Today, August 21, 2017, a total solar eclipse will pass over much of the United States. The last visible solar eclipse in the U.S. occurred in 1979, preceded by another eclipse in 1918. This celestial event has (obviously) been a popular topic of conversation lately, so I thought I’d take the time today to explore the significance of eclipses and solar events in Egyptian history and mythology.
For the ancient Egyptians, the sun god Ra (Re) played a vitally important role in maintaining peace and order in the universe. Each night when the sun set, Ra and his solar barque would descend into the underworld, a realm referred to as the Duat. There, he would face a series of threats and challenges, the most menacing of which was the serpent Apophis (Apep), a representation of the forces of chaos. Before he could ascend into the heavens to start a new day, Ra had to fight and defeat Apophis each night, or the monster would devour the sun and plunge the world into darkness. To the Egyptians, a total solar eclipse like the one we’ll be witnessing today would have been a visible representation of Ra’s struggle (and inevitable victory) over Apophis and the forces of evil.
From papyrological evidence and resources like an astronomical calendar on the ceiling of Senenmut’s tomb, it’s quite clear that the ancient Egyptians had at least a basic knowledge of astronomy. In the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, however, the Library of Alexandria became ground zero for mathematical and astronomical study, debate, and research, with the greatest minds in the ancient world congregating in the city to record celestial events and propose new theories. The astronomer Aristarchus, who proposed the first heliocentric model of the solar system, conducted extensive research on the orbit of the planets and the lunar diameter, and the work of the ancient historian Herodotus makes reference to a solar eclipse that occurred over the Mediterranean in 585 B.C.E. Additionally, ancient Mesopotamian records indicate the occurrence of multiple total solar eclipses, some of which may have been visible in the skies over Egypt!