Mystery gives way to money

It's the ultimate fix for the age of the transient: the sun's and the moon's 15 seconds of fame

ECLIPSES HAVE always been exploited: historically for power, nowadays for cash.

In the past, in every society, elites knew how to predict them and used the knowledge to affect intimacy with celestial bodies. Sages who understood the gyrations of the moon had an advantage over the ignorant: they could claim to be privy to the plans of heaven.

Nearly 4,000 years ago, when Chinese astronomers failed to predict an eclipse, the monarch sent an army to reprimand them. Ulysses - who always used guile to keep ahead of his enemies - took advantage of the darkness to kill his wife's lovers. Amos, the prophet, used an imminent eclipse to threaten Jeroboam, King of Israel, with divine displeasure over his indifference to the poor. The Romans used another to demoralise their Macedonian enemies. Meanwhile, Athenian commanders, unable to convince their men that a blackened sun was a routine event, succumbed to defeat by Syracuse. Among the ancient Maya, kings used eclipses to reinforce their authority by staging acts of communion with the gods: they drew sacrificial blood from their sexual organs with cactus thorns, or from their queens' tongues with spiked thongs. Blood-loss induced visions in which divine messages - confirming royal policies - were received.

In the seventh century, when Sisebut became King of the Visigoths, knowledge of eclipses was one of the signs of his superiority. He wrote a poem describing how they worked and ridiculed the vulgar ignorance that ascribed them to "a heavenly hag jiggling a mirror". In the 17th century, when the first Jesuit missionaries reached China, they got privileged access to the emperor by attaining unprecedented accuracy in the prediction of eclipses. The whole practice of astronomy at court, on which the success of imperial enterprises and the life of the empire were believed to depend, was handed over to the foreigners.

Anecdotes about successful predictions have enshrined myths of progress and white supremacy. Marooned on Jamaica in 1503, Columbus tricked the natives into submission by foretelling an eclipse: his own arithmetic was untrustworthy, but he happened to have a printed almanac with him.

The same trick became a common resource of adventure-story heroes. Tintin used it to escape the stake in South America. Alan Quartermaine tried it out on the guardians of King Solomon's Mines. A recent novel of Charles Palliser's ascribes a similar attempt to King Alfred in battle against the Danes. By the same method, Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee demonstrated his superiority over the medieval world to which time-travel took him. In the literature of colonialism, eclipse-prediction is one of the means by which the intrusive guest asserts mastery over the host-culture. In all these cases, and others like them, the modern man, the "civilised" man of superior sagacity, manipulates to his advantage the superstitious simplicity of his victims.

All such stories are deeply unconvincing. Modern people are more ignorant of the heavens than any genuine "primitives", whose nightly reading-matter is the sky. In just about every early civilisation we know of, astronomy was a revered art, and astronomical record-keeping was one of the main uses of numeracy. Long before writing was invented - scores of thousands of years earlier, according to some scholars - men kept tally-sticks notched with observations of the motions of the moon. Regularities as obvious as eclipses are unlikely to have eluded most elites once long-term records were available.

Nowadays, no elite can control the relevant information. The arithmetic of eclipse-prediction, though tedious, is accessible to all. No one can make a mystery out of it; but some people can make money. Legends of the eclipse of 1999 will be handed down, like those of the past, with a sub-text about manipulation of the gullible. This time, however, it is money that changes hands, not authority.

In exploiting a brief thrill in the dark, the eclipse industry comes second only to prostitution. Eclipses happen all the time all over the solar system. The fact that this one will be visible - weather permitting - in the holiday season in a densely populated part of the world makes it special in only one respect: commercially, it's highly exploitable.

Cornwall mismanaged the opportunity and had to sell bookings off cheaply in the past few days. But other places in the path of the eclipse expect big profits. Romania has its own Official Solar Eclipse Website, designed to lure tourists into the shadow of the moon in Dracula country. Some people are contriving to spend as long as possible in darkness by following the shadow at sea. A competition winner will join high-rolling pundits in Concorde, tracking the eclipse from Nova Scotia to Bengal.

This is the first August in recent history when European holiday-makers have rushed to elude the sun. Among trash eclipse-experiences on offer are a "blues festival with stones and druids", a themed "moon goddess" night at a disco near where I live, and a seminar in Tennessee on the effects on communications with extra-terrestrials.

The solar eclipse has inspired lunatic spending. Astrologers have never had so many clients. The eclipse is like the millennium and the moon landing - a moment of utter insignificance, combined with apparently universal interest. It's the ultimate fix for the age of the transient: the sun's and the moon's 15 seconds of fame. Never mind if you miss the eclipse: what matters is to have paid to see it. According to the health-police, you are better off watching it on television and celebrating the triumph of virtuality over reality: the heavens perform an act of striptease before our eyes, and we have to watch furtively, through our peep-show technology.

If you do get away from the screen and out under the sky, never mind if clouds are thick or neurosis about eye-damage makes you blink at the critical moment. Never mind if the whole thing only lasts a few seconds. Compared with all others, this eclipse will be artificially prolonged and, on television, tediously repeated. You can protract the moment by practising beforehand with your cardboard (or deluxe plastic) eclipse- viewer. Afterwards, you can wear the T-shirt. If you are one of the lucky entrepreneurs or pundits who can make money out of e-day, you can spend many happy hours of recollection totting up. People will watch it with no real hope of seeing very much. The big question is, what do they see in it? What emotions are being touched, what meaning symbolised, what hopes and fears aroused?

In part, herd instinct accounts for the popularity of eclipse-watching. It's like being in Trafalgar Square on New Year's Eve, or in the queue for the Hard Rock Cafe? or Madame Tussaud's. Nothing much happens and the climax - such as it is - is hardly worth the trouble. But folk congregate just to be part of the buzz of the crowd.

Noble motives jostle instinct. Some eclipse-groupies want to experience a moment of awe - a conviction that there are forces in nature beyond our reach, uncorruptible by our power to pollute. Some want a taste of the power associated with mastery of eclipses in historical and literary tradition. Some have a magical attitude to the event and expect mutations in their own lives. Others want to recreate a primitive experience - to feel a tingle of fear at chill and darkness, cosmically ordained. Some want to play kudos-games. "Where did you go for the eclipse? Oh, what a shame! We had a wonderful mountain-top in Transylvania." Afterwards, when you hear them talk about the awe, that hollow sound in the background will be the clink of coins in promoters' coffers.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's `Truth: A History' is published by Black Swan at pounds 6.99

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before