Before they were science, eclipses were omens

Contributed by
Aug 16, 2017

Eclipses may be mesmerizing phenomena that require special glasses, but before they excited scientists and anyone wanting to seriously boost their Instagram cred, not to mention sparking the cruise of a lifetime with Bonnie Tyler, they were omens that led to clashes of kings straight out of Game of Thrones.

Rewind thousands of years to ancient Mesopotamia. Astronomers in Babylon back then had already figured out that an eclipse occurs when three cosmic objects line up (you might say almost supernaturally) within their elliptical orbits. This is a syzygy to us, but was a sign of foreboding to them.

The Babylonians were advanced enough to be able to calculate what is now called a Saros cycle — that there would be 38 possible lunar and solar eclipses within 18 years. Eclipse sequences separated by a Saros cycle are Saros series. There were some slight errors in the absence of all the high-tech instruments that would be invented a few millennia later, but the Babylonians were not exactly studying celestial bodies for science. Astrology and astronomy were interconnected to them. Being able to foretell an oncoming eclipse was equal to predicting royal survival or demise.

Omens were not so easy to figure out as simply knowing an eclipse was on the horizon. Lunar eclipses were considered the most powerful omens, and there was also the alignment of other planets to consider when you were about to tell the king whether or not he was going to meet his death. Enūma Anu Enlil, one of their standout astronomical works (its title translates to “When (the gods) Anu and Enlil”), states that no swords, poison or anything else lethal would come to the king if Jupiter was visible during the eclipse. That obviously didn’t make the king feel secure enough, or else the šar pūhi or “substitute king ritual” would have never come into being. Legend has it that king Erra-imitti of Isin was replaced by gardener Enlil-bani as part of this ritual. We will never know whether it was an accident or sabotage, but when hot soup killed the real king, the gardener took up the crown.

Was the eclipse really the reigning force here? Many historians believe this account was dreamed up to explain a dynastic switch, kind of like a line totally unrelated to House Baratheon seizing the Iron Throne.

Far east of the Fertile Crescent, the “Bamboo Annals” or Zhúshū Jìnián of ancient China describe a similar account during a total lunar eclipse in 1059 B.C., when the last king of the Shang dynasty was still on the throne. Vassal King Wen of the Zhou dynasty saw this as a sign to overthrow his predecessors and seize the crown. While a later account would go into more depth about how the eclipse was a catalyst for political and military events that followed the dynasty transition, that’s still pretty Lannister.

Just think about that when you’re staring up at the sky through your eclipse glasses on Aug. 21.