Total Solar Eclipses

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Of all of the celestial events known to man, a total solar eclipse of the sun is the most awesome event visible to the naked eye. When the moon passes directly between the earth and the sun, and is close enough to the earth to completely block the solar disk, the magificent solar corona can be seen against a very dark sky. The temperature drops, winds become still, animals change their behavior. The planets and brighter stars can be seen, even in the middle of the daytime.

In the few moments prior to totality, the shadow of the moon races across the sky, a 360 degree sunset can be seen, and while the sunlight is not hot enought to make viewing the sliver of a solar crescent unbearable, the ultraviolet energy is strong enough to blind those who stare at it. And at the last moment before totality, the last rays of sunlight that pass between gaps in lunar mountains produce a diamond ring in the sky. No wonder ancient man stopped battles during eclipses, and returned home, fearing that they had angered the gods!

Total solar eclipses were often portrayed on coins as a star, or by a wheel, which was used by the ancient Celts as a sun symbol. But often, a starburst with a hole in the center (a mullet) is found on coinage design. And quite often, a new design use of a mullet can be associated with an actual total solar eclipse.

For example, in 1140, a total solar eclipse crossed southern England, and was recorded by William of Malmesbury as being quite remarkable. In fact, in his writing, he asserted that the eclipse signaled that the king would not continue in power. King Stephen of England and his cousin Matilda were engaged in a civil war over accession to the throne upon the death of Henry I.

Both issued coins in 1140, or soon thereafter, that featured mullets. Stephen's new type had a mullet in each quadrant of the reverse cross, and Matilda's coins, issued in the name of her son Henry, placed mullets on each side of his bust.

The use of a mullet to represent a total solar eclipse continued well into the 17th century. Consider, for example, the addition of a mullet to the center of the reverse of a 1631 coin of the French province of Nevers. On 10 June 1630, the path of a total solar eclipse crossed from northwestern to souteastern France.

The syn symbol, a star or a solar disk, had been used on coins of Nevers as early as the twelfth century, perhaps stemming from a total solar eclipse in 1178, but the mullet was new to coinage of this province. Some may argue that the mullet is merely a representation of the sun, and not an eclipse.

But in nearby Orleans, Gaston, the second son of Henri IV, issued a jeton in 1631 that is clearly a representation of the total solar eclipse. A full moon covers the solar disk, and solar rays extend from behind the lunar face. The geographical proximity of the two regions, and the issuance of these two coins in the same year, adds additional evidence to the Nevers mullet being representative of the eclipse.

In his 1936 catalog of jetons, Pradel gave a symbolic interpretation of the moon and the sun on this jeton. Gaston was issuing a jeton to the honor and glory of being the second person and light of France, while his brother the crown prince, compared to the sun, was the first. The total solar eclipse seems a more likely explanation.