UNT – Connecting ancient beliefs to today's understanding of eclipses

Thursday, March 7, 2024

UNT Student at telescope

DENTON (UNT), Texas — With the total solar eclipse approaching, excitement grows within the University of North Texas community as they prepare to witness the phenomenon alongside the broader region.

Zoe Ortiz, ancient historian and assistant professor, UNT Department of HistoryZoe Ortiz, an assistant professor in UNT’s Department of History, sees the 2024 eclipse as an opportunity to reflect on how ancient civilizations viewed these events.

“For ancient civilizations, like the Romans or Greeks, myth, legend and fate were inseparable from math and science,” said Ortiz, whose research centers on the Roman Empire and archaeology. “These concepts were closely interconnected for a significant time throughout human history.”

During an archaeological dig, Ortiz learned about the Gabii Altar, an artifact featuring zodiac symbols. It was discovered in the 18th century in the same city where Ortiz was working. This led Ortiz to explore how the ancient Romans and other early civilizations interpreted eclipses.

The October 14, 2023 annular solar eclipseMany ancient societies viewed natural events as omens that could be interpreted positively or negatively. The Greeks and Romans, for instance, relied on religious figures known as augurs to interpret various occurrences, including natural disasters and the flight patterns of birds. Augurs were also tasked with interpreting eclipses, which were generally seen as bad omens.

Similarly, the ancient Assyrians intertwined science and mythology, mastering the ability to forecast eclipse patterns by the 8th century B.C. They thought eclipses were indicators of impending danger, particularly for their rulers.

“To protect their king, they would select a condemned convict to serve as a decoy ruler for a three-month period,” Ortiz said.

However, eclipses weren’t always seen as dangerous. One notable instance took place the night before the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C. As Alexander III of Macedon prepared to battle Emperor Darius III of Persia, a total lunar eclipse occurred. While Darius's augurs interpreted the eclipse as a negative sign, Alexander's augurs saw it as an early indication of his impending victory. Alexander indeed emerged successful, securing his dominance over extensive territories in the ancient Mediterranean world. This shift in power also had far-reaching implications for the future of science and astronomy.

“Alexander’s victory created a cultural and scientific diffusion across that geographical space,” Ortiz said. “The Greeks started learning from eastern cultures about understanding celestial bodies and their movements.”

A UNT student watches the October 14, 2023 annular solar eclipseOver time, ancient civilizations shifted their perception of eclipses from omens to scientific phenomena. Early scientists improved their prediction skills and developed tools like the Antikythera mechanism, discovered in a Greek shipwreck in 1900. This ancient device, often considered the first computer, featured a dial capable of forecasting solar eclipses through precise gear mechanisms. Dating back to the 2nd century B.C., researchers believe it served as a mechanical calendar for tracking celestial movements.

Though humanity's perceptions of eclipses have evolved significantly since ancient times, Ortiz finds fascination in the shared traits between modern society and early civilizations. She also emphasizes the educational value for students in studying this era.

“Studying and understanding the ancient world is beneficial for everyone,” Ortiz said. “By piecing together different aspects of ancient history to unravel its story — every student can find something that interests them. We are all inheritors of the ancient world.”

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