from the book, "Our Fascinating Earth"
Throughout history man has lived in superstitious fear of celestial events. On occasion, however, the results have been favorable. A total eclipse that occurred in 585 B.C. ended a six—year war in Greece. A battle was actually in progress when the solar event turned day into night. The conflict was terminated immediately as the soldiers hid their faces behind their shields in paralyzing terror. They believed this was a warning from the gods to cease fighting, and a truce was signed that evening.
Ancient people had widely varying methods for dealing with an eclipse. These ranged from firing arrows at the darkening solar disk to sacrificing a virgin to the angry gods. Whatever the method used, the sun was always "rescued" and returned to its natural brilliance.
Modern soldiers deal with an eclipse in a more effective manner than did the ancients. During the Vietnam War, Lon Nol's Cambodian troops halted their campaign to fire automatic rifles at the darkening sun. They succeeded in rescuing the sun, of course; the darkness moved on, and light was restored. Having won the "battle," the soldiers returned to the skirmish close at hand, which many discovered to be far more deadly.
In 1973 teams of scientists moved into central Africa, where a total eclipse could be observed best. When they arrived to study the celestial event, they were met with determined hostility from the natives. These people believed that the scientists were trying to kill the sun and were therefore responsible for the darkening solar disk. The hasty retreat executed by the scientific team was anything but dignified.
Fear of celestial occurrences is not restricted to eclipses. Although they are less spectacular, comets are also enshrouded in awe and mystery. Bennett's Comet in 1970 caused much concern among Arabs, who feared it was an Israeli secret weapon!
Because comets appeal to the superstitious nature of mankind, the forecasters of doom have been quick to capitalize on the plight of the gullible. The Incas regarded comets as signs of wrath from their sun—god Inti. Not surprisingly, the high priests encouraged this belief and often insisted on an addition human sacrifice to appease the angered god. Apparently this ceremony served to enhance the integrity of the high priests.
When Halley's Comet passed near the earth in 1910, the prophets of misfortune were out in force, spreading their tales and creating panic. Several people tried to outstrip doomsday by committing suicide. In Oklahoma a fanatical clan that called itself Select Followers was actually preparing a human sacrifice — a virgin, of course — when the police, acting on a tip, arrived in time to stop the tragedy!
Not everyone reacted in panic as Halley's Comet approached. In fact one enterprising American manufacturer in San Francisco took advantage of the doomsday situation. He made and sold comet pills! Just what the pills were supposed to do no one bothered to mention. Nevertheless the man made a considerable sum of money, proving again that P. T. Barnum was on target when he announced, "There's a sucker born every minute." The world did not come to an end, and the comet went on its way. Interestingly the tail of the comet did actually sweep the earth with no noticeable effect.
Prophets of doom have been on the scene for practically every cataclysm that could be predicted. There was a near panic in 1524 when a group of London astrologers predicted that on February 1 a great tide in the Tames River would wash away 10,000 houses. During the month of January well over 20,000 people left the city and fled to high ground. Normal tides flowed and ebbed, but no great flood occurred.
Naturally this forced the doomsday prognosticators to go back to the drawing board. In reconsidering the records the astrologers found they had made a slight error. The catastrophe would occur one hundred years later, in 1624 rather than 1524. Now the unsuspecting believers could rest easily, knowing that doomsday would not come during their lifetime.
Even today the prophets of disaster periodically frighten the public with predictions of cataclysmic events. When the predicted disaster does not happen as scheduled, they often cover their miscalculation by simply saying nothing or by coming up with an alternate prediction that believers, almost without reservation, will accept.
California soothsayers routinely predict a major earthquake that will cause the state to slide into the sea. On March 30, 1967, they reported to the Chicago Tribune that the great disaster would occur in two years. There was much unrest among the gullible, some of whom packed hastily and moved to Colorado, the predicted new coastline. As the scheduled doomsday, April 14, 1969, drew near, many people waited with great anxiety. But nothing happened! Considering that California averages about 10,000 earthquakes per year, this was one of the rare days when not even a minor quake was recorded anywhere in the state.