Eclipses- Historical Harbingers

Total solar eclipse Photo Credit- By I, Luc Viatour

If you’ve been anywhere near the news, you would have seen that a solar eclipse happened in the continental United States yesterday.  I have to admit it was a pretty amazing experience as I was lucky enough to be in the path of totality.  As the sky went dark and the crickets started chirping, I thought about what it must have been like for those in the past.  They didn’t have the benefit of NASA and other scientists telling us that this was normal, the Sun would come back and to wear protective glasses.  How did people through the ages deal with eclipses?

One of the first references we have of an eclipse is from a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs at the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument in County Meath, Ireland.  This is near the passage tomb of New Grange, which is also from around the same time.  (For more on New Grange, please see this post )  These date back to around 3340 BCE, and scientists have calculated that a solar eclipse occurred on November 30, 3340 BCE.  According to Irish archaeoastronomer Paul Griffin, the monument was in the path of totality, meaning the entire solar disc was obscured.  Decoding the carvings on the rock, Griffin was able to deduce they were recording the eclipse, making it one of the first records of such an event.  Inside the monument, the charred remains of 48 humans were found.  It has been hypothesized this was a human sacrifice to “bring back” the Sun from the underworld.  

The Chinese and Babylonian cultures began to predict eclipses with high accuracy.  The Babylonians believed an eclipse was an evil omen for the ruler.  The Chinese believed the Sun was being eaten by a large dragon during an eclipse.  An ancient book of documents called the Shu Ching, described the eclipse in October 22, 2134 BCE.  The emperor charged two astronomers, Hsi and Ho, to predict the eclipse so archers could be stationed to defend the Sun from the dragon.  Unfortunately for Hsi and Ho, they got massively drunk and failed to alert the warriors and were beheaded for dereliction of duty.  Similar mythology describing the Sun as being stolen is found around the world, but it was not always a dragon to blame.  The Vietnamese people believed the Sun was being eaten by a giant frog, and the Norse people blamed a wolf.  In Korea, they believed dogs were stealing the Sun.  Because of this, many cultures gathered together to bang drums or even pots and pans to scare away whatever was trying to steal or eat the Sun.

On the other side of the world, the Inuits believed the Sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with her brother Anningan, the Moon god.  An eclipse happened when Annigan caught up with his sister.  The Pomo, another Native American tribe, believed a bear got into a fight with the Sun and took a bite out of it. The bear was apparently hungry and went on to take a bite out of the moon two weeks later, explaining why there is a lunar eclipse usually two weeks after a solar one.  In the Africa, the Batammaliba tribe in Benin and Togo, believed the Sun and the moon were at war and the only way to keep them from permanently damaging each other was to end human conflicts.

Eclipse Icon at Loughcrew 3340 BCE Photo Credit-

The ancient Greeks also believed that an eclipse was an omen of evil tidings.  Historian Herodotus tells of an eclipse on May 28, 585 BCE that prompted a cease fire between the Lydians and the Medes.   In the middle of the Battle of Halys, the sky turned dark and the battling armies took this as a sign the gods wanted them to stop.  A truce was negotiated and the battle was renamed the Battle of the Eclipse.  Another eclipse changed the course of Greek history.  At the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and eclipse occurred on August 27, 413 BCE.  At that time, the Athenians were attempting to dislodge the Syracusans from Sicily.  Their commander, Nicias, was extremely superstitious and postponed the fleet’s departure because of the eclipse.  This gave the Syracusans enough time to stage another attack in which the Athenians were defeated.  This marks the beginning of the decline of Athenian dominance in the region.

The Christian gospels tell of the sky darkening during the day at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Some archaeoastronomers believe that Jesus’ death coincided with a solar eclipse and have tried to use this to pinpoint the exact date.  There are historical records of solar eclipses in the year 29 and 32, but no one has proof of which date is correct.  Following along with the bad omen belief, another solar eclipse affected the life of Louis the Pious.  He was the third son of Charlemagne and inherited the Holy Roman Empire.  It is reported he witnessed the eclipse on May 5, 840 and was convinced it was a warning of impending punishment from God and died of fright soon after.  This plunged the kingdom into civil war for three years.  There was also said to be an eclipse right before the death of Henry I of England on August 2, 1133, which reinforced the superstition that eclipses were bad omens for rulers.  The solar eclipses on January 8, 1777 and again on June 24, 1778 was bad news for George III.  The one in 1777 proceeded the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, and the one in 1778 proceeded the victory of the Americans at the Battle of Monmouth.

