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
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas