When Hank Morgan, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, is sentenced to death in King Arthur’s court, he has a fortuitous thought. “I knew that the only total eclipse of the sun in the first half of the sixth century occurred on the 21st of June, A.D. 528, O.S., and began at 3 minutes after 12 noon,” he tells the reader. Just as he is about to be burned at the stake, he threatens to “smother the whole world in the dead blackness of midnight.” It turns out there’s a mix-up with the dates, but in the end the eclipse begins in the nick of time and Morgan is pardoned to great fanfare.
Morgan says he borrowed this trick from Christopher Columbus. In 1504, Columbus and his men had landed in Jamaica and irritated the locals by eating all of their food. When the natives cut off the supply, Columbus saw in his astronomy charts that a lunar eclipse would soon occur and threatened that his deity (as Washington Irving wrote in 1828) “was incensed against the Indians who refused to furnish his faithful worshipers with provisions, and intended to chastise them with famine and pestilence. Lest they should disbelieve this warning, a signal would be given that night. They would behold the moon change its color, and gradually lose its light; a token of the fearful punishment which awaited them.” When the lunar eclipse occurred, the natives trembled in fear, gathered up all the provisions they could find, and threw them at Columbus’s feet, begging him to intercede with his god, which (very generously) he did.
But centuries before Columbus was praised by his crew (and historians) for pulling a fast one on uneducated people for personal gain, women were being accused of witchcraft for doing the same thing. The women of Thessaly in ancient Greece had a reputation for witchcraft, especially for performing spells involving the moon, and especially for doing so for erotic purposes. As the stories go, the women would occasionally “draw down the moon” to gather its juices for potions; Medea was said to summon down the moon so she could have a dark night on which to perform sorcery. Manipulating the moon was known to some as the “Thessalian Trick,” and apparently the association was widely held in antiquity. Aristophanes’ The Clouds contains a joke about avoiding one’s monthly debts by making sure the lunar month never turns over:
STREPSIADES: I have a scheme for not paying my debts.
SOCRATES: Let us hear it.
STREPSIADES: Tell me, if I purchased a Thessalian witch, I could make the moon descend during the night and shut it, like a mirror, into a round box and there keep it carefully....
SOCRATES: How would you gain by that?
STREPSIADES: How? why, if the moon did not rise, I would have no interest to pay.
There is some question about whether the Thessalian women worked together to actually predict eclipses or whether “drawing down the moon” had anything to do with eclipses at all. Lunar eclipses are rare enough that relying on them for the trick would not work consistently, and most events turn the moon a reddish color instead of blocking it out completely. Instead, the so-called witches may have put on performances using a prop moon that they altered with pulleys and mirrors.
There was, however, one Thessalian woman named Aglaonice (or Aglaonike) who is now thought to have been thoroughly acquainted with astronomy and is sometimes credited as the first woman astronomer. As her story goes, she studied Babylonian astronomy with the permission of her father and could predict lunar eclipses, making people believe that she was drawing down the moon. Such knowledge wasn’t commonly held at the time, and being a woman, Aglaonice probably wasn’t expected to have or wield scientific knowledge. Therefore, people assumed she was performing witchcraft.
Aglaonice’s legacy has been often overlooked and is somewhat contradictory. One Greek proverb went “As the moon obeys Aglaonice,” meaning that something was definitely going to happen, though sources vary on whether the phrase was used sarcastically. Later, the phrase “Lunam detrahere” (“he pulls down the moon”) came into vogue; Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus said it had an implication of desperation or of an act that would soon be punished—he says that Aglaonice’s trick was observed by Nemesis, who punished her for her arrogance. A few sources do indicate that after one such performance of drawing down the moon, one of Aglaonice’s family members died, and that Thessalian women pulled down the moon generally to their detriment, losing their own eyes or even children. The Scholia to Apollonius Rhodius says that “The myth runs that witches pull down the moon with their spells. It is said that when Thessalian witches do this, their plan is foiled. Accordingly, Aglaonice, the daughter of Hegemon, who was skilled in astronomy and knew the eclipses of the moon and when they were going to happen, used to say that she was drawing down the goddess, and immediately fell into calamities, losing one of her kin.” Certainly Hank Morgan and Christopher Columbus had better luck with their eclipses.
Most scholars today lump Aglaonice in with the other women of Thessaly and their stories of pulling down the moon for so-called witchcraft or other personal gain. Her story ends up serving as a warning both for women who would use scientific knowledge, especially dishonestly, and for women who would believe in such hoaxes. Plutarch, for one, wanted to see women educated in the ways of science (albeit by their husbands, not necessarily by a university) so they wouldn’t be duped by the witches of Thessaly. In his “Advice to Bride and Groom,” he says that intellectual pursuits will not only keep a wife away from illicit activity but will also ensure that “she will not swallow any beliefs in magic charms . . . . And if anybody professes power to pull down the moon from the sky, she will laugh at the ignorance and stupidity of women who believe these things, inasmuch as she herself is not unschooled in astronomy” and, specifically, knows the story of Aglaonice’s subterfuge.
Trickery and gullibility on the part of women may be wicked and contemptible, but Hank Morgan’s own trick is met with “a prodigious roar of applause” and “a deluge [of] blessings and gratitude.” While the reader might think the court of Camelot a bit silly, no one is punished with the loss of a body part or the death of a loved one. These literary examples offer their own lesson of a double standard as it applies to men’s and women’s abilities to wield knowledge, deceptive as it may be. Morgan escapes a fiery death by predicting an eclipse, while any woman might have been burned at that very stake for doing the same thing.