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 & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit