High on her speculative tower

Stood Science waiting for the hour

When Sol was destined to endure

That darkening of his radiant face

Which Superstition strove to chase . . .

William Wordsworth,

"The Eclipse of the Sun," 1820

From the beginning of human history, eclipses have inspired, and often terrified. The heavenly events are associated by some with impending change, or doom. Herewith, a brief historical glimpse of the phenomenon--no special glasses required.

In ancient times, a variety of cultures--from native Americans to the Chinese--believed that eclipses were caused when a monster--typically a dragon--tried to devour the sun. To this day, the Chinese word for a solar eclipse, re she, means "sun-eat." In a frantic effort to save the sun, people would chant, bang drums and make other loud noises to scare the beast and make it forget about its prey. Remarkably, this trick always succeeded--within minutes. Still, history tells of many court astronomers who lost their lives because they were unable either to predict or to prevent the events.

In 1503, Christopher Columbus and his crew became stranded in what is now Jamaica. When the natives refused to provide the explorers with supplies, Columbus exploited their fear of the unknown. Based on a book of eclipse predictions, he knew that a lunar eclipse was due in February of 1504. On the night of the eclipse, he warned the Indians that the moon would disappear if they refused to help him. As predicted, a shadow began to cover the moon, terrifying the natives, who quickly agreed to Columbus's demands. The story may well be apocryphal; nevertheless, it represents a recurring theme. Mark Twain used a variation in "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" when the hero, also aware of a coming eclipse, saves himself and shames the court's magician, Merlin, by demonstrating his sorcerous powers and making the sun "disappear."

The path of this week's eclipse crosses over Cornwall, in southwestern England, which is the source of many Arthurian legends. It is reputed to be the site of the mythical Camelot, and it is also home to many of the monuments held sacred by the country's pre-Christian religions. Because of its path, alignment and timing, this eclipse has unusual appeal for astrologists, numerologists and New Age mystics. During the eclipse, the sun and moon will be aligned with Mars, Saturn and Uranus in a way rarely seen, forming, from the perspective of Earth, the shape of a cross. The four corners of this cross will point to constellations representing four signs of the Zodiac--Leo, Taurus, Aquarius and Scorpio--that refer, by some scholars' reckoning, to the Bible's book of Revelations. As such, this eclipse, like many of its predecessors, is interpreted by some people as a sign of the apocalypse.

For numerologists, who believe numbers wield a mysterious influence on people's lives and the universe in general, the number 11 is fraught with power and unexplained significance. Therefore, they say, it's no accident that--at local time--the shadow passes over the shores of the Cornish Peninsula on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of August 1999, which, in case you've forgotten, happens to be about the time Nostradamus predicted a "great terrifying King" would descend from the sky. And you were worried about Y2K.

Sources: BBC, www.nauticom.net, www.exploratorium.com, www.greatdreams.com