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Solar eclipses and their knowledge by the Ancients: One of the greatest mysteries of mankind

Solar eclipses and their knowledge by the Ancients: One of the greatest mysteries of mankind 1

Total solar eclipses have two features – bad and good. The good news is that they always happen at the moment when the the hero of a fantasy novel, needs to impress the superstitious local population. The bad thing is that the most ordinary solar eclipses are seen far from everywhere. 

Their zone of maximum shadow is rather narrow (no more than124 miles), the shadow from the Moon, as it were, “draws” an elongated “stripe” on the surface of the Earth:

One of the greatest mysteries of mankind...
The narrow red stripe is the area where the solar eclipse is visible. (In this case, the eclipse on June 21, 2020.)

Astronomers are constantly traveling around the world to observe eclipses. If we sit in one place, then the eclipse can be expected for decades and even centuries.

If we look further, then we find a mystery. A solar eclipse occurs on a new moon when, during its rotation, the moon obscures the sun from us; A lunar eclipse always occurs on a full moon when a shadow from Earth falls on the moon. In order to show exactly how solar and lunar eclipses occur, use a device called tellurium:

Solar eclipses and their knowledge by the Ancients: One of the greatest mysteries of mankind

However, any person who closely follows tellurium sooner or later asks the question: if everything happens this way, then why don’t solar and lunar eclipses occur every 2 weeks?

Indeed, since solar eclipses do not occur every new moon, and lunar eclipses do not occur every full moon, it means that in fact the Moon does not move around the Earth in the same way as tellurium shows.

First, the planes of rotation of the Earth around the Sun and the Moon around the Earth do not coincide. Secondly, the plane of the lunar orbit itself rotates – in short, if we try to draw the movement of the Moon around the Earth with a line, it will not be a textbook regular circle, but an extremely complex curve.

And here we come to one of the most interesting mysteries.

Already four thousand years ago, astronomers in ancient Babylon knew that solar and lunar eclipses in the same area are repeated – with a period of 54 years and 33 days. The ancient Greeks called this period the word “exeligmos”, that is, “turning the wheel.”

Look at the illustrations: on the globe, the path of the maximum lunar shadow is marked in red. The solar eclipse that we observed on June 21, 2020 is just very similar to the solar eclipse that people could observe on May 20, 1966!

Left: The eclipse of May 20, 1966.  Right: June 21, 2020
Left: The eclipse of May 20, 1966. Right: June 21, 2020.

The period of 18 years and 11 days, that is, 1/3 of exeligmos, was called by the ancients the word “saros”. According to legend, the semi-mythical magician, priest and astronomer Beroes, who lived in ancient Babylon, knew about saros. In the book “Judgment”, written in Byzantium in the 11th century, it says:

Saros is the measure and the number known among the Chaldeans [i.e. e. Babylonians]. For 120 saros are 2220 years according to the Chaldean reckoning, and verily the saros consists of 222 lunar months, which is equal to 18 years and 6 months if counted by the moon.

Now you know how ancient astronomers could predict solar and lunar eclipses! If we know that there was an annular solar eclipse on June 21, 2020, then it is enough to add exeligmos to this date – 54 years and 33 days! – to predict that on July 24, 2074, an annular solar eclipse will again occur. And it true, it will happen!

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Solar eclipse June 24, 2074
Solar eclipse for June 24, 2074.

The band of the total eclipse will shift – it will be best visible in India, Indonesia and the Pacific Islands. 

Solar eclipses of one saros
Solar eclipses of one saros.

So, what is the mystery here you might ask? In order to guess about the existence of saros and exeligmos, ancient astronomers had to keep careful records of solar and lunar eclipses, and not just “sitting in one place”, but traveling all over the world.

Only with detailed records made over several hundred years can one come to the confident conclusion that the cycle of solar and lunar eclipses repeats itself over and over again, that it is not a coincidence, but a cycle, a law of nature.

Solar eclipses and their knowledge by the Ancients: One of the greatest mysteries of mankind

However, scientists still have not been able to find even a trace of such records or catalogs from ancient astronomers! But where did they come from then, at the early days of the dawn of civilization?

Solar eclipses and their knowledge by the Ancients: One of the greatest mysteries of mankind

But how could it happen that 4 thousand years ago, at the dawn of civilization, at the time when the Egyptian pyramids were just being built, the ancient sages already knew what exeligmos and saros were, and were able to predict solar and lunar eclipses? We don’t hint at anything, we don’t mean anything but we believe in aliens.

Solar eclipses and their knowledge by the Ancients: One of the greatest mysteries of mankind

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