Editorial: Lunar Eclipse – Journey from Myth to Science

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Anonymous picture taken during a Lunar eclipse

More than two thousand years ago, the Babylonians were able to calculate that there were 38 possible eclipses or syzygy within a period of 223 months i.e. about 18 years. This period of 223 months is called as ‘Saros Cycle’ by modern astronomers, and a sequence of eclipses separated by a ‘Saros Cycle’ constitutes a ‘Saros Series’. Although scientists now know that the number of Lunar and Solar eclipses is not exactly the same in every Saros series, one cannot underplay the achievement of Babylonian scholars in understanding this astronomical phenomenon. Their realisation of this Cycle eventually allowed them to predict the occurrence of an eclipse.

The level of astronomical knowledge achieved in ancient Mesopotamia cannot be separated from the astrological tradition that regarded eclipses as a prophetic significance: Astronomy and astrology were then two sides of the same coin.

According to ancient scholars, eclipses could foretell the death of the king. The conditions for an omen to be considered as such were not simple. For instance, according to a famous astronomical work known by its initial words,’Enuma Anu Enlin’ – ‘When (the gods) Anu and Enlil’ – if Jupiter was visible during the eclipse, the king was safe. Lunar eclipses seem to have been of particular concern for the well-being, rise and survival of the king.

In order to preempt the monarch’s fate, a mechanism was devised – the ‘Substitute King Ritual’ or ‘Sar Puhi’. There are over 30 mentions of this ritual in various letters from Assyria i.e. northern Mesopotamia, dating to the first-millennium BC. Earlier references to a similar rituals have also been found in texts in Hittite, the Indo-European language for which we have the earliest written records, dating to second-millennium Anatolia – modern-day Turkey.

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An edition of Harper’s Weekly describes the total solar eclipse of 1869.

Mesopotamia was not unique in this regard. For instance, a chronicle of early China known as the ‘Bamboo Annals’ i.e. ‘Zhushu Jinian’, refers to a total lunar eclipse that took place in 1059 BC, during the reign of the last king of the Shang dynasty. This eclipse was regarded as a sign by a vassal king, Wen of the Zhou dynasty, to challenge his Shang overlord.

In the later account contained in the ‘Bamboo Annals’, an eclipse would have triggered the political and military events that marked the transition from the Shang to the Zhou dynasty in ancient China. As in the case of the Babylonian ‘Chronicle of Early Kings’, the ‘Bamboo Annals’ are a history of earlier periods compiled at a later time. The ‘Bamboo Annals’ were allegedly found in a tomb about 280 AD, but they purport to date to the reign of the King Xiang of Wei, who died in 296 BC.

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A depiction of Columbus observing a lunar eclipse in Jamaica in 1502.

The complexity of human events is rarely constrained and determined by one single factor. Nevertheless, whether in ancient Mesopotamia or in early China, eclipses and other omens provided contemporary justifications, or after-the-fact explanations, for an entangled set of variables that decided a specific course of history. Even if they mix astronomy and astrology, or history with legend, humans have been preoccupied with the inescapable anomaly embodied by an eclipse for as long as they have looked at the sky.

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Throughout history, different cultures and religions have told stories to explain celestial events, including eclipses. Greek stories about the arrangement of stars in the night sky persist in modern culture. Shown here, Sagittarius the centaur and archer.

A story from the Toba people of South America claimed Lunar Eclipse happened  because the spirits of dead people had taken the form of jaguars and attacked the Earth’s lunar companion, leaving it bloody in the sky. When the Toba people saw the moon turn red, they would have to shout and make their dogs bark at the sky in order to scare off the jaguars and stop the slaughter.

There is great variety in the world’s many myths and folktales that attempt to explain the occurrence of solar and lunar eclipses. But these ancient stories tend to have a few things in common. They often involve eating or biting, and they tend to portray the eclipse as bad news. There’s certainly a uniform response and by that I mean worldwide that most people, most of the time, thought lunar eclipse was a serious trouble. And the nature of the trouble had to do with the fact that the foundation of their world seemed to be at risk – during an eclipse.

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1925, Lunar Eclips

People living in the modern world might not often think about why eclipses would be so deeply terrifying to ancient groups, but the lives of those people would have relied deeply on the ‘fundamental rhythms of the sky’. Things like sunrise and sunset, the lunar cycle, and the change of seasons gave order to the world, traced the passage of time, and in many ways determined people’s ability to survive. So, when a tremendous break in the rhythm happens, like the sun going even partially out or the moon disappearing, it is more than just an astronomical inconvenience. It’s actually serious business for them. The people who held these beliefs about eclipses also carried out rituals  included shouting or wailing at the sky during an eclipse, firing arrows into the heavens to chase off beasts, or making offerings to the creatures responsible for these events. The myth and the ritual are all part of interpreting and engaging the forces that make the world the way it is.

