Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

From the past week’s Parshah:

ה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לְפַרְעֹה, הִתְפָּאֵר עָלַי, לְמָתַי אַעְתִּיר לְךָ וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּלְעַמְּךָ, לְהַכְרִית הַצְפַרְדְּעִים מִמְּךָ וּמִבָּתֶּיךָ: רַק בַּיְאֹר, תִּשָּׁאַרְנָה. ו וַיֹּאמֶר, לְמָחָר; וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּדְבָרְךָ–לְמַעַן תֵּדַע, כִּי-אֵין כַּיקוָק אֱלֹקינוּ. ז וְסָרוּ הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, מִמְּךָ וּמִבָּתֶּיךָ, וּמֵעֲבָדֶיךָ, וּמֵעַמֶּךָ: רַק בַּיְאֹר, תִּשָּׁאַרְנָה. ח וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, מֵעִם פַּרְעֹה; וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְקוָק, עַל-דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה. ט וַיַּעַשׂ יְקוָק, כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה; וַיָּמֻתוּ, הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, מִן-הַבָּתִּים מִן-הַחֲצֵרֹת, וּמִן-הַשָּׂדֹת.1

Rav Shmuel b. Hafni Gaon’s famous interpretation of Pharaoh’s seemingly perverse response to Moshe:

אמר רב שמואל בן חפני: אין מנהג האדם לבקש רק שיסור המכה ממנו מיד. וחשב פרעה כי מערכת כוכבי שמים הביאה הצפרדעים על מצרים ומשה היה יודע זה. וחשב פרעה כי עתה הגיע עת סור הצפרדעים ע”כ נסהו והאריך ואמר למחר.2

ידוע כי מנהג כל האדם לבקש שתסור רעתו מיד.

ופירשו בשם הגאון רב שמואל בן חפני: שפרעה חשב אולי מערכת השמים הביאה הצפרדעים על מצרים ומשה ידע כי הגיע עת סורם ולכן אמר אליו התפאר עלי בחשבו שאומר לו עתה להכריתם מיד, ועל כן האריך למחר.

והנכון בעיני כי בעבור שאמר למתי אעתיר לך, חשב פרעה כי ביקש זמן, ועל כן נתן לו זמן קצר, ויאמר למחר, ומשה ענה לו כדברך כן יהיה, כי אחרי שלא בקשת שיסורו מיד לא יסורו עד למחר:3

[See also The Torah Anthology (Yalkut Me’Am Loez)4 and [Artscroll’s] The Chumash (The Stone Edition).5]

A famous scene from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court:

The door opened, and some men-at-arms appeared. The leader said:

“The stake is ready. Come!”

The stake! The strength went out of me, and I almost fell down. It is hard to get one’s breath at such a time, such lumps come into one’s throat, and such gaspings; but as soon as I could speak, I said:

“But this is a mistake—the execution is to-morrow.”

“Order changed; been set forward a day. Haste thee!”

I was lost. There was no help for me. I was dazed, stupefied; I had no command over myself, I only wandered purposely about, like one out of his mind; so the soldiers took hold of me, and pulled me along with them, out of the cell and along the maze of underground corridors, and finally into the fierce glare of daylight and the upper world. As we stepped into the vast enclosed court of the castle I got a shock; for the first thing I saw was the stake, standing in the center, and near it the piled fagots and a monk. On all four sides of the court the seated multitudes rose rank above rank, forming sloping terraces that were rich with color. The king and the queen sat in their thrones, the most conspicuous figures there, of course.

