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Ancient Babylonians brought light to mysterious eclipses

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Tomorrow, the great American eclipse will sweep across North America. Millions will experience total darkness. It is an eerie and mysterious experience, even though at this point we know exactly what is happening. The moon will be passing in front of the sun, casting a shadow over the Earth. But imagine that you lived in the ancient world with no warning that an eclipse was going to happen as the sun's disk suddenly disappeared and the day fell dark and cool. Unsurprisingly, in the ancient world, eclipses were often seen as bad omens. That was true in Mesopotamia, the region that today includes Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Turkey. But even then, ancient Mesopotamian astronomers were looking for other explanations. They kept detailed records of celestial movement. And the people of Mesopotamia, the Babylonians and the Assyrians, were the first to figure out that eclipses occur in cycles, meaning that it could be predicted. Eckart Frahm is a professor of Assyriology at Yale University and joins us now. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ECKART FRAHM: Thank you for having me.

DETROW: Before we get to the science, can you give us some more specifics about how the average person would have reacted to an eclipse during this time period?

FRAHM: I think very much like today, in the ancient world and in ancient Mesopotamia, solar eclipses in particular were very big events that had a big impact on the collective psyche. That's probably the case in all sorts of other ancient civilizations as well. But in Mesopotamia, you actually have a lot of textual records because people wrote on clay. And we have those very tablets, and they talk about sightings of eclipses and what those eclipses meant for the people living at that time.

DETROW: What specifically is in some of these records - that just, you know, an eclipse happened, or is there documentation of what the sociological or what the societal response was?

FRAHM: Yeah. So we have what we call omen texts. These are collections of entries of a type like if a solar eclipse happens in the first month of the year, the king will die, there will be famine. But we also have letters exchanged between the Assyrian kings of that time and their scholars and astronomers. And at that time, discerning kings were very much interested in astrology and had such scholars stationed all over the kingdom in different cities, observing the sky on a regular basis and writing to them on a daily basis, essentially.

DETROW: What can you tell us about how they were carrying out astronomy right now? Like, how sophisticated was the understanding of what was happening in space and the position of the Earth to the moon, to the sun during ancient Mesopotamian times?

FRAHM: Basically, they did not have telescopes, but they observed the sky. And even with your bare eye, when you look constantly at the sky and record everything that happens, you can find out a lot about the mechanics of the heavens. And what they did, especially in Babylonia beginning in the eighth century up to the first century BCE, is essentially the longest research project of all times. They observed month by month what was happening. They recorded every eclipse, the movement of the moons, the planets, etc., correlated it some extent with events in history and thus, of course, had an enormous body of observed phenomena that then enabled them to establish these regularities. And that led to the refinement of mathematical astronomy during the last centuries before Christ in Mesopotamia.

DETROW: Something to be said for paying attention for a long period of time and taking good notes, I guess.

FRAHM: Absolutely - and sort of long-term funding of science and scholarship, etc.

DETROW: (Laughter).

FRAHM: The Greeks, by the way, drew on this research. The famous Antikythera mechanism, an ancient computer from the Hellenistic period, actually has settings enabling the prediction of solar and lunar eclipses based on these Babylonian models. So it's all very sophisticated.

DETROW: OK. So we've established that eclipses were bad omens, that there was a pretty negative psychological large-scale response to them. And then through years and years and years of observation, they get an understanding of the cycles that these happens (ph) in. They get an understanding of the rhythms, then they can predict them. What were other ways that kings and other leaders prepared for solar eclipses?

FRAHM: Right. So even though to some extent eclipses could be predicted, there was still a great fear that they would bring misfortune, especially to the state. The sun was the embodiment of the state, especially of the king. The king was considered sunlike, which is not surprising. So it was believed that the solar eclipse predicted in particular misfortune for the state. The good news, in a way, is that there were some extenuating factors. For instance, when Jupiter was visible at the time of an eclipse and throughout the month, that meant that probably things were not quite as bad. And if Jupiter at least was still visible, things wouldn't be catastrophic. And for your listeners, it might be reassuring to know that the eclipse that's coming up on April 8 - that during that eclipse, Jupiter should be visible, and Jupiter is visible this month. So don't despair. There's still hope.

DETROW: So we're talking in the era of the - you know, the Webb Space Telescope where we can see clear-cut evidence of black holes hundreds of thousands of light years away. So obviously, astronomy has come a very long way since this time period. But as you mentioned before, eclipses still have a hold on society. They're still an event that affects us, that we all think about, that we all pay very close attention to. I mean, you've been studying ancient Mesopotamia for years and years. Do - what do you think about any sort of parallels between how eclipses were thought of then and now?

FRAHM: Yeah, I would say this is one of those cases where we are not that different from the people who lived thousands of years ago. As I mentioned, I mean, they were able to a certain extent predict these eclipses too, and yet they were afraid. And even though, of course, I've studied this, I know why this is happening and that it is basically a mechanical thing, I still feel today this uncanniness that is associated with an eclipse. And it's such a powerful cosmic experience that I think whenever you live, wherever you are, however educated you are, it will leave an impression on you.

DETROW: What are your plans to watch the eclipse on Monday?

FRAHM: Well, I wish I could go to somewhere where I could see the total eclipse, but unfortunately it's a Monday. I have to be here. So I am planning, of course, to look at it with the necessary protection. I'm also a little bit worried. I mean, considering the state of the world right now, who knows what this all means. But with Jupiter, I'm not too pessimistic.

DETROW: At least Jupiter is there for us. Eckart Frahm is a professor of Assyriology at Yale University. Thank you so much.

FRAHM: Thank you very much. And happy eclipse day.

DETROW: OK, here we are about 3,000 years later with the technology and the scientific understanding to predict eclipse timing down to the millisecond, so let's put it to use.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DETROW: Sticking with eastern time zones here to keep it simple - Eagle Pass, Texas, gets the total eclipse party started in the U.S. tomorrow at 2:27 Eastern. Gun Barrel City, Texas, hits the mark at 2:41. It moves into Oklahoma a few minutes later with full coverage in Idabel at 2:45, then to Arkansas - De Queen at 2:56. Missouri, show me some totality in Puxico at 2:56. The total eclipse just barely brushes through Tennessee, but Bessie gets it at 2:58 Eastern. Totality extends an olive branch to Olive Branch, Ill., at the same time. The umbra is a little oblong, and it reaches Oblong, Ill., a few minutes later at 3:05. Loogootee, Ind., gets full coverage one minute later.

And then into Ohio - Lorain, hometown of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED producer Avery Keatley's mom, Lauren (ph), hits totality at 3:13. Wooster, Ohio, home of generations of Detrows, is at 3:13 as well. Into Pennsylvania - Edinboro at 3:16, Titusville at 3:18. And then to New York - Arcade 3:19, Star Lake 3:23. Vermont native Noah Caldwell, who produces the show, wants us to know that Isle La Motte, Vt., hits peak totality at 3:26. Then New Hampshire, where Pittsburgh is in the full shadow at 3:29. Maine comes last, Millinocket at 3:31, and finally, Presque Isle gets the last licks with full totality at 3:32 Eastern. Happy eclipsing wherever you are tomorrow. Don't forget your glasses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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