“For the Beams it Shed were not Clear”

Much like everyone else who has a blog or is involved in any sort of content creation, I felt compelled to write something pertaining to eclipses for today. However, seeing as the internet is inundated with folklore and historical posts about eclipses, I thought I’d do something a little different and briefly discuss a more unique event. This relates to blocking the sun’s light and was compared to an eclipse, but certainly was not related to one. It’s an ominous event which no doubt terrified many at the time and is now gaining more scholarly attention. To begin with, our good old friend, Procopius of Caesarea, tells us of a peculiar fact about the year 536 AD:

 And it came about during this year that a most dread portent took place. For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed. And from the time when this thing happened men were free neither from war nor pestilence nor any other thing leading to death. And it was the time when Justinian was in the tenth year of his reign [536/37]. (Procopius, Wars, IV.xiv.5-6, Tr. Dewing).

This was a horrific portent indeed. Earthquakes and other natural disasters were often taken as evidence of the end times. This unique event in conjunction with the Justinianic plague would have given people even more reason to worry. Furthermore, this century was a particularly anxious one for the Christian Byzantines since it had been almost 500 years exactly since Christ’s death. After all, we know how those doomsday predictors just love to choose nice round numbers for their predictions in the modern era too. Procopius’ Secret History also lends itself to the likelihood of Apocalyptic sentiment around this time, with the depiction of Justinian as essentially the Antichrist, a topic I’ll write more about eventually.

Now, other references to this phenomena, usually called simply “the extreme weather events of 535-536,” are widespread in literary sources around the world. There are references to a dense and dry fog in China and the Middle East, where there were also unusually cool summers. Crop failures are recorded in Europe and Mesoamerica as well. There’s just too many references from around the world to quote here, but they can be found in the articles referenced below. I will, however, give one more from Michael the Syrian, who writes much later in the twelfth century. He states:

In the year 848 [536/37 CE] there was a sign in the sun the like of which had never been seen and reported before in the world. If we had not found it recorded in the majority of proved and credible writings and confirmed by trustworthy people, we would not have recorded it; for it is difficult to conceive. So it is said that the sun became dark and its darkness lasted for one and a half years, that is, eighteen months. Each day it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow. Everyone declared that the sun would never recover its original light. The fruits did not ripen, and the wine tasted like sour grapes. (Michael the Syrian, Chronicle IX.xxvi.296, tr. Chabot).

If we had only this reference, it would be easy to dismiss it as a wild fiction. The length of eighteen months would seem particularly suspicious as unusual events tend to be overemphasized in later narratives. However, Procopius’ contemporary account seems to confirm that this lasted at least several months. Crop failures are also a near universal symptom of this event. Little details like that each day the sun “shone for about four hours” seem suspect and probably are a later addition, since it’s not in contemporary accounts. The consensus, though seems to be that something was observed obscuring the light of the sun, not opaquely, as we would see with an actual eclipse, but rather translucently.


An 2006 eclipse in Turkey, showing some nearby ancient ruins


So what the hell was this? That question has been the subject of several interdisciplinary studies so far. Dendrochronologists have found that tree rings from around 536 AD showed stunted growth. Likewise, ice core samples from Antarctica point to elevated levels of sulfur in the atmosphere at this time. The best explanation so far has been a volcanic explosion that would have ejected dust and debris into the atmosphere. The main suspect is a volcano near Papua New Guinea. Volcanic ash in the atmosphere would account for the climatic changes and the obscuring of the sun’s light. Some have referenced it as possibly the worst natural disaster in recorded history. Anyone interested in the strange climatic elements around this time should certainly read the two articles below for the scientific details.

In terms of the historical consequences of all this, some have theorized that the climatic shift caused a migration of a certain breed of rats into the ports of Upper Egypt, which subsequently led to the Justinianic plague. As most historians know, crop failures routinely lead to political dissent and revolts, potentially making these years more chaotic. If this was also broadly taken as an apocalyptic sign, did that have an impression on the folklore and beliefs of this time? More scholarly research is certainly needed to examine the literary effects of this and if it altered their view of eclipses as well.

Further Reading:

Arjava, A. (2005), “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE in the Mediterranean Sources,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 59, 73-94.

Büntgen, Myglan, Ljungqvist, Mccormick, Di Cosmo, Kirdyanov. (2016), “Cooling and societal change during the Late Antique Little Ice Age from 536 to around 660 AD,” Nature Geoscience, 9(3), 231-236.