To note all this, occupied but a second. The next second Clarence had slipped from some place of concealment and was pouring news into my ear, his eyes beaming with triumph and gladness. He said:

“Tis through me the change was wrought! And main hard have I worked to do it, too. But when I revealed to them the calamity in store, and saw how mighty was the terror it did engender, then saw I also that this was the time to strike! Wherefore I diligently pretended, unto this and that and the other one, that your power against the sun could not reach its full until the morrow; and so if any would save the sun and the world, you must be slain to-day, while your enchantments are but in the weaving and lack potency. Odsbodikins, it was but a dull lie, a most indifferent invention, but you should have seen them seize it and swallow it, in the frenzy of their fright, as it were salvation sent from heaven; and all the while was I laughing in my sleeve the one moment, to see them so cheaply deceived, and glorifying God the next, that He was content to let the meanest of His creatures be His instrument to the saving of thy life. Ah how happy has the matter sped! You will not need to do the sun a real hurt—ah, forget not that, on your soul forget it not! Only make a little darkness—only the littlest little darkness, mind, and cease with that. It will be sufficient. They will see that I spoke falsely,—being ignorant, as they will fancy—and with the falling of the first shadow of that darkness you shall see them go mad with fear; and they will set you free and make you great! Go to thy triumph, now! But remember—ah, good friend, I implore thee remember my supplication, and do the blessed sun no hurt. For my sake, thy true friend.”

I choked out some words through my grief and misery; as much as to say I would spare the sun; for which the lad’s eyes paid me back with such deep and loving gratitude that I had not the heart to tell him his good-hearted foolishness had ruined me and sent me to my death.

As the soldiers assisted me across the court the stillness was so profound that if I had been blindfold I should have supposed I was in a solitude instead of walled in by four thousand people. There was not a movement perceptible in those masses of humanity; they were as rigid as stone images, and as pale; and dread sat upon every countenance. This hush continued while I was being chained to the stake; it still continued while the fagots were carefully and tediously piled about my ankles, my knees, my thighs, my body. Then there was a pause, and a deeper hush, if possible, and a man knelt down at my feet with a blazing torch; the multitude strained forward, gazing, and parting slightly from their seats without knowing it; the monk raised his hands above my head, and his eyes toward the blue sky, and began some words in Latin; in this attitude he droned on and on, a little while, and then stopped. I waited two or three moments; then looked up; he was standing there petrified. With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it was, I was ready. I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun. It was a noble effect. You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave. Two shouts rang out, one close upon the heels of the other:

“Apply the torch!”

“I forbid it!”

The one was from Merlin, the other from the king. Merlin started from his place—to apply the torch himself, I judged. I said:

“Stay where you are. If any man moves—even the king—before I give him leave, I will blast him with thunder, I will consume him with lightnings!”

The multitude sank meekly into their seats, and I was just expecting they would. Merlin hesitated a moment or two, and I was on pins and needles during that little while. Then he sat down, and I took a good breath; for I knew I was master of the situation now. The king said:

“Be merciful, fair sir, and essay no further in this perilous matter, lest disaster follow. It was reported to us that your powers could not attain unto their full strength until the morrow; but—”

“Your Majesty thinks the report may have been a lie? It was a lie.”

That made an immense effect; up went appealing hands everywhere, and the king was assailed with a storm of supplications that I might be bought off at any price, and the calamity stayed. The king was eager to comply. He said:

“Name any terms, reverend sir, even to the halving of my kingdom; but banish this calamity, spare the sun!”

My fortune was made. I would have taken him up in a minute, but I couldn’t stop an eclipse; the thing was out of the question. So I asked time to consider. The king said:

“How long—ah, how long, good sir? Be merciful; look, it groweth darker, moment by moment. Prithee how long?”

“Not long. Half an hour—maybe an hour.”

There were a thousand pathetic protests, but I couldn’t shorten up any, for I couldn’t remember how long a total eclipse lasts. I was in a puzzled condition, anyway, and wanted to think. Something was wrong about that eclipse, and the fact was very unsettling. If this wasn’t the one I was after, how was I to tell whether this was the sixth century, or nothing but a dream? Dear me, if I could only prove it was the latter! Here was a glad new hope. If the boy was right about the date, and this was surely the 20th, it wasn’t the sixth century. I reached for the monk’s sleeve, in considerable excitement, and asked him what day of the month it was.