Despite the beliefs and myths, the ancients were able to use information about eclipses to further scientific knowledge.  Aristotle observed the shadow of the Earth on the moon was curved and hypothesized the Earth was round.  Another Greek astronomer named Aristarchus used a lunar eclipse to estimate the distance of the Moon and Sun from the Earth.  Yet other astronomers observed the existence of the Sun’s corona during a total solar eclipse.  Astronomers Liu Hsiang, Plutarch and Leo Diaconus were pioneers in eclipse data.  However, it was not until 1605 that Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse.  The first In modern times, Sir Arthur Eddington tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  During the May 29, 19191 solar eclipse he confirmed that starlight bent around the Sun by measuring the position of certain stars.  This was predicted by Einstein’s theory that massive objects caused distortions in space and time.

We no longer have the same superstitions about eclipses, but it is thought to be a time of change.  A nice way to put it is ending patterns that do not serve and beginning new healthy ones.  Enjoy the skies in good health and good spirits!


Prince Sado of Korea – The Coffin King

crown_prince_sado_of_joseonThere have been many stories of insanity in European royal families. Some even, unfairly or not, have gotten the sobriquet of “the Mad”.  However, European royalty did not corner the market on insane family members.  This example comes to us from the Korea’s Cho’son dynasty, which had ruled Korea since 1392.  

Prince Sado was the crown prince, who was born February 13, 1735, as the second son of King Yeongjo with his favorite concubine.  Sado was the second son of King Yeongjo and only surviving male heir as his older brother tragically died at age 9.  There was great rejoicing at the birth of a healthy son.  However, Sado’s life wasn’t all rainbows and roses.  His father was reported to have a terrible temper, and as such Sado was terrified of him from a very young age.  The young boy was reported to be quite timid around his father, which of course made Yeongjo more angry with his son.  As with many abusive relationships, Sado idolized his father but never seemed to gain Yeongjo’s approval.  Yeongjo was hypercritical of any mistake Sado made and never showed any pleasure when Sado succeeded.  His relationship with his mother was not much better.  To stay on Yeongjo’s good side, she was mostly concerned with following the king’s rules on raising the crown prince to the letter and let any loving motherly relationship go to the wayside.  As with his father, Sado loved and revered his mother, but their relationship was also not very nurturing.

As crown prince, Sado was married very young to Lady Hyegyong, the daughter of a poor scholar but with an impressive lineage and grasp of knowledge.  The bride and groom were both around eight years old.  Hyegyong eventually wrote her memoirs discussing her life at the royal court and with Sado. She reports she was quite anxious about being selected as the wife for the crown prince “as if there was a premonition of the myriad trials and tribulations [she] would go through in the palace”.  Since the bridal couple were so young, their relationship was that of childhood playmates at first.  They lived in separate houses, and although the ladies of the court were very kind Hyegyong was still an eight year old child thrown into a drastically different situation.  She was completely overwhelmed.  So although, the two children seemed to get along fairly well, she could provide no real support for Sado.  However, Hyegyong’s father was able to step in and provide the fatherly care for young Sado that he was sorely lacking.

A year and a half after the marriage in 1746, Sado became seriously ill.  When he recovered, he and Hyegyong were moved to a new home.  The palace was near his mother ostensibly so she could help care for him.  This illness seems to be a turning point for Sado.  No one is quite sure what he was sick with, but during his illness and after his recovery Sado’s behavior became erratic.  There are not many details on this, however, reports do say that despite this Sado became serious about his studies and athletic pursuits.  However, relations did not improve with his father, and a short time after his recovery, Sado and Hyegyong were moved away from court  so that Yeongjo did not have to deal with him.  Sado became even more isolated from his family because of this.

After Sado had his coming of age ceremony at 14, he and Hyegyong began to live as a more traditional man and wife.  Soon after, they had a child, who sadly only lived to age 2.  The couple deeply grieved their lost child as could be expected.  However, a new son was born a year later in 1752.  Things seemed to be looking up for the young couple.  Then Sado’s odd behavior took a turn for the worse.  Historians speculate that an attack of the measles exacerbated his already agitated state and Sato began having hallucinations and nightmares.  He believed he could see the god of thunder, and had an irrational fear of the sky.   Sado was convinced he would be blamed by his father for any thunderstorm that hit the country.  He was obsessed with Taiost magic, in particular the book known as the Jade Spine Scriptures.  He would take hours to dress and choose clothes.  Entire outfits were burned as a spirit offering. His clothes became associated with the weather, and would please or displease the sky gods on criteria only he could understand.  Despite this Yeongjo began sending Sado in his place for more and more official duties, especially the ones Yeongjo did not want to do.  This included supervising the torture of imperial prisoners, which did not improve Sado’s mental state.

