We are having a good time in Australia, but I greatly regret having to miss the eclipse. Where we live in Oklahoma, the eclipse of the sun will be 90% total, which should still be quite a show. Historically, though, eclipses were occasions of existential dread.
It wasn’t that the ancients didn’t understand what eclipses were, the interposition of the moon blocking out the sun. And they could predict their occurrence. Ancient skygazers learned how to predict eclipses as early as 2300 B.C. This was known by the ancient astronomers of Assyria, China, Japan, India, Egypt, the Islamic world, Greece, and Rome. (They were better at predicting lunar eclipses. Solar eclipses required more accurate measurements of the speed of earth and moon orbits, something achieved by the Greeks in the first century B.C. For how to predict eclipses, go here.)
There is the recurring story of the sophisticated Westerner being captured by savages, who were about to put him to death when he recalled that a solar eclipse would happen (conveniently) exactly on the day of his scheduled execution. “I will blot out the sun!” he tells his captors. Sure enough, the sun is blotted out, and the savages freak out. When the Westerner graciously “causes” the sun to go back, the savages are so grateful, they fall at his feet in worship. Thereafter, they are pleased to do his bidding.
This has been told of Columbus. (Not true! The Incas and the Mayas also knew about eclipses.) The most ridiculous version has this happening with the Connecticut Yankee who finds himself in King Arthur’s court. Mark Twain in his novel about this unexplained time travel was bent on exalting 19th century industrialism over the medievalism. He was apparently unaware that the astronomers even of the early Middle Ages were quite familiar with eclipses and that Merlin would surely have known about the one that saved the Yankee from being burned at the stake.
Despite the knowledge about what eclipses are and when they will happen, they were universally considered bad portents. They were associated with the fall of kings and kingdoms. Indeed, eclipses marked the fall of quite a few kings and kingdoms. The medieval era arguably began with Charlemagne, whose son died right after the eclipse of 840 A.D. Jumping forward, the absolutist monarch who was the patron of the Enlightenment in France, Louis XIV–ironically known as the “Sun King”–died with the eclipse of 1715. And a total eclipse was visible over Europe at the very beginning of World War I–on another August 21 in 1914–which could be said to have heralded the fall of Czarist Russia, the Austro-Hungary empire, and the Ottoman empire, as well as tipping the dominos that would lead to the World War II, the Cold War, the conflicts in the Middle East, and other epochal changes. (See The eclipse is deeper than we thought and Why kings have always feared eclipses.)
The problem is that eclipses are too frequent to signal anything very definitive. There are 2-5 eclipses somewhere in the world every year. This one is notable because it will be visible over so much of the United States. Besides, the prophetic imagery in the Bible of the sun becoming as dark as sackcloth seems to refer to a larger and longer-lasting cataclysm than just the two-minutes of a solar eclipse.
Nevertheless, it is true that the Bible says that the lights in the heavens are “for signs,” as well as for seasons, days, and years (Genesis 1:14). This must be construed to mean something other than astrology, elsewhere condemned in Scripture.
The Biblical significance of this particular eclipse is probably better understood as in Concordia Seminary’s free Bible study on the eclipse, which emphasizes the cultivation of “wonder.”
Might the eclipse over America be a sign of the fall of Donald Trump? After all, ousted Trump advisor Steve Bannon says, “the Trump presidency is over.” (Though he seems to be predicting that a new Trump presidency will arise from the ashes of the old one.) Or the fall of the political establishment at the hands of Trump? Or the fall of our constitutional republic? Probably not.
Here is my take on what the “sign” of the eclipse signifies: What we expect and take for granted is contingent. That is, it may be taken away. What we see everything else by can go dark. What seems so stable and certain in this world–not just the sun but the nation, the economy, the rule of law, our prosperity, our health, our loved ones, our life–can be taken away. But even that is part of an ordered, predictable, certain design. And the light will overcome the darkness after all.
Especially since I’m on the other side of the world from the eclipse, I would appreciate hearing your descriptions and reactions to the event. Despite your rational knowledge about the eclipse, does going dark in the middle of the day call forth primal feelings of dread and unease?
Photograph of 1999 solar eclipse by Alejandro Sánchez de Miguel (Own work) [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons