Christopher Columbus and the Lunar Eclipse
About 500 years ago, Christopher
Columbus was on his fourth voyage to the
The local Jamaican natives were quite
fascinated with Columbus and his men and were very nice to them. They provided
Columbus and his sailors with food and other supplies and helped them build
shelters. In fact, the Natives treated Columubs
better than his own men treated him. The sailor's on this voyage were a pretty
rough bunch and had repeatedly argued with
Eventually the Natives grew tired of
being treated so badly and decided to make a point and cut off the food supply
to Columbus and his crew. The sailors were more than willing to try and fight
with the natives to get what they wanted and they even argued with
And then, ever so subtly, the moon began to change. Sniggers were replaced by an uneasiness. The Moon began to dim and turn a blood red colour. Soon all eyes were riveted on the dimming orb. Clearly, as it rose, there was something wrong. Not only was the Moon the colour of blood, by the time the lunar disk was completely above the horizon, the lower half of the Moon was missing!
Over the next few hours, little by little the Moon became harder and harder to spot. A dim red orb hung in the sky where once the brilliant Moon had bathed them in moonlight. It looked as if the Moon had been reduced to a dim ghost of its former self.
Supposedly, the natives were terrified. It is doubtful that they had never observed a lunar eclipse before, but they likely believed the gods controlled such events, and now, here was a mere human who could not only communicate with the gods but could predict his actions as well! Clearly they were frightened by this display of power.
The natives pleaded with
Strolling casually back out from his ship, Columbus reappeared just before totality ended and announced that the Almighty Power was indeed in a forgiving mood and if the natives would thusly promise to provide food for Columbus and his crew, the Almighty Power would have the Moon reappear. Of course the Natives agreed and with much nodding, smiling and posturing, the deal was sealed and quite soon thereafter, the Moon was its former brilliant self.
Thereafter, it is doubtful that
Early Greek Astronomy and Solar Eclipses
The claim that the Greek philosopher Thales(624-546 BC) predicted a solar eclipse in the sixth eclipse in the sixth century BC is a different matter, for in this case there are many sources of information and speculation. Although no written works of Thales have survived, Greek historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides wrote extensively about his achievements.
Thales’ status as a Wise Man
came from his reputation as a philosopher, not from a position in politics, as
was the case for the others accorded this honour.
Some consider him to have been the teacher of Pythagoras, though it may be only
that he advised Pythagoras, to travel to
In spite of all his
other achievements, Thales’ fame has always rested on
the reports of ancient Greek historians that he successfully predicted a solar
eclipse. The most frequently quoted source is Herodotus. One of the most
important writers of ancient
the day was turned to night. Thales of Miletus has foretold this loss of daylight to the Ionians, fixing it within the year in which the change did indeed happened. So when the Lydians and the Medes saw the day turned to night they ceased from fighting and both were more zealous to make peace.
It is wonderful to think that a war could be ended by a spectacular natural phenomenon which humbles belligerent armies. But more interesting to us today is Thales’ prediction. How did he do it?
scholars have pointed out that the writings of ancient historians, Herodotus
included, contain examples of portentous eclipses which never took place – now
referred to as ‘literary eclipses’. One report in Herodotus describes how
Xerxes and his Persian armies observed an eclipse just before they set out from
Moreover, it is not only Herodotus who tells us about Thales’ eclipse prediction. Diogenes Laertius, in his Lives of Eminent Philosophers, refers to Xenophanes as having been amazed by Thales’. This is significant since Xenophanes lived in the same century as Thales, and could therefore be a more reliable source. Nevertheless, respected modern scholars, Thomas-Henri Martin in the nineteenth century and Otto Neugebauer more recently, have concluded that the story of the prediction is nothing but a myth. It could be argued that such skepticism is unfair when viewed in the light of the usual procedures used in classical studies. Evidence from independent sources for Thales’ prediction seems too strong to be denied. Yet, if we are to accept the reality of Thales’ achievement, there remain the questions of how and why he made his prediction.