A cartoon image of a chinese dragon wrapping itself around the Sun. A chinese man looks up at the Sun.

Many people in ancient China and old Southeast Asian cultures believed a dragon swallowed the Sun during a solar eclipse.

History of total solar eclipses

Total solar eclipses appear in many stories throughout history; stopping and starting wars, solving scientific puzzles and occassionally causing wide-spread panic.

  • 19 September 2006 | Updated 14 October 2011

Eclipses have been recorded throughout history. Because we are now able to calculate when and where they will happen, they are a great way for historians to determine exactly when other events occurred.

Eclipses in ancient times

Chinese astrologers wrote of an eclipse occurring over 4 000 years ago. Historians and astronomers believe that this was an eclipse that happened on 22 October 2134 BC. Two astrologers at the time, Hsi and Ho, had apparently failed to predict this eclipse, and as a result were beheaded.

Another eclipse recorded in ancient history was in Mesopotamia (now Iraq and Syria), and was seen in the town of Ugarit. It is now known to have occurred on 3 May 1375 BC.

People tend to react to a total solar eclipse according to their cultural beliefs.

In ancient China, the Chinese believed a dragon was swallowing the Sun during an eclipse, and therefore they banged drums and symbols and shot arrows skywards to scare the dragon away.

The Athenians of ancient Greece saw an eclipse (solar or lunar) as being caused by angry gods, and therefore they were regarded as bad omens.

The last book of the Christian Bible [Revelations, Chapter 6, Verse 12] predicts that an eclipse will occur, accompanied by earthquakes.

Emperor Louis, head of the Frankish Empire of Western Europe, is said to have been so awestruck by the total solar eclipse of 5 May 840, that he died shortly afterwards.

Solving scientific puzzles

In more recent times, astronomers have used eclipses to help in astronomical calculations, and to discover a new element.

During the eclipse of 16 August 1868, Sir Joseph Lockyer of England and Monsieur Pierre Janssen of France independently discovered the telltale signs of helium in the Sun's corona. Helium became the first chemical element to be discovered outside the Earth. It takes its name from the Greek word for Sun − Helios.

In more recent times, astronomers have used eclipses to help in astronomical calculations, and to discover a new element.

On 29 May 1919, a total solar eclipse was used to prove Einstein's theory of general relativity by showing that gravity can bend light.

Astronomers also use total solar eclipses to photograph and study the composition of the Sun's corona. They time the eclipse accurately in order to calculate the exact dimensions of the Sun.

Future eclipses

The last total solar eclipse that could be seen from Australia was on 4 December 2002. The path of the eclipse travelled through Ceduna and Lyndhurst in South Australia. 

The next total solar eclipse to pass over Australia will be on 13 November 2012, and will pass through the Cape York Peninsula of Far North Queensland.

The next total solar eclipse for New Zealand will pass over the South Island on 22 July 2028.

Find out What is a solar eclipse?