Hang him, he said it was the twenty-first ! It made me turn cold to hear him. I begged him not to make any mistake about it; but he was sure; he knew it was the 21st. So, that feather-headed boy had botched things again! The time of the day was right for the eclipse; I had seen that for myself, in the beginning, by the dial that was near by. Yes, I was in King Arthur’s court, and I might as well make the most out of it I could.

The darkness was steadily growing, the people becoming more and more distressed. I now said:

“I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will let this darkness proceed, and spread night in the world; but whether I blot out the sun for good, or restore it, shall rest with you. These are the terms, to wit: You shall remain king over all your dominions, and receive all the glories and honors that belong to the kingship; but you shall appoint me your perpetual minister and executive, and give me for my services one per cent of such actual increase of revenue over and above its present amount as I may succeed in creating for the state. If I can’t live on that, I sha’n’t ask anybody to give me a lift. Is it satisfactory?”

There was a prodigious roar of applause, and out of the midst of it the king’s voice rose, saying:

“Away with his bonds, and set him free! and do him homage, high and low, rich and poor, for he is become the king’s right hand, is clothed with power and authority, and his seat is upon the highest step of the throne! Now sweep away this creeping night, and bring the light and cheer again, that all the world may bless thee.”

But I said:

“That a common man should be shamed before the world, is nothing; but it were dishonor to the king if any that saw his minister naked should not also see him delivered from his shame. If I might ask that my clothes be brought again—”

“They are not meet,” the king broke in. “Fetch raiment of another sort; clothe him like a prince!”

My idea worked. I wanted to keep things as they were till the eclipse was total, otherwise they would be trying again to get me to dismiss the darkness, and of course I couldn’t do it. Sending for the clothes gained some delay, but not enough. So I had to make another excuse. I said it would be but natural if the king should change his mind and repent to some extent of what he had done under excitement; therefore I would let the darkness grow a while, and if at the end of a reasonable time the king had kept his mind the same, the darkness should be dismissed. Neither the king nor anybody else was satisfied with that arrangement, but I had to stick to my point.

It grew darker and darker and blacker and blacker, while I struggled with those awkward sixth-century clothes. It got to be pitch dark, at last, and the multitude groaned with horror to feel the cold uncanny night breezes fan through the place and see the stars come out and twinkle in the sky. At last the eclipse was total, and I was very glad of it, but everybody else was in misery; which was quite natural. I said:

“The king, by his silence, still stands to the terms.” Then I lifted up my hands—stood just so a moment—then I said, with the most awful solemnity: “Let the enchantment dissolve and pass harmless away!”

There was no response, for a moment, in that deep darkness and that graveyard hush. But when the silver rim of the sun pushed itself out, a moment or two later, the assemblage broke loose with a vast shout and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me with blessings and gratitude; and Clarence was not the last of the wash, to be sure.6

A less famous scene from H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines:

“Now ye have heard, chiefs,” said Infadoos, when he had done, “what say ye: will ye stand by this man and help him to his father’s throne, or will ye not? The land cries out against Twala, and the blood of the people flows like the waters in spring. Ye have seen to-night. Two other chiefs there were with whom I had it in my mind to speak, and where are they now? The hyænas howl over their corpses. Soon shall ye be as they are if ye strike not. Choose then, my brothers.”

The eldest of the six men, a short, thick-set warrior, with white hair, stepped forward a pace and answered—

“Thy words are true, Infadoos; the land cries out. My own brother is among those who died to-night; but this is a great matter, and the thing is hard to believe. How know we that if we lift our spears it may not be for a thief and a liar? It is a great matter, I say, of which none can see the end. For of this be sure, blood will flow in rivers before the deed is done; many will still cleave to the king, for men worship the sun that still shines bright in the heavens, rather than that which has not risen. These white men from the Stars, their magic is great, and Ignosi is under the cover of their wing. If he be indeed the rightful king, let them give us a sign, and let the people have a sign, that all may see. So shall men cleave to us, knowing of a truth that the white man’s magic is with them.”

