Fear and Awe: Eclipses through the Ages
By Wil Milan
Letís travel back for a moment to about 1200 BC, the time of the Shang dynasty in China.
Itís early evening, and the full Moon has just risen in the east, bathing the black night in its bright glow. In this time before sidewalks, streetlights, headlights, and the glow of cities, the moonless night was truly dark, so dark that it was often dangerous to be outside at night. The blackness made it difficult to see the ground, and the dark gave cover to beasts and bandits that prowled the night.
But a bright Moon dispelled the dark, and the radiant glow of a rising full Moon was as dramatic and as welcome as a sunrise.
To the ancient Chinese that bright full Moon was warm and comforting, but as we watch the Moon rise higher in the east on this particular day so many centuries ago, something strange and ominous occurs: The Moon is darkening. Its bright disk is being consumed by darkness, a growing shadow the color of dried blood spreading across its face, threatening to devour the entire orb.
As you watched the warm lunar light being extinguished and the Moon consumed by ominous darkness, what would you have thought? In that era predating popular astronomy and modern science, would you have been afraid, even terrified? Would you have feared for great destruction befalling the sky?
Omen in the sky
Ancient people did not understand the causes of eclipses (though they could often predict them), but just as we do today, they tried their best to explain them. Based on the gradual appearance of a lunar eclipse, the most obvious explanation was that something was consuming the Moon, and so it arose that the ancient Chinese term for an eclipse is chih, which also means "to eat." The dark-blood color of most lunar eclipses bolsters the idea that the Moon is being eaten, with "blood" spreading across its face.
To moderns that seems very fanciful, but the idea of the Moon being consumed in an eclipse was quite common in ancient times. Even more common was the view that a lunar eclipse was a very bad omen. Ancient Chaldeans believed that the eclipse was a display of the Moonís wrath, and that famine, disease or natural disasters would follow. Babylonians went so far as to try to determine which quadrant of the Moon was most eclipsed (very obvious in a partial lunar eclipse), using the direction as a geographical indicator of who would suffer the worst consequences.
Traditions and superstitions have a way of lingering, and so it is that even today we still have with us some very curious beliefs about eclipses.
In much of the world, for instance, it is still common practice to make noise to frighten away whatever is attacking the sun or Moon. As late as the 19th century, the Chinese navy fired its cannons to frighten the dragon eating the moon. Even today in many cultures around the world itís common to yell, chant, bang pots and shoot into the air during an eclipse. Much of it is more out of tradition than conviction, but itís still done.
Another superstition that survives to this day is that eclipses indicate a disease on the sun or moon, and that protection is required to avoid incurring the diseases. In Japan some still cover wells to avoid them being poisoned by the celestial "sickness." Some Eskimos turn over utensils to avoid them being contaminated, and in India some people lock themselves in their homes to avoid the "bad rays" from the eclipse.