The Eclipse That Ended a War

Imagine the following: you’ve been fighting an intractable war for six years.

You fight for the army of Medes; your sworn enemies are the Lydians. But after half a decade, after so much blood has been shed, the Gods show no favor to either side.

For every battle your armies have won, the Lydians have been just as victorious.

You are tired. You want to go home. You want to see your family.

You are weary of burying yet another brother-in-arms.

And if the war rages on, there’s no reason to believe you won’t be buried as well.

If the only the Gods would put an end to this madness…


Practically, both the Medes and the Lydians were fighting for control of Anatolia (Asia Minor, which includes modern Turkey). But that story isn’t nearly as interesting as the story that the Greek historian Herodotus gives us.

In The Histories, he relates that the Medes had hired a group of Scythian hunters to assist them in gathering food. When the Scythians failed to hunt down any game, the king of the Medes was furious, and rained down a barrage of insults.

How biting were his insults?

Apparently, they were barbed enough to drive the Scythians to a cruel act of retribution.

If it was meat the king wanted, it was meat he would get…

The flesh of one of his own children, dressed and cooked like wild game.

Before the true nature of the feast was discovered, the Scythians fled.

They ran to the Lydians. When the king of Medes demanded that they be extradited, the Lydians refused, and so began the bloody, six-year battle.

Or so says Herodotus.

Maybe they were just fighting for Anatolia.


Meanwhile, in the city of Miletus, a very clever man was pondering the heavens.

Named Thales, he was a mathematician, a philosopher, and a scientist before that noble profession existed.

He was clever enough to use geometry to calculate the height of the pyramids and the distance of sailing ships. He was clever enough that he rejected mythological models of the world, instead insisting on using theories and hypotheses. He was clever enough that Aristotle (yup, that Aristotle) considered him to be the first true Greek philosopher.

And if the history books are right, (for instance, Cicero and Pliny the Elder), he was clever enough to accurately predict a solar eclipse.

An eclipse set for the year we call 585 BCE.

An eclipse that would happen over the Halys River.

The Halys River, where two armies were engaged in another battle in a bloody, unforgiving war.



You’ve been fighting for six years.

If the only the Gods would put an end to this madness…


Scientist, author and man with impossibly large sideburns, Isaac Asimov described Thales’ prediction as “the birth of science”.

Assuming that Thales’ eclipse was the one seen over the Halys River, it marks the earliest known scientific prediction that can be accurately, independently, historically confirmed.

What makes Thales’ prediction remarkable is that we have no way of knowing what data he used; there have been suggestions, but none of them satisfy all the criteria needed to make an accurate prediction.

Did I mention Thales was a very clever person?


If the only the Gods would put an end to this madness…

As the story goes, they did.

As the Medes and the Lydians were at each other’s throats, a strange thing happened in the sky.

The Sun, that all seeing, life-giving God revered by almost every ancient culture, turned black.

Day turned to night.

It must have felt like the end of the world.

And that’s when both sides knew.

The Gods had made their decree known.

The war was over.


The etymology of eclipse (from the Online Etymology Dictionary):

c. 1300, from Old French eclipse “eclipse, darkness” (12c.), from Latin eclipsis, from Greek ekleipsis “an eclipse; an abandonment,” literally “a failing, forsaking,” from ekleipein “to forsake a usual place, fail to appear, be eclipsed,” from ek “out” (see ex-) + leipein “to leave” (from PIE root *leikw- “to leave”).

Consider that: from the 1300’s onward, we get “darkness”.

But, when we back in time to the Proto-Indo-European root, we get “to leave”.

I imagine both of those definitions fit what the Lydeans and the Medes experienced on the banks of the river Halys in the year 585 BCE.

A feeling of being abandoned by the Heavens themselves, trembling in the dark.


The takeaway? We might have outgrown our fear of eclipses; maybe it will take something a little more cosmic in scope to scare us into beating our swords into plowshares, our missiles into starships.

In the meantime, keep looking up…we still have time for a few more eclipses…

Urania, the Muse of Astronomy, Reveals to Thales the Secrets of the Skies by Antonio Canova

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