“Ye have the sign of the snake,” I answered.

“My lord, it is not enough. The snake may have been placed there since the man’s childhood. Show us a sign, and it will suffice. But we will not move without a sign.”

The others gave a decided assent, and I turned in perplexity to Sir Henry and Good, and explained the situation.

“I think that I have it,” said Good exultingly; “ask them to give us a moment to think.”

I did so, and the chiefs withdrew. So soon as they had gone Good went to the little box where he kept his medicines, unlocked it, and took out a note-book, in the fly-leaves of which was an almanack. “Now look here, you fellows, isn’t to-morrow the 4th of June?” he said.

We had kept a careful note of the days, so were able to answer that it was.

“Very good; then here we have it—’4 June, total eclipse of the moon commences at 8.15 Greenwich time, visible in Teneriffe—South Africa, &c.’ There’s a sign for you. Tell them we will darken the moon to-morrow night.”

The idea was a splendid one; indeed, the only weak spot about it was a fear lest Good’s almanack might be incorrect. If we made a false prophecy on such a subject, our prestige would be gone for ever, and so would Ignosi’s chance of the throne of the Kukuanas.

“Suppose that the almanack is wrong,” suggested Sir Henry to Good, who was busily employed in working out something on a blank page of the book.

“I see no reason to suppose anything of the sort,” was his answer. “Eclipses always come up to time; at least that is my experience of them, and it especially states that this one will be visible in South Africa. I have worked out the reckonings as well as I can, without knowing our exact position; and I make out that the eclipse should begin here about ten o’clock tomorrow night, and last till half-past twelve. For an hour and a half or so there should be almost total darkness.”

“Well,” said Sir Henry, “I suppose we had better risk it.”

I acquiesced, though doubtfully, for eclipses are queer cattle to deal with—it might be a cloudy night, for instance, or our dates might be wrong—and sent Umbopa to summon the chiefs back. Presently they came, and I addressed them thus—

“Great men of the Kukuanas, and thou, Infadoos, listen. We love not to show our powers, for to do so is to interfere with the course of nature, and to plunge the world into fear and confusion. But since this matter is a great one, and as we are angered against the king because of the slaughter we have seen, and because of the act of the Isanusi Gagool, who would have put our friend Ignosi to death, we have determined to break a rule, and to give such a sign as all men may see. Come hither”; and I led them to the door of the hut and pointed to the red ball of the moon. “What see ye there?”

“We see the sinking moon,” answered the spokesman of the party.

“It is so. Now tell me, can any mortal man put out that moon before her hour of setting, and bring the curtain of black night down upon the land?”

The chief laughed a little at the question. “No, my lord, that no man can do. The moon is stronger than man who looks on her, nor can she vary in her courses.”

“Ye say so. Yet I tell you that to-morrow night, about two hours before midnight, we will cause the moon to be eaten up for a space of an hour and half an hour. Yes, deep darkness shall cover the earth, and it shall be for a sign that Ignosi is indeed king of the Kukuanas. If we do this thing, will ye be satisfied?”

“Yea, my lords,” answered the old chief with a smile, which was reflected on the faces of his companions; “if ye do this thing, we will be satisfied indeed.”

“It shall be done; we three, Incubu, Bougwan, and Macumazahn, have said it, and it shall be done. Dost thou hear, Infadoos?”

“I hear, my lord, but it is a wonderful thing that ye promise, to put out the moon, the mother of the world, when she is at her full.”

“Yet shall we do it, Infadoos.”

“It is well, my lords. To-day, two hours after sunset, Twala will send for my lords to witness the girls dance, and one hour after the dance begins the girl whom Twala thinks the fairest shall be killed by Scragga, the king’s son, as a sacrifice to the Silent Ones, who sit and keep watch by the mountains yonder,” and he pointed towards the three strange-looking peaks where Solomon’s road was supposed to end. “Then let my lords darken the moon, and save the maiden’s life, and the people will believe indeed.”

