Aux origines mythologiques des éclipses de Soleil

L’origine des éclipses totales de Soleil est longtemps demeurée mystérieuse avant que la Lune ne soit identifiée comme la seule coupable. Elles appartenaient au répertoire de la mythologie… puis les sciences ont pris progressivement le relais.

L’origine des éclipses totales de Soleil est longtemps demeurée mystérieuse avant que la Lune ne soit identifiée comme la seule coupable. Elles appartenaient au répertoire de la mythologie… puis les sciences ont pris progressivement le relais.

éclipse

ECLIPSE. Le 21 août 2017, les Américains vont vivre une éclipse totale de Soleil. Le phénomène est aujourd’hui bien connu grâce au travail des astrophysiciens au cours des siècles derniers, mais il n’en a pas toujours été de même au cours de l’histoire de l’humanité. Confrontées à la disparition inattendue du Soleil en plein jour, les différentes cultures passées ont cherché à donner un sens à ce phénomène, y voyant l’intervention d’une divinité, d’un démon ou parfois même d’un génie malin. Il a fallu du temps avant que le véritable coupable, c’est à dire la Lune, ne soit identifié. Rétrospective.

« De mauvais présages »

Pendant longtemps, les éclipses ont été « perçues comme des mauvais présages », explique Robert Massey, de la Royal Astronomical Society britannique. En Chine, on considérait que le fautif était un dragon céleste qui dévorait le Soleil. On essayait ainsi de faire lâcher prise à l’assaillant mythologique en faisant du bruit, notamment en frappant sur des tambours ou divers objets. Du côté de la Corée ou des Vikings, on croyait encore que c’étaient des chiens qui tentaient de voler l’astre solaire.

LUNE. « Il a fallu les observations des astronomes et l’étude du mouvement du Soleil et de celui de son satellite naturel, pour comprendre que c’est la Lune qui à chaque éclipse s’interpose devant le Soleil », souligne Pascal Descamps, astronome à l’Institut de mécanique céleste et de calcul des éphémérides (IMCCE) à Paris.

Des observations millénaires

Les éclipses font l’objet d’observations depuis des millénaires. A partir de 700 avant Jésus-Christ et jusqu’à 50 av. J.-C., les Babyloniens les ont méthodiquement consignées sur des tablettes. Les Chinois aussi surveillaient attentivement ce phénomène, jugé très important pour l’Empereur. Et gare à ceux qui échouaient dans leurs prédictions ! En 2137 avant notre ère, deux astronomes de cour, les frères Hi et Ho, auraient eu la tête tranchée pour avoir échoué à prédire l’éclipse. Des anecdotes comparables parsèment notre culture héllénique : l’historien grec Hérodote raconte que Thalès de Milet aurait été capable de prédire une éclipse en 585 av. J.-C. L’éclipse se serait produite lors d’une bataille entre les Lydiens et les Mèdes, suite à quoi les belligérants auraient alors déposé les armes, y voyant une injonction des dieux à cesser le combat. Une thèse contestée par les astronomes contemporains, mais qui a marqué l’Histoire.

PRÉDICTION. C’est au IIè siècle de notre ère, avec le grec Ptolémée et son grand traité d’astronomie, que la connaissance précise des différents paramètres nécessaires pour prédire correctement une éclipse a été acquise, souligne Pascal Descamps. « À la Renaissance, et très certainement grâce à l’invention du télescope (vers 1600) et aux travaux de Copernic, ies éclipses totales de Soleil n’étaient plus considérées comme un événement particulièrement effrayant », considère Robert Massey. Le moine polonais Copernic (1473-1543) a en effet théorisé le fait que c’est la Terre qui tourne autour du Soleil, et non l’inverse comme le pensait Aristote. Et il y a quelque 300 ans, le Britannique Edmond Halley a réalisé une carte décrivant de façon presque exacte la trajectoire de l’ombre induite par l’éclipse de Soleil totale sur l’Angleterre en mai 1715.

« Le triomphe du rationalisme »

De nos jours, les scientifiques savent prédire les éclipses avec une extrême précision (moins d’une seconde). « De ce fait, les éclipses peuvent être perçues comme une célébration du rationalisme »relève l’Agence spatiale européenne (ESA) sur son site. Toutefois certaines croyances ont la vie dure et résistent aux explications scientifiques, pointe pour sa part l’agence spatiale américaine (Nasa) sur son site. La Nasa dresse ainsi une liste des « idées fausses » autour des éclipses. Parmi elles, le fait que les femmes enceintes ne doivent pas regarder le spectacle parce que cela peut faire du mal au bébé ou bien que la nourriture préparée pendant une éclipse peut être empoisonnée par les radiations qui s’échappent de la couronne solaire. Autant d’affirmations sans fondement scientifique.

S.S. avec AFP

Source: Sciences et avenir

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