Now court politics take a hand.  Both Sado and Yeongjo were having affairs with court ladies.  Thankfully, different ones.  However, this did affect their already poor relationship as Sado had two sons with his concubines and Yeongjo had two daughters.  Yeongjo was extremely jealous of the two sons.  To make matters worse, the brother of one of Yeongjo’s concubines was giving Yeongjo daily reports of Sado’s strange behavior, embellished or not.  This all came to ahead when Sado came to the queen’s deathbed and was greeted by his father.  Yeongjo berated and screamed at Sado until Sado escaped out a window and ran home.  Around this time, Sado developed a pronounced stammer, which did nothing but enrage his father more who was convinced he was drunk.  At one memorable encounter, Yeongjo was berating Sado, who in turn began chasing and beating the servants.  At this time, the palace was set on fire and a heavily pregnant Hyegyong barely escaped with her life and their young son.

From this moment on Sado’s behavior was violent and erratic.  He dealt with most problems or upset by taking it out on his servants with violence.  When his mother died, he beat several eunuchs to deal with his grief.  He killed another eunuch by beheading, then had the corpse’s head put on a stick, which he carried around with him.  Hyegyong reports in her memoirs as that being the first severed head she ever saw.  He was reported to be a serial rapist, and would force himself on any woman, maid or court lady, that did not immediately acquiesce to his demands.  Hyegyong also reports that he would leave the palace and walk among the people, but no one is sure what he did if anything.  Hyegyong also reports she almost lost an eye after Sado hit her with in the head with a chess board.  She was lucky as one of Sado’s concubines was beaten to death.  If there was any sort of stressful event or tragedy, it was expected that Sado would deal by killing a string of servants.  Hyegyong reports Sado as saying, “It relieves my pent up anger to kill people or animals when I’m depressed or on edge.”  Whoa.

It has been recorded that Yeongjo asked Sado why he was committing the crimes he had, to which Sado replied along the lines of, “Because I’m in pain! You are my father but do not love me.”  He also began drinking heavily, which was a serious breach of Korean society.  By 1762, everyone in the palace- family or servant- was in danger.  The body totals are unknown, but reports are that multiple bodies had to be carried away from the palace he was in every day.  Sado didn’t even seem know he was killing people as he was in a semi-lucid state most of the time.  Sado turned his dangerous attentions to his younger sister, and repeatedly tried to seduce then rape her.  Something had to be done.

On July 4, 1762, Sado was summoned before Yeongjo.  The crown prince was stripped of his title and was ordered to get into a rice box, which was a large heavy wooden chest.  The lid was shut, and Sado was left to swelter in the searing July heat.  Sado lasted for eight days in the chest, with no food or water and died screaming for mercy.  His servants and attendants were also put to death.  Hyegyong makes note of a terrible thunderstorm on the eight day as a coincidece with his obsession with the thunder god.  Unbelievably, his death was idea of his mother.  She is quoted in Hyegyong’s memoirs as saying to Yeongjo, “Since the prince’s illness has become quite critical and his case is hopeless, it is only proper you should protect yourself and the royal grandson in order to keep the kingdom at peace.  I request you eliminate the prince even though such a suggestion is outrageous and a sin against humanity.  It would be terrible for a father to do this in view of the bond of affection between father and son, but it is his illness which is to be blamed for this disaster and not the prince himself.  Though you eliminate him, please exert your benevolence to save the royal grandson and allow him and his mother to live in peace.”  Pretty harsh sentence from your mom.  This was a controversial action at the court, as at the time Sado’s execution would mean the execution of the whole family.  Because Sado was killed in the manner he was, it was considered a loophole to this rule.  The king didn’t kill him, Sado died of starvation.  Great.

Hyegyong did not commit suicide as was usual at that time for the wife of an executed man.  Instead, she stayed alive to raise her son and daughters with Sado.  It has been theorized that she was either staying alive to indicate her husband’s innocence or to protest the handling of the matter by the king.  In the 19th century, there was speculation that Sado’s illness was a fabrication to cover his murder.  Hyegyong wrote her memoirs in response to that speculation to settle the matter once and for all.  Despite all of the terrible behaviors, Hyegyong treats Sado with a lot of sympathy as she realizes he was mentally ill.  Sado and Hyegyong’s son, Jeongjo, was posthumously adopted by Sato’s long dead older brother.  Despite all this, Jeongjo became one of the greatest kings of Korea.  One of his first acts was to rebury his father in a grave fit for a king.  His grave is now a UNESCO world history site in 1997.