“Ay,” said the old chief, still smiling a little, “the people will believe indeed.”

“Two miles from Loo,” went on Infadoos, “there is a hill curved like a new moon, a stronghold, where my regiment, and three other regiments which these chiefs command, are stationed. This morning we will make a plan whereby two or three other regiments may be moved there also. Then, if in truth my lords can darken the moon, in the darkness I will take my lords by the hand and lead them out of Loo to this place, where they shall be safe, and thence we can make war upon Twala the king.”

“It is good,” said I. “Let leave us to sleep awhile and to make ready our magic.” …

“Stop!” I shouted boldly, though at the moment my heart was in my boots. “Stop! we, the white men from the Stars, say that it shall not be. Come but one pace nearer, and we will put out the moon like a wind-blown lamp, as we who dwell in her House can do, and plunge the land in darkness. Dare to disobey, and ye shall taste of our magic.”

My threat produced an effect; the men halted, and Scragga stood still before us, his spear lifted.

“Hear him! hear him!” piped Gagool; “hear the liar who says that he will put out the moon like a lamp. Let him do it, and the girl shall be speared. Yes, let him do it, or die by the girl, he and those with him.”

I glanced up at the moon despairingly, and now to my intense joy and relief saw that we—or rather the almanack—had made no mistake. On the edge of the great orb lay a faint rim of shadow, while a smoky hue grew and gathered upon its bright surface. Never shall I forget that supreme, that superb moment of relief.

Then I lifted my hand solemnly towards the sky, an example which Sir Henry and Good followed, and quoted a line or two from the “Ingoldsby Legends” at it in the most impressive tones that I could command. Sir Henry followed suit with a verse out of the Old Testament, and something about Balbus building a wall, in Latin, whilst Good addressed the Queen of Night in a volume of the most classical bad language which he could think of.

Slowly the penumbra, the shadow of a shadow, crept on over the bright surface, and as it crept I heard deep gasps of fear rising from the multitude around.

“Look, O king!” I cried; “look, Gagool! Look, chiefs and people and women, and see if the white men from the Stars keep their word, or if they be but empty liars!

“The moon grows black before your eyes; soon there will be darkness—ay, darkness in the hour of the full moon. Ye have asked for a sign; it is given to you. Grow dark, O Moon! withdraw thy light, thou pure and holy One; bring the proud heart of usurping murderers to the dust, and eat up the world with shadows.”

A groan of terror burst from the onlookers. Some stood petrified with dread, others threw themselves upon their knees and cried aloud. As for the king, he sat still and turned pale beneath his dusky skin. Only Gagool kept her courage.

“It will pass,” she cried; “I have often seen the like before; no man can put out the moon; lose not heart; sit still—the shadow will pass.”

“Wait, and ye shall see,” I replied, hopping with excitement. “O Moon! Moon! Moon! wherefore art thou so cold and fickle?” This appropriate quotation was from the pages of a popular romance that I chanced to have read recently, though now I come to think of it, it was ungrateful of me to abuse the Lady of the Heavens, who was showing herself to be the truest of friends to us, however she may have behaved to the impassioned lover in the novel. Then I added: “Keep it up, Good, I can’t remember any more poetry. Curse away, there’s a good fellow.”

Good responded nobly to this tax upon his inventive faculties. Never before had I the faintest conception of the breadth and depth and height of a naval officer’s objurgatory powers. For ten minutes he went on in several languages without stopping, and he scarcely ever repeated himself.

