DeFlip Side #67: Legends of the Lunar Eclipse


Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Good news for the astronomically-, and even not-so-astronomically-inclined listeners out there: there will be a total eclipse of the moon tomorrow shortly after sunset. It will last for more than an hour, with the point of greatest eclipse happening around 6:20.

For those of you who might not know, a lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth gets between the moon and the sun. The Earth’s atmosphere refracts and filters the sunlight, turning the moon an orangey-red. It should be a good show.

Okay, but what’s the big deal about that, you ask. And it’s a fair enough question. Though the moon has provided perennial fodder for creative types, from Jules Verne to Shakespeare to Pink Floyd, our nearest celestial neighbor retains little romance these days. And despite President Bush’s call for a return to the moon by 2020—and NASA’s subsequent release of a mission plan to do it by 2018—most Americans harbor little excitement for such grand schemes. I’d venture to say that even space enthusiasts see revived lunar exploration as secondary to the near-term prospects of space tourism and low-orbit joyrides promised by the likes of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.

Let’s face it, when it comes to the moon, it’s been there/done that. So news of an eclipse probably arouses no more than a passing interest, if even that. But that wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, long ago—and even not so long ago—something as simple as a lunar eclipse had the power to change the course of history.

Let’s start with some lore first. As with every other seemingly inexplicable natural event, the lunar eclipse has given rise to many fanciful explanations in different cultures though out the ages. Though there is one surprisingly common notion running thoughout them all: the idea of the moon being eaten, and the creeping red color or a lunar eclipse inevitably becoming associated with spreading blood.

The ancient Chinese term for an eclipse was “chih,” which also means “to eat.” The Chinese believed that a dragon was swallowing the moon, hence all the blood. It was common practice for people to make noise to frighten the dragon away—even as late as the 19th Century, when the Chinese Navy would fire cannons to do so.

Viking lore tells a tale about the wolf, Hati, who wished to eat the moon. When he caught it, a bloody eclipse would ensue. In order to rescue the moon, people would make as much noise as possible to scare Hati off.

And the Serrano Indians of California believed that an eclipse was caused by the spirits of the dead trying to eat the sun or moon. Shamans would sing and dance to appease the spirits while everyone else (you guessed it) shouted to scare them away. They also avoided eating in order to starve the spirits out.

This reluctance to eat jives with other commonly-held beliefs that an eclipse indicated a disease of the moon, and that protection was necessary to avoid catching it. In Japan wells are still covered during lunar eclipses to prevent poisoning by so-called celestial sickness. Some Eskimos turn over utensils to ward off contamination, and in India people stay indoors to avoid harmful rays.

Any way you slice it, a lunar eclipse is bad news. Chaldeans in ancient Mesopotamia believed the eclipse to be a display of the moon’s wrath, heralding famine, disease and natural disasters. Babylonians did them one better by determining which quadrant of the moon was most eclipsed, using that direction as a geographical indicator of who would suffer the worst consequences. Laden with such heavy superstition, is it any wonder that lunar eclipses were able to change the course of history?

One of the earliest such incidents was recorded during the Peloponnesian War, in the 5th Century BC. After a two-year siege of the Sicilian city of Syracuse, the Athenians were ready to pull out; but they delayed their departure due to a lunar eclipse which they took as a very bad omen. Well, they were right. The delay allowed the Syracusans to break the siege, and destroy the Athenian fleet and army. This started a cascade of military and political setbacks that eventually led to the end of Athenian democracy, and the permanent decline of Greek civilization—all stemming from the lunar eclipse of 413 BC.

Another lunar eclipse in the year of 1504 had profound consequences for the successful completion of Christopher Columbus’s fourth voyage of exploration to the New World. A storm stranded Columbus and his crew on the island of Jamaica for a year. While awaiting rescue, the arrogant and overbearing Columbus alienated the natives to the point where they refused to provide food for the stranded sailors. So Columbus, consulting a shipboard almanac and finding that a lunar eclipse was imminent, told the native chiefs that God would punish them if they didn’t feed his crew. And as an omen of his intent, God would darken the moon. Cue the eclipse. The trick worked; the terrified chiefs agreed to continue supplying Columbus and his crew with everything they needed until they were rescued.

So, as you see, the moon really is a harsh mistress. And though it has been charted, graphed, cataloged and mostly forgotten, lunar superstitions still abound. My wife is a nurse who works the nightshift, and she swears that a full moon brings out all the crazies.

But there are other, far more positive aspects attributed to the moon, which I have a much more vested interest in believing. Last month marked the passing of the Chinese New Year, and the start of the lunar Year of the Pig, and not just any old pig, but the fire pig. Being that my wife and I are in the process of adopting from China, and that our baby girl will probably be a little under a year old when we get her in mid-2008, odds are that she will be born in this, the lunar year of the Fire Pig. And apparently this is a very big deal in traditional Chinese culture. To be born in the Year of the Pig is considered lucky. Pigs are honest, gallant, sturdy, courageous, natural, loyal, thoughtful and unselfish.

Now to be born in the year of the Fire Pig is to be truly blessed. Fire Pigs are characterized by their stonehearted heroism and pigheaded determination; they are immensely energetic and sensual, and since they are willing to try their luck at anything, they are successful against great odds. There is currently a mini baby boom happening in Chinese-American communities across America to take advantage of these auspicious conditions, all of which are apparently dictated by the moon.

So as I watch the red glow sweeping across the face of the moon tomorrow night, it won’t be a harbinger of blood and foreboding as it was in times past; it will be a herald of fire and optimism to usher in the arrival of my little girl, Valerie Marie, and the bright future that awaits her. I can’t wait to meet you, kiddo.