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A celestial signSolar and lunar eclipses have sometimes played quite a remarkable role in human history. From foretelling evil omens to inspiring early works of science fiction, here are 11 of the most curious stories about eclipses.
The Chinese AstrologersSlide 2 of 23
The Chinese Astrologers
Solar eclipses were definitely bad news for astrologers in ancient China.
According to a 2003 study published in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, the sun was considered a symbol of the emperor of China, and so eclipses of the sun were interpreted as a warning to the Son of Heaven himself.
The researchers, who studied the role of solar eclipses in ancient Chinese culture, wrote that the occasion of a solar eclipse therefore placed onerous requirement on the Chinese emperor, in an effort to mitigate the anger of heaven.
"When an eclipse occurred, the Emperor would normally eat vegetarian meals, avoid the main palace, perform rituals to rescue the Sun and, sometimes, issue imperial edict to take the blame on himself," the scientists wrote in the study.
It wasn't only the emperor who had cause to fear solar eclipses: the astrologers themselves could sometimes find their lives on the line.
One of the earliest mentions of an eclipse in ancient China records that the court astrologers Xi and Ho were beheaded on the orders of the Emperor Zhang Kang because they had failed to predict a total eclipse of the sun — now thought to be the eclipse that occurred on Oct. 22 in 2134 B.C.Slide 3 of 23
Alhazen's Camera ObscuraSlide 4 of 23
Alhazen's Camera Obscura
One of the greatest eclipse observers in history was the Persian scholar Ibn al-Haytham, also known by the Latinized version of his name, Alhazen.
Born in Basra, in what in now Iraq, Al-Haytham spent most of his life in the Egyptian city of Cairo during the Fatimid Caliphate in the 11th century A.D.
His great invention was named "Al-Bayt al-Muthlim" in Arabic (which translates to "the dark room" in English) — the earliest known "camera obscura," where a bright external image, such as the sun, is projected through a hole in the wall of a darkened room.
The camera obscura would go on to become an important tool for later astronomers, and — in a miniaturized, portable form — it was ultimately developed into the modern photographic "camera."
Al-Haythim described the use of the camera obscura in his Book of Optics, written in Cairo around 1021 A.D., and used to make observations of the sun that were impossible by any other method at the time.
He also used it to study solar eclipses, which he described in his work "On the form of the Eclipse" ("Maqalah-fi-Surat-al-Kosuf" in Arabic): "The image of the sun at the time of the eclipse, unless it is total, demonstrates that when its light passes through a narrow, round hole and is cast on a plane opposite to the hole it takes on the form of a moon-sickle."Slide 5 of 23
King Narai's EclipseSlide 6 of 23
King Narai's Eclipse
Eclipses have also played an unusual role in the history of Thailand.
The 17th-century Thai king Narai was a devotee of the "new astronomy" that had been introduced to the kingdom by Jesuit missionaries from France, and is known to have made observations of both solar and lunar eclipses under their tutelage.
A Thai court painting from April 30, 1688, shows King Narai making his first observation of an eclipse of the sun at his palace in Lopburi, surrounded by Thai and foreign guests.
Among the guests is a Thai nobleman named Phetracha, who resented the king's friendships with foreigners, and may have feared that the king might convert to Christianity
According to the Thai tradition, Phetracha regarded the solar eclipse as a sign from heaven, and it inspired him to launch a rebellion against the king a few days later.
Narai was deposed, and the foreigners were executed or expelled from the kingdom.Slide 7 of 23
Kepler's SomniumSlide 8 of 23