Myths and legends interpreting the meaning of eclipses can be found in the history of every ancient civilisation, and few natural phenomena have inspired as much awe.
The earliest people would tremble with fear as they waited to see what terrible disasters would follow, and history records many occasions when eclipses coincided with the ill-fortune of important national figures.
Ancient art, literature and poetry also bear witness to the powerful effect an eclipse had on daily life.
The advancement of science did little to quell people's fears, and populations all over the ancient world dreamed up fantastic legends to pass on to future generations.
The Sumerian people were so obsessed with their moon god, Nanna, they made him chief deity around 3000 BC. But they also blamed him for the terrifying lunar eclipses that would strike fear into the hearts of the whole population.
According to legend, Nanna was the son of two other gods - the air god, Enlil, and the grain goddess, Ninlil. But their affair was a sordid one - Enlil raped his lover and was banished to the underworld as a punishment. When Ninlil decided to follow him there she gave birth to Nanna. This tainted background caused him to suffer terrible attacks from demons and these were manifested by a terrifying eclipse.
The Babylonians believed eclipses were caused by hungry monsters devouring the moon to satisfy their appetites.
They also believed the gods sent signs in the form of eclipses to warn of misfortune. They would perform rituals to prevent disaster.
The Egyptians had a special devotion to their moon god, Thoth, and believed eclipses were the result of heavenly conflicts between Seth, god of the desert, and Horus, a sky god. The rows started after Seth tried to seize the throne from his brother Osiris and Horus's father. During one of their battles, Horus's mother, Isis, tried to help her son by attempting to kill Seth, only to take pity on him after attacking him with a harpoon. Horus was so furious at her compassion he decapitated her. The sun god, Ra, allowed Seth to punish Horus for this by tearing out his eyes. But Thoth restored his vision and it was this return of sight that was symbolised by the return of the sun after an eclipse.
The earliest Chinese records of eclipses contain the word "shih", which means to …