Long Before 2024, Eclipses Shaped the Fate of Nations

Excitement is high about the upcoming solar eclipse on April 8, 2024, which is expected to be visible across all of the contiguous United States. Many Ohioans live in or near the path of totality, allowing them to see a total eclipse from the comfort of their backyards. Although this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many, eclipses have a long reach into both our history and our future, and hold a unique position at the intersection of culture and science. Cover graphic by Samantha Davis and Ruth Chang for Bowling Green State University/Midstory.

This story was written in tandem with a new podcast called “Eclipsing History,” produced by the department of history at Bowling Green State University in collaboration with Midstory and with support from Ohio Humanities. Check out the podcast here.

On April 8, 2024, the sky will go dark for several minutes across lucky parts of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada during the only total eclipse of the sun visible across these three countries in the 21st century. Torreón, Mexico will have the best view of the eclipse with nearly four and a half minutes of total darkness, but places like Northwest Ohio will still be among the prime destinations for umbraphiles (or eclipse chasers).

As unique as the phenomenon is, part of what makes the experience noteworthy is how it connects us to histories that precede our own.

For numerous cultures, past and present, interpreting eclipses is an important part of their belief systems. In scientific history, eclipses have been indispensable in developing our understanding of the cosmos. From an economic perspective, eclipses continue to captivate a growing subculture of diehard eclipse chasers and casual tourists.

But regardless of how you view it, few things can bring people together — across time, space and societies — like an eclipse’s celestial beauty. 

What is a Total Solar Eclipse?

A total solar eclipse is distinct from lunar eclipses and other types of solar eclipses, like annular and partial ones. When Earth moves between the sun and moon, that’s a lunar eclipse, which can give the moon a red glow. When the moon moves between Earth and the sun, that’s the much more noticeable solar eclipse, which dramatically darkens the sky.

Meanwhile, a partial eclipse is where the moon does not entirely cover the sun, while an annular eclipse sees the moon mostly covering the sun but leaving a ring of direct sunlight visible. A total eclipse positions the sun and moon just right so that no direct sunlight can be seen for a time. During a total or annular eclipse, those outside the path of totality will experience a partial eclipse.

“Even if you’re in the path of the total solar eclipse, it starts out maybe an hour or two before the total solar eclipse occurs, with the sun and the moon slowly moving across as it falls. As the moon follows its orbit, it slowly starts to cover a little bit, and then a little bit more and a little bit more,” Andrew Layden, professor and chair of physics and astronomy at Bowling Green State University, said.

As the eclipse proceeds, viewers will be able to see unusual phenomena, both in the sky and on the ground. When totality approaches, the light still visible from beyond the moon is known as Baily’s Beads, with the final dot of light creating an effect called the diamond ring. When totality occurs, viewers can safely remove their protective glasses but can still see a fainter light — the corona — brimming behind the moon.

A map of the 2024 eclipse’s path of totality across the U.S. Image by Michala Garrison, Ernie Wright, Ian Jones and Laurence Schuler for NASA via Wikimedia Commons.

Observing Eclipses

While eclipse chasing is relatively new, the act of observing and tracking eclipses is not. Many societies have watched the skies and developed their knowledge of the cosmos through careful observation.

According to Andrew Hershberger, photo historian and professor of art history at Bowling Green State University, one of the earliest methods of safely viewing eclipses was through the camera obscura as early as the 4th century BCE, a phenomenon where a room with only a small hole to let light in projects the image of the incoming light on a wall.

“You will see whatever is outside projected inside the room. It’ll be upside down and reversed left to right, because the light that’s up high outside will come in through that hole and go down low [and vice versa],” Hershberger said. “Why camera obscuras were so helpful to people early on, was so that they could safely view an eclipse.”

Observations of eclipses have also led to scientific breakthroughs that would not be possible from normal observation of the sun, like observation of the sun’s chromosphere and corona.

“When we look at the sun now, [when] it’s outside an eclipse, we’re looking at the photosphere. But there are other layers of the sun, which, when that’s blotted out by the moon being there, you can see these other layers, which normally are too faint to be seen because they’re drowned out by the other light,” Randall Rosenfeld, head archivist at the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, said.

According to Rosenfeld, eclipse observation has historically aided in the circulation of cultural and economic knowledge as scientists traveled to see them. 

Indigenous Histories

While mainstream understandings of eclipses derive from Western ways of thinking, plenty of Indigenous communities across North America have carefully observed the skies for centuries. According to experts, we might look at these ways of knowledge not as mythological or separate from astronomy, but as a different branch of the field.

“Ethnoastronomy is the very interesting interpretation of astronomy observations in terms of the local beliefs. So, it’s a vastly different picture than Western astronomy,” Frank Dempsey, of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, said. “Indigenous astronomy particularly begins and ends with a visual observation of the sky. And Western astronomy is based on a lot of mathematical interpretations which date back as far back to origins from the Babylonians.”

Indigenous peoples in North America have their own ways of interpreting cosmic activity, and they are oftentimes no less scientific than their Western counterparts.

“[The Maya] defined windows within which eclipses could occur, but the details of how they used it are a little bit obscure,” John Henderson, professor of anthropology at Cornell University, said. “The Mexica, the Aztecs, it’s not as clear. My guess is that they probably had predicted windows of eclipse occurrence, as well, but we don’t have any clear tabulations.”

According to Henderson, Mexica/Aztec* documents may have been destroyed by Spanish colonizers, but these groups have also shown evidence of astronomical observation in architecture, as did the Maya. Interpretations of these observations varied from culture to culture.