Sources available on request

Yu Gwan Sun-  Korea’s Joan of Arc

Yu Kwan Sun

In 1904, Korea allied with Japan during the first Russo-Japanese war and lent its territory for Japan’s military operations.  This was only a stepping stone to the Japanese occupation of Korea.  They came and never left.  This was the government’s plan to make Japan a world power.  Tough luck for anyone in Korea that wasn’t fine with this plan.

On March 1, 1919, the Korean independence movement began.  The so called March 1st Movement started with demonstrations mainly made up of students and Christians as all other political groups had been disbanded by the Japanese government.  The rebels created a Declaration of Independence, which was signed by thirty-three representatives.  Then they shouted out the Declaration of Independence then “Long live Korean Independence”.  This went over about as well as can be expected.

One of the protesters was a young girl named Yu Gwan Sun.  She was born in 1904 in little village near Ch’onan, in South Ch’ungch’ong.  Not much is known about her early life, but she was sent to the Ewha Women’s University in Seoul as recommended by one of her teachers, Alice Sharp.  Sharp was a western missionary and saw potential in Yu.  Her father agreed to take the chance and sent Yu to school in 1916.  She did well in her studies and contemporary accounts say she used her summer vacations to teach the local villagers what she was learning.

1919 was a turbulent year in Korea.  On January 22, King Kojong, who had abdicated his throne in 1907 in favor of Japanese rule, died.  Despite his abdication, the king was still quite popular and rumors went round that he had been poisoned by the Japanese.  The mourning for the king fed into the Korean independence movement and helped fuel the March 1st Movement.  Yu and other students joined the mass demonstrations in Pagoda Park in downtown Seoul.  The authorities broke up the demonstrations and many students and teachers were arrested.  Ewha University was temporarily closed by order of the Governor-General of Korea and Yu went home, but that did not end her career as a rebel.

Once home, she helped organize more protests working often until 3 or 4am.  She handed out Korean flags to the villagers.  The protest in the Awunae Marketplace grew to 2,000 demonstrators from four neighboring towns.  They were all chanting “Long live Korean Independence” and holding up their hands crying “Mansei”.  The police arrived and one thing led to another shots were fired.  When the smoke cleared, Yu’s parents were killed along with several others demonstrators.  Yu was arrested and taken to the detention center at the Japanese Military Police Station at Ch’onan.  She was offered a lighter sentence because of her youth if she would admit guilt and cooperate with the police.  Yu refused.  The police went for more “persuasive” methods, and subjected the young girl to torture to give up the names of collaborators or safe houses.  Yu held firm.  She was transferred to Gongju police station and stood trial for sedition and security law violations.  At the trial, she protested its unjustness saying, “Your country has invaded another country. You have no rights to judge our guilts.”  She was convicted and sentenced to five years at Seodaemun Prison.

Replica of the women’s jail (underground cells) built during the Japanese Occupation to imprison and torture women prisoners Photo Credit-

At Seodaemun Prison, she was one of the many women who had been imprisoned in the independence movement.  Women were dragged away by soldiers knowing they would be stripped and tortured to death, but still they screamed for independence.  Special cells were built to torture them, each approximately 3.3 meters square and too low to stand up in.  These were given the name “Yu Guan Sun’s Cave”, in dubious honor of their most famous occupant.  Records discovered in November 2011 found that of the 45,000 who were arrested at protests during this time, 7,500 of them died at the hands of the Japanese.

Sadly, Yu was one of the fatalities.  Still advocating for Korean independence, she was brutally tortured and beaten at the hands of the Japanese.  She died in prison on September 28, 1920 only one year into her sentence.  Her last words were supposedly “Japan shall fall.”  She was only sixteen years old.  Even in death, she was not allowed dignity.  The Japanese prison officials originally refused to release her body for burial, but were forced by the threats from the western principals of the Ewha Women’s University.  Her body was released to the school in a Saucony Vacuum Company oil crate.  Jeannette Walter, one of the principals of the Ewha Women’s University, is said to have described her funeral as follows, “Yu Gwan Sun died in prison at the young age of 16.  We brought her body to our school.  Students prepared her shroud with cotton cloth.  However, we decided that she is our true hero and remade her shroud with silk.  Japan only allowed her funeral in church quietly with only her class friends attending.  The students demanded to go to her burial place also, but it was never permitted.  The teachers consoled them.  I, a student representative, and a homeroom teacher went to her burial place instead, but Yu Gwan Sun was never forgotten.”

Her grave was in Itaewon cemetery, which was destroyed at a later date.  A shrine was built after Korean independence and many statues of her exist at universities and schools.  Legend says on March 1, the statues of Yu Gwan Sun will march around screaming “Long Live Korean Independence” and if you say her name to one of the statues, the head will turn and she will look into your eyes.


Sources available on request