Meanwhile the dark ring crept on, while all that great assembly fixed their eyes upon the sky and stared and stared in fascinated silence. Strange and unholy shadows encroached upon the moonlight, an ominous quiet filled the place. Everything grew still as death. Slowly and in the midst of this most solemn silence the minutes sped away, and while they sped the full moon passed deeper and deeper into the shadow of the earth, as the inky segment of its circle slid in awful majesty across the lunar craters. The great pale orb seemed to draw near and to grow in size. She turned a coppery hue, then that portion of her surface which was unobscured as yet grew grey and ashen, and at length, as totality approached, her mountains and her plains were to be seen glowing luridly through a crimson gloom.

On, yet on, crept the ring of darkness; it was now more than half across the blood-red orb. The air grew thick, and still more deeply tinged with dusky crimson. On, yet on, till we could scarcely see the fierce faces of the group before us. No sound rose now from the spectators, and at last Good stopped swearing.

“The moon is dying—the white wizards have killed the moon,” yelled the prince Scragga at last. “We shall all perish in the dark,” and animated by fear or fury, or by both, he lifted his spear and drove it with all his force at Sir Henry’s breast. But he forgot the mail shirts that the king had given us, and which we wore beneath our clothing. The steel rebounded harmless, and before he could repeat the blow Curtis had snatched the spear from his hand and sent it straight through him.

Scragga dropped dead.

At the sight, and driven mad with fear of the gathering darkness, and of the unholy shadow which, as they believed, was swallowing the moon, the companies of girls broke up in wild confusion, and ran screeching for the gateways. Nor did the panic stop there. The king himself, followed by his guards, some of the chiefs, and Gagool, who hobbled away after them with marvellous alacrity, fled for the huts, so that in another minute we ourselves, the would-be victim Foulata, Infadoos, and most of the chiefs who had interviewed us on the previous night, were left alone upon the scene, together with the dead body of Scragga, Twala’s son.

“Chiefs,” I said, “we have given you the sign. If ye are satisfied, let us fly swiftly to the place of which ye spoke. The charm cannot now be stopped. It will work for an hour and the half of an hour. Let us cover ourselves in the darkness.”

“Come,” said Infadoos, turning to go, an example which was followed by the awed captains, ourselves, and the girl Foulata, whom Good took by the arm.

Before we reached the gate of the kraal the moon went out utterly, and from every quarter of the firmament the stars rushed forth into the inky sky.

Holding each other by the hand we stumbled on through the darkness.7

This plot device is also apparently at the heart of the Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun:

Finally, Tintin, Haddock, and Zorrino come upon the Temple of the Sun—and stumble right into a group of Inca who have survived until modern-day times. They are brought before the noble Prince of the Sun; on the left stands Chiquito, on the right stands Huascar, the mysterious Indian Tintin encountered in Jauga. Zorrino is saved from harm when Tintin gives him Huascar’s medallion, but Tintin and Haddock are sentenced to death for their sacrilegious intrusion. The Inca prince tells them they may choose the hour that the Sun himself will set alight the pyre for which they are destined.

Tintin and Haddock end up on the same pyre as Professor Calculus. Tintin has, however, chosen the hour of their death to coincide with a solar eclipse, and the terrified Inca believe Tintin can command Pachacamac, their god, the Sun. The Inca prince implores Tintin to make the Sun show his light again. At Tintin’s command, the Sun obeys, and the three are quickly set free.

Incredibly, these accounts are apparently based on a true story:

By the time Christopher Columbus sailed westward in 1492, navigators were already using hefty volumes containing astronomical tables to guide them across unknown seas. These books often included detailed instructions for manipulating navigational instruments and for computing geographical positions from celestial observations.

Columbus himself probably carried copies of two invaluable books. The “perpetual almanac” prepared by Abraham Zacuto contained more than 300 pages of astronomical tables that had already contributed to such navigational feats as Vasco da Gama’s famous expedition from Portugal around the tip of Africa to India. The second volume, called the Ephemerides, had been produced by the prominent German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Müller, who went by the Latin name Regiomontanus.

The astronomical tables that Columbus consulted during his voyage proved useful for determining latitude and, to some degree, longitude. A prediction contained in the tables probably saved his life at a crucial moment during his fourth voyage to the lands he had discovered.

