Sunday, 27 September 2015

Portent of Doom?

Lunar eclipses are caused when the Earth crosses between the sun and the moon, which passes into our planet’s shadow. The one tomorrow happens starting at 1.11 am, with a partial eclipse by 2.07 am and a full eclipse by 3.11 am.

However, it doesn’t go completely dark or disappear from view completely, but instead turns red.

This is because of light bending in the Earth’s atmosphere and is the reason why lunar eclipses are sometimes known as ‘blood moons’.

European Astronomy was pretty accurate in charting the sky, and Christopher Columbus had an almanac which showed a lunar eclipse in February 1504. He could not get the natives of Jamaica to give him food and shelter, try as he might. So he used this knowledge as a way to scare them into submission, telling their chieftain that God was angry that the natives wouldn’t help him. He said that God would turn the moon blood red, and then make it go away completely, as a way of expressing his displeasure.

Sure enough, the moon disappeared, and there was a great deal of terror among the locals. As the eclipse was about to end, Columbus said that God was going to forgive the natives as long as they kept the sailors fed. The moon reappeared, and Columbus and his men ate well until the next Spanish ship arrived.

It is a good example of how a people ignorant of science can be cowed by religion, and I rather think Columbus did not do Christianity any favours by abusing science in that way. On the other hand, I’m not hungry, negotiating for food for myself and my men, and facing starvation. It was, I think, better than going in and taking the food at gunpoint, but only marginally so.

The Inca feared that a lunar eclipse was caused by a jaguar attacking the moon. They would try to drive it away by making noise, including beating their dogs to make them howl and bark. Nowadays, Animal welfare groups would be on their case, but the Inca didn’t sacrifice the dogs, only people...The Inca no longer exist. The Spanish conquistadors saw to that in a rather brutal and nasty way, while at the same time imposing their brand of Christianity on the native population, but probably didn’t enlighten them about lunar eclipses.

The ancient Mesopotamians also saw lunar eclipses as an assault on the moon, says E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. This was an attack by seven demons.

We know from written records that Mesopotamians had a reasonable ability to predict lunar eclipses," says Krupp. So in anticipation of an eclipse, they would install a surrogate king intended to bear the brunt of any attack.

"Typically, the person declared to be king would be someone expendable," Krupp says. Though the substitute wasn't really in charge, he would be treated well during the eclipse period, while the actual king masqueraded as an ordinary citizen. Once the eclipse passed, "as you might expect, the substitute kings typically disappeared," Krupp says, and may have been dispatched by poisoning.

Maybe the installation of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader at this time has something to do with this myth!

Not all cultures view an eclipse as a bad thing, says Jarita Holbrook, a cultural astronomer at the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa, in an interview last year.

"My favourite myth is from the Batammaliba people in Togo and Benin" in Africa, she says. In this myth, the sun and the moon are fighting during an eclipse, and the people encourage them to stop. "They see it as a time of coming together and resolving old feuds and anger," Holbrook says. "It's a myth that has held to this day."

This was something that came up today when I was reviewing the papers on BBC Radio Jersey. I mentioned it to Christian May, who was talking about the recent news that Gay marriage has been approved in Jersey, and the law will be forthcoming. 

It was, I said, a time when the consensus in the States was to see this as a time of peace and reconciliation between opposing views, and that the advent of Gay marriage does make for a more accepting society. So perhaps the lunar eclipse at that time is propitious!

Christina Ghidoni asked me about the prophecies of doom. Among the more alarming Biblical verses referring to the moon can be found in Joel 2:30: “And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth:
 Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness. And the moon into blood,
 before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord” (KJV).

But lunar eclipses have happened before, and the world has not ended.

I suspect the same will happen this time, and it will be like the Beyond the Fringe sketch:. The doomsayers will say: “Not quite the conflagration we had anticipated,” followed by “Oh well, better luck next time, chaps!”

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