“The Sun Became Dark, Its Darkness Lasted for 18 Months”
Slaughter. Credit: S. Gesbert
“There was a sign from the Sun, the likes of which had never been seen or reported before. The Sun became dark, and its darkness lasted for about 18 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 full light again.” —John of Ephesis
Book of Revelation? Left Behind Quote? Harry Potter? None of the above, this quote is from our history. The world came to an end in 535 AD. Say what? They didn’t teach about this in High School, unless one is very young. They did teach that the Dark Ages started about then. The Dark Ages weren’t limited to Europe, all over the world civilisations went into decline. More importantly, the Dark Ages weren’t caused by invading barbarians or some other human caused calamity, something else truly terrible happened that sent the whole planet into a tailspin.
What happened? We don’t really know. It got very cold and cloudy all over the earth. Rain for weeks, clouds that lasted for months, darkness at noon, snow in the summer…the records show these things from around the globe. People spoke of a “veil” across the sun or a “dry fog” that persisted for over a year. Imagine, sunlight so diffused that no shadow is cast at noon. For months in 536 the stars couldn’t be seen at night. Crops failed for years, it was fifteen years before the sun and weather returned to normal! Some parts of the world suffered great droughts, others had terrible floods.
Humans suffered, terribly. Starvation was everywhere, the first great plagues ravaged Europe. Nations changed their religions, Empires fell. Wars broke out, dozens in Europe and the Middle East alone. It is estimated that about half the world’s population perished in these fifteen years. Every other person died, think about that. It is not an exaggeration to say that this is the greatest historical catastrophe that has ever befallen the human race. The reason we don’t hear about it more is twofold. First because it was such a disaster that few records were preserved from the time. And it’s a pretty good bet that when it was over, people just wanted to forget about it, not write about it or build memorials. They seem to have done a good job.
Now modern scientists and historians are unravelling the story about the time “the sun went dark.” Tree ring studies were what got it started a few decades ago. All over the globe trees grew very slowly and show signs of frost damage in those years, especially in 535-536. The entire planet cooled dramatically and suddenly. The $64,000 question, what the hell caused this? People count on the sun coming up in the morning, when it doesn’t we need to know why.
The short answer is something kicked huge amounts of dust into the atmosphere. There are two contenders at this point. An asteroid or comet striking the Earth was suggested, but something big enough to do that would leave a big crater. And if it had hit an ocean, it would have caused ocean-wide tsunamis hundreds or thousands of feet high. The record is pretty clear in this regard, there’s no crater and no record of continent smashing tsunamis, so we know something didn’t strike the surface of the earth. It’s possible that a modest comet exploded in the atmosphere before it could hit the ground, we know this can happen because it did in a smaller way in 1906, the Tunguska event. Could a bigger comet have contained enough dust to cool the globe for more than a decade? Maybe, research continues.
The other possibility is a volcanic eruption, and there’s a good candidate for that too. Krakatoa, one of the world’s most explosive volcanoes, may have gone off with a really big bang about then. Reports from southern Asia actually tell of the whole darkness starting shortly after the sound of a huge explosion was heard from the south. Again, scientists are looking into this. As with Tunguska, again we see a similar event in recent history: 1816, the year without a summer. Dust kicked up by volcanoes, mostly Tambora near Java, cooled the earth significantly for several years.
What does this all mean? For one I think it’s fascinating that such an important, even pivotal, chapter in world history is only now being revealed to us. Makes me wonder what else remains to be rediscovered? And what must the people of the time have thought, they could have had no clue what had gone wrong with their world. And those were not ignorant times; schools, colleges, and learning existed in many great nations and cities. Yet all their learning would have told them nothing about why the sun had dimmed. It’s no wonder people’s faiths were shaken.
Lastly, this puts the current world situation in perspective. We’re living in pretty good times compared to our unfortunate forebears in the dark winter of 535, their troubles make global warming look like a picnic. And despite all the centuries and progress that have happened since, science that allows us to finally understand what veiled the sun, in one key respect we’re no better off. The same sort of global calamity could strike tomorrow with no warning, and we’d be just as helpless. We could even be just as ignorant as to its cause. I’m going to be a lot more thankful for sunrises from now on, they’re not a sure thing after all.
(The above image is Copyright © 1997-2001, 2002 S. Gesbert. It is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It is not being used for profit, it is central to the subject of the post, and it is properly attributed.)