Nearly 2 years after sailing from Cadiz in 1502, Columbus and his restless, disgruntled crew were stranded on the north coast of Jamaica, confined to worm-eaten, leaking ships. The native inhabitants were no longer awed by the newcomers. Annoyed by their voracious appetites and angry at the depredations of crew members, who had plundered several villages, the population was hostile and would no longer supply food.

Weary and ill, Columbus had withdrawn to his ship. There, he pondered his precarious situation. Returning to the stained pages of the Ephemerides, he noted Regiomontanus’s prediction of a total eclipse of the moon on Feb. 29, 1504.

Such an eclipse occurs only when the moon passes into Earth’s shadow. A lunar eclipse looks the same anywhere on Earth, but it occurs at different times, as measured by local clocks. Regiomontanus’s book contained not only the expected dates of eclipses but also diagrams illustrating how completely the moon would be covered and precise information about each eclipse’s duration and timing down to the hour.

Columbus had observed a lunar eclipse on an earlier voyage and had noticed discrepancies between the predictions made by Zacuto and those contained in the Ephemerides. Moreover, he had no reliable way of determining the correct local time of this particular projected eclipse. The times provided by Regiomontanus for its start and end were for Nuremberg, Germany.

Despite these uncertainties, Columbus was desperate enough to take a chance. On the day before the predicted eclipse, he summoned the leaders of the native inhabitants and warned them through an interpreter that if they did not cooperate with him, the moon would disappear from the sky on the following night.

The natives for the most part were unimpressed; some even laughed. Columbus nervously awaited the outcome of his gamble. Could he rely on tables that had been compiled several decades earlier and that predicted the positions of celestial bodies only for the years between 1475 and 1506? How large were the errors?

Amazingly, the prediction proved correct. As the full moon rose in the east on the appointed night, Earth’s shadow was already biting into its face. As the moon rose higher, the shadow became larger and more distinct until it completely obscured the moon, leaving nothing but a faint red disk in the sky.

The natives were sufficiently frightened by this unexpected occurrence and by Columbus’s uncanny prediction to beg forgiveness and appeal to him to restore their moon to the sky. Columbus responded that he wished to consult with his deity. He retired to his quarters, using a half-hour sandglass to time how long the eclipse would last. Some time later, when the eclipse had reached totality, he emerged to announce that the moon, in answer to his prayers, would gradually return to its normal brightness.

The next day, the natives brought food and did all they could to please Columbus and his crew. Columbus himself used the timing of the eclipse to calculate his ship’s longitude, but his answer proved wildly erroneous.

On June 29, 1504, a Spanish ship rescued Columbus’s stranded party, a year after it had beached on the Jamaican coast. A few months later, Columbus set sail for Spain, bringing to an end his voyages to the New World.

The success of Columbus’s strategem was a tribute to the accuracy of the calculations and predictions made by Regiomontanus, based on Ptolemy’s Earth-centered model of the solar system.

Such a dramatic episode didn’t escape the attention of novelists, who later used eclipse occurrences in a similar way to further their own plots. You’ll find the device in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and even in Hergé’s Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun.

In some cases, the event is a solar rather than a lunar eclipse. And the details of the eclipse aren’t always astronomically correct, especially in the movie versions of the books.

But it worked for Columbus.

[In Jewish circles, of course, R. Avraham Zacuto (Abraão ben Samuel Zacuto) is better known for his authorship of the ספר יוחסין. See also our discussion of the rationalistic Jewish and Islamic perspective on the predictability of eclipses.]

  1. שמות ח:ה-ט – קשר []
  2. אבן עזרא שם – קשר []
  3. רמב”ן שם – קשר []
  4. Volume 4 – Exodus I p. 195. []
  5. One volume travel size edition, p. 330. []
  6. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Chapter 6 – link. []
  7. H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, Chapter XI – link. []
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