“Following our ancestral tradition, our grandparents used to tell us that eclipses were a bad omen. They believed it was a punishment from our father [the sun]. So, they said that on that day or at that moment, we had to be cautious,” Esteban Ríos, primary school teacher and member of the Au’Dam Indigenous Mexican people, said.

In Ohio, the Northwest Indian War and the subsequent rise of Tecumseh’s confederacy of American Indian tribes both hinged on eclipses — at least to some extent.

“There’s an example of a military campaign that [an] Indigenous coalition is putting together, and the members from the Ottawa nation witness an eclipse. And they interpret [it] as a bad omen, and they leave and abandon this campaign,” Joshua Catalano, assistant professor of history and public history program coordinator at Clemson University, said.

This left Native American leaders Blue Jacket and Little Turtle with fewer troops for their planned attack on American soldiers following a Native American victory at Kekionga. Ultimately, Blue Jacket had to call off the 1790 attack because so many of his soldiers had left.

Similarly, when the Native American leader Tecumseh began mobilizing tribes in the Great Lakes area to form a confederacy against the settlers, his brother Tenskwatawa successfully predicted an 1806 solar eclipse that lent legitimacy to their claim that Tenskwatawa was a prophet.

“That was important when trying to build that confederacy, especially when [Tecumseh] was challenged by William Henry Harrison specifically to demonstrate some sort of power,” Tom O’Grady, astronomy instructor at Ohio University and director of outreach at the Southeast Ohio History Center, said.

According to O’Grady, Tenskwatawa was likely able to make this prediction after hearing about the eclipse on his and Tecumseh’s travels, granting the confederacy newfound credibility in the eyes of the settlers. 

So, while it may seem strange to Westerners today to think of eclipses as having any more meaning beyond the strictly scientific, eclipses have historically been related to knowledge, and knowledge has historically equaled power, especially when it comes to the sky.

The Aztec Sun Stone, a Mexica sculpture and calendar. Image by Gary Todd via Wikimedia Commons.

“It’s really in the 19th century that you get this … European or Western cultural attitude of superiority compared to people who are not part of that group: ‘Well, we have modern science. We have modern technology. These people don’t,’” Rosenfeld said.

Scant records of Indigenous knowledge can make it difficult to know exactly how astronomical knowledge was used, circulated and valued. That is why places like Mesoamerican structures and Midwest American earthworks are such important repositories of Indigenous knowledge.

“Architecture is the clearest way we can see how astronomy mattered to elites, and how it mattered to them in the sense that it was one of a whole array of mechanisms that reinforced their power,” Henderson said.

Ohio’s Newark Earthworks complex demonstrates how knowledge about the cosmos was built into physical structures that connected the Hopewell era people to the stars.

“I compare the Newark Earthworks to a kind of ceremonial machine. And it’s as if the earthen gears that they built on the ground mesh with the gears of heaven. And then when those line up, special things happen,” Brad Lepper, senior archaeologist for the Ohio History Connection World Heritage Program, said.

A section of the Great Circle, part of Newark Earthworks. Image courtesy of Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons.

While these architectural marvels evidence the depth of Indigenous connection to and knowledge of the sky, there is no universal Native American, Indigenous Mexican or First Nations (Indigenous Canadian) belief, and so information about these beliefs can be hard to access.

“If you wanna know how I learned about traditions, I have to say, is totally or 99% by reading books,” Dempsey, who is Dokis First Nation, said.

Dempsey remembers hearing stories from family members, but it wasn’t until he started reading books on the subject that he realized the variety and depth of stories and variations of stories spread across Indigenous peoples of Canada.

“Some of the people in the First Nations communities have come up with an idea of a two-eyed seeing,” Rosenfeld said. “You learn what Western science has to say about astronomy, and you learn its techniques as much as you can. And then you also don’t throw out your own traditions, but you try to see the world, both those lenses at the same time.”

The Eclipse Economy

Across the continent, eclipses can also equate to real-world cultural and material power in the form of eclipse tourism.

“As soon as we were able to predict eclipses, people were curious to go see them,” Kevin Moore, curator of artifacts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums, said.

Whether casual or fervent, eclipse chasers have been around for centuries, and the 2024 eclipse is predicted to be one of the biggest in terms of travel. In the U.S., up to 3.7 million people are expected to travel somewhere along the path of totality to view the eclipse, while 31 million people already live along the viewing area.

From Torreón to Toledo, locals have been preparing event schedules, looking ahead to managing traffic and lodging for the influx of umbraphiles. The eclipse could mean a major economic boon for communities lucky enough to be in the best viewing spots.

“I’ve heard upwards of four times as many people as the population will be coming to the [Lake Erie] area,” Amanda Smith Rasnick, destination development coordinator for Shores & Islands Ohio, said.

“A lot of people would never travel to Northwest Ohio for a vacation, but because we have this eclipse, they’re gonna discover what Northwest Ohio has to offer, and all the beautiful things here,” Logan Rex, curator and communications director at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum, said.

Through the eclipse, smaller communities have opportunities not only for economic benefit, but also for visibility: being in the path of this once-in-a-lifetime experience puts their names on the map.

However you view the eclipse this April, be sure to do it safely and with respect to whichever community you spend the time in. Whether it’s your 10th eclipse or your first, it’s nonetheless a moment that will connect us across histories, cultures and societies — past, present and future.

*“Mexica” and “Aztec” are often used to refer to the same Indigenous group in Mexico. Both terms have historically been used imprecisely and refer to large groups of people that have their own subdivisions based on geography and ethnic identity.

Interviews for this story were completed by students and faculty of the department of history at Bowling Green State University.

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