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African Rituals during a Lunar Eclipse

Fear of eclipses didn’t end with the dawn of the scientific era. Total solar eclipses can be somewhat unsettling to behold because they are ‘an extraordinary reversal from what should be’ like day turning into night. Modern skywatchers have reported being so hypnotized by these events that they completely forget to do things like snap a photograph or execute a scientific experiment. Skywatchers who have witnessed total solar eclipses may understand why people throughout history, and even into the modern era, have felt that these celestial events were a sign from another world. Some similar sort of stories also associated with lunar eclipse.

Take, for example, the story of a Roman emperor who witnessed a total eclipse in AD 840. In his book ‘American Eclipses’ journalist David Baron reported that the emperor was so unnerved by the sight of the eclipse that he stopped eating and eventually starved to death – plunging his realm into civil war. On a happier note in history, in the sixth century BC, a battle in Asia Minor between the Medes and the Lydian’s came to a halt when a total eclipse occurred in the sky, Baron wrote; following the event, the soldiers were eager to make peace, believing the eclipse was a sign for them to stop the fighting. Eclipses continued to have such dramatic effects on people at least into the 19th century. In the summer of 1878, a total solar eclipse swept down through the continental U.S. In his book, Baron chronicled the deep impact this eclipse had on 19th century astronomy, due largely to observations of the eclipse performed by a young Thomas Edison, and the scientists James Craig Watson and Maria Mitchell. But despite relatively extensive news coverage of the event, and despite the fact that astronomers knew not only when the event was coming but also where it would be visible, some of the people who witnessed the event swore it was a sign of the end times, Baron’s book said. A man named Ephraim Miller believed the eclipse marked the coming of the apocalypse, and rather than stay to see the horrors that were sure to follow, he took his own life, right after he murdered his son with an axe.

‘The way beliefs work, it’s rare that someone suddenly lifts the shade and everybody changes their mind’. There’s a spectrum of understanding across any culture.

Out of the many folktales from around the world that provide an explanation for the eclipses, one stands out as ‘There’s nothing quite so elaborate and colourful and entertaining’ as the eclipse myth from the Hindu texts known as the Mahabharata.

The very simplified version of the story goes like this – a group of gods wish to create an elixir of immortality, so they enlist a few demons to help them churn the cosmic ocean – using a mountain for a churning stick. The ambrosia eventually emerges like curds in milk. This process also leads to the creation of the moon and the sun, among other enchanted things. The gods promise to share the elixir with the demons, but when the task is done, the god Vishnu disguises himself as a woman, enchants the demons and steals their portion of the elixir. The demon Rahu then sneaks into the camp of the gods and manages to steal a swig of the elixir, but the sun and the moon spot him and blow the whistle on him. Vishnu cuts off Rahu’s head, but because the demon is immortal, this doesn’t kill him. He’s angry at the sun and the moon for ratting him out, so he chases the two objects through the sky. Every once in a while, he catches up with one of his betrayers and swallows it, but because he’s just a severed head, the sun or the moon slips back out through his disconnected neck. Nonetheless, the demon continues his pursuit indefinitely.

The complete story is beautiful and entertaining – not to mention one of the less ominous eclipse myths – and it did not disappear as people who practiced Hinduism learned about the science of the planetary bodies. As Eastern astronomers deciphered the orbital geometry of these three bodies, the story was adapted, not abolished. In particular, the demon Rahu became associated with what are known as eclipse nodes.

In 1963, a total eclipse was visible in Alaska and parts of Maine, while a partial eclipse was visible from much of North America. That year, Charles Schultz produced an eclipse-themed edition of his famous ‘Peanuts’ comic strip. In it, the character Linus states, ‘There is no safe method for looking directly at an eclipse. And it is especially dangerous when it is a total eclipse’. Later night sky expert Joe Rao said he deeply laments that this eclipse myth was spread by Schultz – so much so that Rao wrote many stories and books to help dispel it.

Fear of eclipses has not been completely snuffed out in the modern age. A persistent belief is that eclipses can cause birth defects in unborn foetuses or miscarriages in pregnant women. There is clear evidence that this belief arose in central Mexico around the time that European settlers arrived there. People also thought that during an eclipse children would turn into mice but the idea is not unique to that country. Over the decades, the observatory has received multiple calls from people wanting to know if this belief is true, so that they might protect themselves or a pregnant loved one. To be clear, there is no evidence that eclipses harm pregnant women or their foetuses.

On January 31, 2018, the total lunar eclipse was observed. The eclipse was prominently visible from many parts of the world, including India. The first lunar eclipse of 2018 is very significant as it is after a period of 150 years that a Super blue blood moon would be seen in the sky. A super-moon means that the moon will be appearing larger and brighter than it normally does. The scientific fact behind the lunar eclipse is a simple. The moon It has no light of its own and receives its entire glow from the sun. Total Lunar eclipse occurs when earth, moon and the sun form a straight line. The earth gets aligned between the moon and the sun, which prevents the light from the sun reaching the moon. The sun gets exactly behind the earth, which results in the shadow of the earth covering the whole moon. This is known as total lunar eclipse. No matter what the myth or the science proposes about the definition of lunar eclipse, Its a beautiful occurrence in the above sky.

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