Throughout history, solar eclipses have inspired awe and fear. Until relatively recent times, the cause of a solar eclipse was not understood and could not be predicted. Imagine, if you can, what it must have been like. Day after day, year after year, you see the Sun rise every morning and set every night. Then one day, the Sun vanishes. What would you think? What would you feel?
Mark Littmann and Ken Willcox note, in their book Totality, that in ancient times the solar eclipse was generally explained in one of four ways:
In Norse mythology, the wolflike giant Sköll follows the Sun waiting for his chance to devour it. In ancient Egypt, the evil god Set was thought to have leapt into the eye of the Sun god, Horus. In ancient China it was a heavenly dog that ate the Sun.
In many places around the world, it was thought that screams would help the Sun and Moon escape the affliction of an eclipse. The Chippewa indians in North America shot flaming arrows at the Sun hoping to rekindle the flames.
In 430 B.C., the Greek historian Herodotus records that
War broke out between the Lydians and the Medes , and continued for five years, with various success. In the course of it the Medes gained many victories over the Lydians, and the Lydians also gained many victories over the Medes....As, however, the balance had not inclined in favour of either nation, another combat took place in the sixth year, in the course of which, just as the battle was growing warm, day was on a sudden changed into night. This event had been foretold by Thales, the Milesian, who forewarned the Ionians of it, fixing for it the very year in which it actually took place. The Medes and Lydians, when they observed the change, ceased fighting, and were alike anxious to have terms of peace agreed upon.
Using modern knowledge of astronomy, the date for this eclipse is thought to be May 28, 565 B.C.
Herodotus also reports that, as Xerxes and his Persian army were marching on Greece,
At the moment of departure, the Sun suddenly quitted his seat in the heavens, and disappeared, though there were no clouds in sight, but the sky was clear and serene. Day was thus turned into night; where-upon Xerxes, who saw and remarked the prodigy, was seized with alarm, and sending at once for the Magians, inquired of them the meaning of the protent. They replied--"God is foreshadowing to the Greeks the destruction of their cities; for the Sun foretells for them, and the Moon for us." So Xerxes, thus instructed, proceeded on his way with great gladness of heart.
As it happened, Xerxes' navy was destroyed by the Greeks and he was forced to withdraw.
Considering the impact that an unexpected solar eclipse had on society, it is no wonder that ancient peoples struggled to find a way to predict eclipses. There is some evidence that holes in the ground around Stonehenge gave a limited ablity to forecast eclipses even 4000 years ago. Mayan astronomers in Mexico also had a method for predicting eclipses. Using historical records, ancient astronomers searched for patterns in the occurences of solar eclipses, the most notable being the Saros cycle of 18 years 11.3 days. Eclipses tend to repeat themselves with this interval. As you might expect, there are many (in fact, 42) Saros cycles progressing at the same time and we do not have to wait 18.3 years from one eclipse to the next, we only have to wait 18.3 years for the next eclipse in each Saros cycle. The Saros cycle was first recorded by the Chaldeans on clay tablets in cuneiform writing.
The geometry of the Sun, Moon, and Earth very nearly repeats itself every 18 years and this is the basis for the Saros cycle. Indeed if you take the date of a solar eclipse and add 6585.32 days to it, you will have a good forecast for the occurance of another eclipse. Each Saros cycle lasts about 1300 years, so, with this method of forecast you would only make one error in 1300 years (just after the cycle dies out). However, since the Saros cycle does not include an integral number of days (18 years 11 and 1/3 days, rather than 18 years 11 days exactly), the next eclipse in the cycle will occur one third of the way around the world from the previous eclipse in the cycle. So, the Saros cycle allowed ancient astronomers to predict when a solar eclipse could be expected, but it did not help them figure out where the eclipse would occur. Thus, it was very hard to verify the prediction and to instill confidence in their ability to make predictions.
In more modern times, a very famous solar eclipse was used to verify Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. In this theory light is affectd by gravity in much the same way as matter is affected by gravity. Hence, light coming from a distant star should be bent a little bit by the Sun's gravity if the light passes very close to the Sun during its journey to the Earth. The only way to verify this was to very accurately measure the position of stars which appear close to the Sun when seen during a total solar eclipe. If Einstein's theory is correct, the Sun's gravity should move the apparent positions of the stars a little bit compared to their locations at other times of the year when they do not appear close to the Sun. This measurement could only be made during a total solar eclipse when the relatively faint stars could be seen as the light from the Sun itself was blocked by the Moon.
The experiment took place in 1919 when eclipse expeditions were sent to two small islands, Sobral, off the northeast coast of Brazil, and Principe, in the Gulf of Guinea. About a dozen stars were studied and the results agreed with Einstein's predictions. It was perhaps the most dramatic scientific result obtained from a solar eclipse.
Source: Littmann and Willcox, Totality, University of Hawaii Press, 1991.