In the earliest times astronomers were required to warn rulers and people of impending onslaughts of the wrath of Heaven. It was their responsibility to anticipate any unusual behavior in the celestial signposts of space and time: a colored ring around the Moon; a new star with a tail; an eclipse of the Sun. People care d not for the cause; only for the consequence. A comet’s tail streaking over half the sky seemed to threaten every living soul. The exact nature of the threat was not so important either. The chief problem was to placate the gods. Therefore the people and their ruler had to be ready in time to do public penance, to pray and sacrifice.
“When an eclipse of the Sun takes place,” an old Chinese account tells us, “the Emperor takes no full repast, and has the drums beaten at the altar. All officials lay aside their ceremonial robes; the princes sacrifice pieces of silk; the historian delivers a speech, until the eclipse is over.”
Emperor Kuang Wu-ti, of the first century A.D., provided an unforgettable model of how a god-fearing ruler should behave during the Sun’s struggle with the Dragon that threatened to swallow it. He made a five-day retreat to meditate on his government. Then he issued a decree: “It is necessary to repair our errors and thus forestall the evil that Heaven is sending. I for my part can scarcely speak; I am trembling over my misdeeds. I do not wish my subjects to give me the title of Ching. I wish the lords of my court to tell me their opinions bluntly, in secret memoranda.” His court astronomer wrote: “According to the rules of starcraft eclipses of the Sun ought to take place only on the first day of the month. This eclipse struck upon the last day; that is because the Moon has speeded his course. The Sun is the image of the Emperor, the Moon the image of the subjects. But the faults of the subjects usually have their origin in the faults of the Emperor.”
Such audacious language indicates the remarkable prestige an astronomer enjoyed in China. But mistakes could be fatal for them. In the third century B.C. the court astronomers Hi and Ho sat drinking wine when an eclipse of the Sun began. They were brought to trial for negligence. The verdict read as follows: “The prayer-drums beat, the mandarins mounted their steeds, the people gathered in clusters. Meanwhile, Hi and Ho, like wooden statues, saw and heard nothing. Their negligence in calculating and observing the stars is being punished by death.”
It must not be thought that the emperor or the people expected astronomers to predict the fearful event beforehand. That this was impossible had been demonstrated all too often. Even the best astronomers of antiquity, the Babylonians, invariably missed in such predictions. Their regular reports to the king of their observations, written on clay tablets in cuneiform script, frequently contained confessions of their failures.
“As for the eclipse of the Sun, of which my King spoke, it has not taken place. On the twenty-seventh I will again observe and report.”
“The month of Addaru will have thirty days. On the thirteenth, and during the night from the thirteenth to the fourteenth, we made an observation. On the fifteenth, Sun and Moon were seen together, but no eclipse took place. Seven times I arose, but no eclipse took place. I will send later the final, decisive report. Tabu-sil-Marduk, nephew of Inlil- nasir.”
Here was an amazing informality and ease in a relationship with the king. This was possible because the Babylonian kings considered their astronomers virtually infallible. it was not the observatory which was responsible for the nonarrival of an eclipse; rather, the blame was Heaven’s, which for unknown reasons chose to deviate from custom. Hence the king must do penance-after all, one never knew what Heaven meant by such inconsistency. In the worst case the astronomer might be sent a tablet stating: “The King is tired of his long fast and asks whether the new Moon has not yet appeared.” A curious situation: because science blundered, the king had to fast. There is no indication that the astronomer fasted.