Witnessing a lunar or solar eclipse can be an awe-inspiring experience. The astronomical events occur when the Earth and sun, or the Earth and moon become aligned and the sun or moon is temporarily obscured from humans' terrestrial perspective. So it's perhaps not surprising that these rare celestial events have influenced human behavior—particularly before they were widely understood.

From triggering fear to favoring armies, to proving revolutionary theories, the following eclipses have played a part in history.

October 22, 2134 B.C.: Solar eclipse spells doom for Hsi and Ho.

One of the earliest records of an eclipse appears in the ancient Chinese document Shu Ching (Book of History), which describes a day on which “the Sun and Moon did not meet harmoniously.” Historians believe this is a reference to the solar eclipse of October 22, 2134 B.C. The legend tells of two royal astronomers named Hsi and Ho who had shirked their duties and gotten drunk on the job. As a result, they failed to predict the event and were beheaded by the emperor.

May 28, 585 B.C.: Solar eclipse inspires truce between the Lydians and the Medes.

According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, a total solar eclipse brought about an unexpected ceasefire between two warring nations as they were fighting near the River Halys in what is now central Turkey. For five years, the Lydians and the Medes were battling for control of Anatolia. During the Battle of Halys, also known as the Battle of the Eclipse, the sky suddenly turned dark as the sun disappeared behind the moon. Interpreting the phenomenon as a sign that the gods wanted the conflict to end, the soldiers put down their weapons and negotiated a truce.

August 27, 413 B.C.: Lunar eclipse plus superstition prove deadly for Athens.

At the height of the Peloponnesian War, a decades-long struggle between Athens and Sparta, Athenian soldiers found themselves locked in a losing battle against the Sicilian city-state of Syracuse (who were allied with Sparta). The Athenian commander, Nicias, ordered a temporary retreat. According to an account by the Greek writer and philosopher Plutarch, as the troops prepared to sail home, a lunar eclipse took place, prompting the highly superstitious Nicias to postpone the departure. The Syracusians took advantage of the delay to stage another attack, overcoming the Athenians and weakening their stronghold on the Mediterranean. The defeat in Sicily marked the beginning of the end of Athenian dominance.

February 29, 1504: Lunar eclipse saves Christopher Columbus from starvation?

Twelve years after his landing at San Salvador, Christopher Columbus was exploring the Central American coast when woodworms attacked his ship, causing leaks and forcing him to make an emergency stop in Jamaica. He and his crew spent more than a year there awaiting relief. The Indigenous people of the island initially welcomed the men, offering them food and shelter, but cut off their supplies when the Spaniards failed to offer trade in return and some of Columbus' crew members began stealing from them.

According to an account by his son, Ferdinand, Columbus consulted the almanac he had brought with him and read about an upcoming total lunar eclipse. Ferdinand writes that Columbus told the Jamaicans that the gods were unhappy with them for failing to provide assistance and that they would show their disapproval by turning the moon a bloody red color. The eclipse occurred on schedule, and Ferdinand claims the Jamaicans reacted in fear and then promised to resume feeding Columbus and his crew.

It makes a good story, anyway. Many historians, however, are skeptical of the account, particularly since the Indigenous people of the region would have witnessed a lunar eclipse just six years earlier. Nonetheless, research confirms a lunar eclipse did occur at that time. As John McCall, an anthropology professor at Southern Illinois University, notes, "While such stories must be regarded skeptically, the path of the 1504 eclipse is known, and Columbus’ account appears to be consistent with the darker side of his reputation."

August 7, 1869: Solar eclipse makes peace between scientists and native Alaskans.

George Davidson, a prominent astronomer and explorer, had already made surveys of several regions in Alaska—then a relatively uncharted territory—when he set out on a scientific expedition to Chilkat Valley in 1869. He was warned, however, that the local Chilkat Indians had been angered by some American provocation and might welcome him with guns and spears rather than open arms.

During a tense initial meeting on August 6, Davidson explained that he had come for purely scientific reasons, telling the Chilkat that he was especially anxious to observe a total eclipse of the sun the following day. It's not known what the Chilkat thought of the eclipse or Davidson’s prediction, but after the event, Davidson and his party report that they were able to continue their explorations.

May 29, 1919: Solar Eclipse Confirms Einstein's Big Theory

In an effort to test Albert Einstein's then-four-year-old theory of general relativity, English scientists, led by physicist Sir Arthur Eddington, took advantage of a total solar eclipse. During the eclipse, as the moon blocked sunlight, more stars were visible near the sun. The team's measurements taken during the eclipse confirmed that starlight bent around the sun. It was an early confirmation of Einstein's theory that massive objects warp the fabric of space-time and that distortion manifests as gravity.

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