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Eclipses changed Mexican history

By LAWRENCE KOOTNIKOFF

LA PAZ, Mexico -- Astronomers say the eclipse that swept from Hawaii to South America Thursday was one of the most spectacular this century, but there is no way it will match the impact eclipseshave had on Mexican history.

Historical records of eclipses in Mexico go back over 1,000 years. A partial eclipse in 1116 may have led the Aztecs to begin a journey that ended in the founding of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.

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And a total eclipse over the Valley of Mexico in April of 1325, much like the one that passed Mexico City Thursday, may have been a sign for the Aztecs to end their wandering and found the capital of the greatest empire in the history of pre-hispanic Mexico, which in the 20th century became the largest city in the world.

The Aztecs and Mayas worshiped the sun, making an eclipse a cause for fear and panic. The fear caused by an eclipse was described in the Chilam-Balam, a book written in Maya shortly after the Spanish Conquest: 'And the face of the sun was bitten. And he darkened and put out his face. And then there was great fear. 'He has burned! Our god has died,' cried the priests.'

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An eyewitness to an eclipse in 1508 during the reign of emperor Moctezuma II said, 'Piece by piece, the fire of the sun was eaten until it was replaced by a ring of fire. There was no way to see it and not foretell the total destruction of the world.'

When Hernan Cortez conquered the Aztecs in 1521, many Aztecs interpreted the eclipse of a decade earlier as forshadowing the eclipse of their own power.

During the colonial period Spanish authorities blamed eclipses and other celestial occurrences for illnesses, famine, and other disasters.

Friar Antonio Tello, a Franciscan monk, wrote in 1577, 'And on the third of August there was a great eclipse, which caused a great plague in which many Indians died.'

A Dominican prior, explaining a food shortage in 1692, wrote to the King of Spain, 'The cause, sire, was the express will of God, manifested in a total eclipse of the sun that this Kingdom experienced on the 23rd day of August, 1691.'

'The influences of the same were so malign that not only was the earth sterilized and dried, but also the seeds and fruits produced by it were made ill and contaminated,' the prior wrote.

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Even today some Mexicans, especially in rural areas, still worry about the effects of eclipses. Eclipses are said to cause hairlips among unborn babies, spoil cows' milk and damage crops.

On Thursday some pregnant women were advised to tie red cloths around their waists and place scissors or knives under their bellies to protect the unborn child.

Some farmers tie red ribbons around trees, crops and plants, and farm animals.

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