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  http://www.historynaked.com/new-grange/ )  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- http://www.astronomy.ca/3340eclipse/

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!

ER

Clava Cairns

Photograph courtesy of http://www.truehighlands.com
Photograph courtesy of http://www.truehighlands.com

The main attraction in the area around Inverness is the site of the Battle of Culloden.  However, there is another site nearby that is also an important part of Scotland’s past.  One mile southeast of the battlefield set on a terrace above the River Nairn are the Clava Cairns also called the Balnuaran of Clava.  These are three cairns and a number of free standing stones which date from the late Neolithic period.  Although it is thought by scholars that there may have been at least two additional structures, the three that are left have been designated the Northeast Cairn, Central Cairn and Southwest Cairn.  These site is thought to be a part of a system of cairns in the Inverness-Nairn Valley, which correspond to a pattern corresponding to planetary movement.

Both the Northeast and the Southwest Cairns are passage graves.  This means there is an inner chamber, which is linked to the outside by a passage.  These are both fifty feet in diameter and are currently about three feet high, but at the time of construction were thought to be up to ten feet high.  Like at New Grange (For more on New Grange, please see this post:  http://www.historynaked.com/new-grange/ )  the passages into the tombs align with the midwinter sun.  On the winter solstice, sunlight streams into the passageways illuminating the grave chambers within which would have been in darkness every other day of the year.  Both of these graves are surrounded by kerbstones.  On the Northeastern passage grave, one kerbstone is has several “cup marks”.  These are circular indentations purposely chiseled into the stone, however, it is not known what these were made for.  The Central Cairn is a ring cairn, which means there is no passage linking the inside room to the outside.  All of the cairns are surrounded by a ring of standing stones.  It has been suggested that the fictional Craigh na Dun from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series was inspired by this site.  There is a second smaller site nearby called Milton of Clava.  It is a single standing stone.  There is also a ruins of a medieval chapel built much later.  

Photograph courtesy of http://www.truehighlands.com

Excavations at the site have shown the sites had been used from their creation around 2500 BCE and was in continual use for over 1000 years. Then the site was intermittently used until about 770 CE.  Remains of another ring cairn can be found near the original site and the medieval chapel ruins at Milton of Clava.  Unfortunately, we do not know much about the builders or those who were buried here.  Excavations beginning in 1828 did damage to the site and eradicated evidence.  However, evidence was found in the 1950s that some bodies were cremated here.  Studies of the in the 1990’s by Professor R. Bradley, theorize that the site was originally constructed “during a single phase”.  However, he was still puzzled by the ring and cup carvings on the kerbstones.  It is not known what part these played in the rituals conducted here or if they were made by earlier civilizations.  Despite the finds of cremated bones, no complete sets of remains have ever been found.

ER

Eostre 

Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic people look up at the goddess from the realm below.
Ostara (1884) by Johannes Gehrts. The goddess flies through the heavens surrounded by Roman-inspired putti, beams of light, and animals. Germanic people look up at the goddess from the realm below.

She is the Germanic Goddess of Spring. She is attested solely by Bede in his 8th-century work The Reckoning of Time, where he states that during Ēosturmōnaþ (the equivalent of April), pagan Anglo-Saxons had held feasts in Ēostre’s honor called Eosturmonath. However, Bede is our only source for the historical Eostre. There are no other mentions of the goddess prior to that.

There are theories that Eostre is derived from the same Indo European goddess of the dawn like that of the Greek Goddess Eos. Another theory is Eostre is a local goddess worshiped in Southeastern England. The latest theory by Philip Shaw is that she is linked to a Germanic Matron Goddess called Austriahenea. It could be all three since many matron goddesses are triple goddesses- maiden, mother and crone.

However, as Europe converted to Christianity, the tradition of Eosturmonath died out. It was replaced by the Christian Paschal month, a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus (Easter).

Her festival of Ostara is celebrated by pagans on the Vernal Equinox, usually around March 21st, the first day of Spring. She is connected with renewal and fertility. Eggs and rabbits are sacred to her, as is the full moon.


Adela

The Great Serpent Mound

Aerial view of the Great Serpent Mound. Photo Credit- http://ohiowins.com/great-serpent-mound/
Aerial view of the Great Serpent Mound. Photo Credit- http://ohiowins.com/great-serpent-mound/

In a previous post, we discussed the Mississippians and their mound city at Cahokia (http://www.historynaked.com/the-mississippians/)  Another similar system of mounds were made in Ohio, although much earlier than the Cahokia mounds.  The Great Serpent Mound is found in Adams County, Ohio near the town of Peeples.  Millions of years ago, a large meteor crashed into the area creating a five mile wide crater and surrounding plateau.  The mound was built on this plateau in the shape of a large snake with a curled tail.  It is the largest serpent effigy in the world, measuring approximately 1,300 feet in length and one to three feet high.  The head is oriented to the east and the tail points west, with seven winding coils in between.  There is a large oval on the head, which some scholars believe is an enlarged eye and others think is an egg or prey being swallowed by the snake.  

It is believed the native cultures in this area attributed supernatural powers to snakes, as many snake artifacts have been found made of copper sheets.  It has also been theorized that the mound was created to mark time or seasons.  The curves in the snake’s body parallel lunar phases or possibly align with the solstices and equinox, like other ancient monuments like New Grange in Ireland (http://www.historynaked.com/new-grange/).  There are also serpent effigies in Scotland and Ontario that are similar, but none this large.  Another theory is that the shape of the mound imitates the constellation Draco, with the first curve of the snake’s torso aligning with the North Star.  Still another theory suggests it is a depiction of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in 1066.

In 1847, Ephraim Squire and Edwin Davis first sketched and surveyed the Great Serpent Mound.  The two were amatuer archeologists who published had their studies published by the Smithsonian Museum under the title of the Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley.  The mound was first excavated by Frederic Ward Putnam of Harvard, who found the mound damaged by significant erosion and treasure hunters.  Worried for the mound’s safety, he bought up the mound and surrounding property for The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard.

Since then there have been several excavations on the mound to determine its age and who could have built it.  Scholars have proposed the mound was built by several different cultures including the Adena, the Hopewell and the Fort Ancient cultures.  18th century missionary John Heckewelder reported the native people of Delaware told him the Allegheny people built the mound.   Burial mounds from both the Adena and Fort Ancient cultures have been found near the Serpent Mound.  Radiocarbon dating in 1991 determined the mound was approximately 900 years old, which would count out the Adena culture as they were primarily in the area much earlier.  This date pointed at the mound being the work of the Fort Ancient culture.  The Fort Ancient culture was significantly influenced by the Mississippians, and shared the rattlesnake as a common theme.  However, later radiocarbon dating in 2011 places the age of the mound much earlier, being built around 300 BCE.  This would put the mound’s construction at the height of the Adena culture.  A theory exists which combines these two saying the Fort Ancient people simply refurbished and embellished on an existing site created by the Adena people.

The Great Serpent Mound was under consideration to become included as a UNESCO World Heritage List in 2008.  The mound is under threat now not from the elements, but from human intervention.  The site has become popular with New Age groups who believe it is an intergalactic portal.  They bury amulets and crystals in the mound and destroy the site.  The Great Serpent Mound has also made an appearance on Ancient Aliens (which is the best unintentional comedy out there.), who said it was a landing site for “ancient astronauts”.
ER

New Grange

Newgrange Front View Photo Credit- www.knowth.com
Newgrange Front View Photo Credit- www.knowth.com

Built as a part of a complex of monuments along the River Boyne in Ireland, New Grange is a passage tomb dating from circa 3200 BCE. Along with Knowth and Dowth, these are called Brú na Bóinne. New Grange is the largest of as many as 35 so called passage tombs in the region. Passage tombs have, as the name suggests, a long passage leading to a chamber where the remains of the dead are placed. These remains were usually cremated. The passage and the chamber were then covered over by a large mound of stones and earth. New Grange is a large kidney shaped mound, which covers over an acre and is surrounded by 97 kerbstones. Many of the kerbstones around the base have been decorated with neolithic art. These carvings include triskelions, which are some of the oldest symbols for protection, as well as other spirals. One of the carved figures has a design which reminds observers of a stylized face. The most decorated of the stones is the Entrance Stone.

Newgrange Kerbstone K1 - The Entrance Stone Photo Credit- www.newgrange.com
Newgrange Kerbstone K1 – The Entrance Stone Photo Credit- www.newgrange.com

The cairn itself is roughly circular and flat topped. It is made from water-rolled stones from the terraces above the River Boyne. The tomb underneath is made up a long passage and a cross-shaped chamber. The passage is less than 60 feet long and leads into the chamber, which has three side recesses. The corbelled vault roof has survived watertight and intact without any renovation. This roof supports the cairn above, which is estimated to weigh 200,000 tons. The room on the right of the passage is the most ornate, and have two stone basins. These are one inside the other. Archaeologists believe carved basins were used to hold the remains of the dead. Because the tomb was disturbed before there could be a proper archaeological examination, it is not known how many bodies were interred in New Grange. The remains of five people were found, but it is theorized the original number was much higher. With the bodies were found, beads made of bone and polished stone balls.

Triskelion on orthostat C10 in the north recess at the back of the chamber at New Grange is probably the most famous Irish Megalithic symbol. Photo Credit- Knowth.com
Triskelion on orthostat C10 in the north recess at the back of the chamber at New Grange is probably the most famous Irish Megalithic symbol. Photo Credit- Knowth.com

Above the entrance to the passage, there is a small opening called a roof-box. From December 19th to December 23rd, the winter solstice, a narrow beam of light shines through the roof-box and illuminates the chamber inside. As each day passes, the beam of light widens until the entire room is awash in light. This lasts for only 17 minutes from roughly 8:58 am to 9:15 am. The scope the engineering needed to create this is unbelievable. New Grange was built 500 years before the Great Pyramids and more than 1,000 years before Stonehenge. It is believed the light illuminating the tomb may have been a symbol of life’s victory over death.

Although New Grange was built in neolithic times, it has taken its place in Irish mythology. The Celts believed these were sídhe or fairy mounds. New Grange specifically was said to be the home of Oenghus, the god of love. The tomb inside was opened in 1699 and New Grange became a place of interest to amatuer historians and archaeologists. The first formal excavation was not done until 1962. It is now been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Megalithic art carved on the underside of the roof stone in the east recess off the main chamber inside the mound at Newgrange. Photo Credit- Knowth.com
Megalithic art carved on the underside of the roof stone in the east recess off the main chamber inside the mound at Newgrange. Photo Credit- Knowth.com

ER

Sources available on request