipated eclipse occurred and Felkin was established as a great ‘medicine man’.’

    But was it true?

    Beachcombing should add that Felkin was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. How he must have loved telling this story back in the temple! Beachcombing returns then to his point about Mark Twain above: this is almost certainly a nineteenth-century motif and it would be interesting to know the Ur version before crediting Felkin – as a high mage with all that profession’s propensity to fantasy – with working eclipses in darkest Africa.

    There is one other example that also sounds too good to be true but that Moonman put Beachcombing on to and that must be cited and that can certainly be enjoyed. In 1806 an Indian prophet based in Ohio/Indiana, Tenskwatawa announced, in answer to a challenge from the local white leader, William Henry Harrison, that the Great Spirit would show a sign.

    ‘At around noon on the appointed day, June 16th 1806, a total solar eclipse crossed the region. A long eclipse with a band of totality stretching from near the southern tip of Lake Michigan to just north of Cincinnati it encompassed most of the lands inhabited by Tenskwatawa’s followers. In Greenville, where Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh waited for the event, close to a thousand had gathered to see the Prophet’s sign. The Prophet waved his arms towards the eclipse at the appropriate time, and the people were truly impressed.’

    Beachcombing has had the pleasure of Tecumseh’s and Tenkwatawa’s company in the past and knows the way that legends are drawn like metal filings to these remarkable men: there is something almost unbearably sad about the capable nineteenth-century Indian leaders, fighting their hopeless fight for autonomy against the Federal and State governments. Beachcombing doesn’t believe, dearly as he would like to or, at the very least, first he’d like to have a proper look at the sources in question or hear from any better connected readers. Then, of course, if this is true, there is the fascinating question of where Tenkwatawa got his information from! The mind boggles…

    Beachcombing will come to similar stories about moon eclipses on another day, but do please keep any moon or sun eclipse stories rolling in! Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    13 Feb 2010: MP writes in with the evidence for the UR text: ‘In today’s offering about eclipses you missed a very well known fictional account that predates Twain’s by four years, that is H. Rider Haggard’s use of an eclipse to save the protagonists in his novel King Solomon’s Mines.’ Beachcombing knew that it wasn’t that old faker Twain.’

    27 Feb: Moonman has written a couple of thoughtful emails that Beachcombing has run together here. Ideally Beachcombing would have written new posts, but, hey, that time will come.  ‘I see that someone commented about Haggard’s prior use of the eclipse [see above]. I recollect that  Haggard had stated in his first edition that the eclipse was a solar eclipse during a full Moon.  Needless to say, such an event is impossible (the Sun is blocked by the Moon thus the Moon must be completely un-illuminated by the Sun… i.e. a new Moon).  After biting criticisms from his reviewers, he changed his book in the later editions to an eclipse of the Moon by the Earth’s shadow (lunar eclipse)… somewhat less dramatic than the  solar eclipse.  I found another mention of impressing ignorant barbarians with eclipse legerdemain.  I found it mentioned by R. R. Newton in ‘Two Uses of Ancient Astronomy’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Vol. 276, No. 1257, The Place of Astronomy in the Ancient World (May 2, 1974), pp. 99-116.  He says…’The ‘eclipse’ described by Anna Comnena (ca. 1120, chap. vol. 2) is the earliest example I have found in which a person uses the ability to predict an eclipse in order to confound an uneducated opponent.’ I had not heard of before but the reference lists information…. ca. 1120 Syntagma rerum ab Imperalore Alexio Comnena gestarum, there is an edition by L. Scnopen, in 2 volumes, in Corpus scriptorum historiae Byzantinae, 1839, (ed. B. G. Niebuhr), Bonn; Weber’s.  All this is Greek to me, so I googled her name+eclipse, and lo!, I come up with a nice Nature article (Nature 143, 280-280 (18 February 1939) ‘Bluffing by Eclipse Prediction’, C. J. Westland, ‘The communication by Prof. W. A. Osborne has the effect of opening up the question whether the eclipse of the sun mentioned by Anna Comnena may be included in historical eclipses. It is interesting to be able to state that her record seems to be quite sound. There was a total eclipse visible at Constantinople on February 16, 1086.’  Ah, so then it was Prof. Osborne I should look up…..Nature 142, 837-838 (5 November 1938) ‘Bluffing by Eclipse Prediction’, W. A. Osbourne, Abstract: ‘Less familiar is the very effective use of a solar eclipse by the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius I. Comnenus, who figures so prominently in the history of the First Crusade. To quote the words of his biographer, his daughter Anna Comnena: ‘In the course of the discussion a certain Nicolas, one of the Emperor’s secretaries, came up to him and whispered in his ear, ‘You may expect an eclipse of the sun to take place to-day’, and on the Emperor’s expressing a doubt, he swore with an oath that he was not lying.’ But back to Anna’s book, I finally found something called the Alexiad on Google books, pg 221 which has a confusing event of intrigue/political justification/bluff with Scyth barbarians.  In this text the eclipse date is given as Aug 1 1087.  The translator does not provide a reason for this, unless he/she is simply aware that one occurred on that date.  One did occur on that date, but it was far south in Egypt and Africa and only an annular eclipse in which the apparent size of the Moon is smaller than that of the Sun, which is not what Anna describes.  So, we need a date from here biography if it exists. The one speculated to be correct is a total solar eclipse over that region in Feb 1086. [Note also that] The prairie-bird (1844) Author: Murray, Charles Augustus, Sir, 1806-1895 Pages 343-345 cover the use of an solar eclipse by some Indian princess. The book was written in 1844. We may thank Osbourne in his 1938 Nature article for the find.’ Thanks Moonman and MP!!!

    28 Mar 2016: Lanark writes in pointing out that the Secret Mountain by Enid Blyton has this plot device.