Blood moon or total lunar eclipse & superstitions

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
Those of you in Imphal, who have watched the Blood moon on Friday evening on July 27 2018 must have been thrilled as I was. I’ve never seen anything like that. It was not blood red here, in the UK, but coppery, with the usual darker spots. It started about 9.15 pm UK time, and the moon became of normal greyish colour at about 11.30 pm. It was the longest total lunar eclipse in this 21st century, lasting 103 minutes (1 hr and 43 min), as it occurred near apogee ie a point in the orbit of the moon at which it is furthest from the Earth.
We know there are two kinds of eclipses: solar and lunar. Solar is more commonly viewed than lunar as it occurs during the day. In lunar eclipse, the moon passes through the shadow of the Earth. And the moon looks red or near about, depending on what is in the atmosphere, and because it’s a long distance away from the Earth, the colours of sunlight with long wavelengths viz red, orange, and yellow sail through easily, while those of short wavelengths like blue and violet are scattered away as they do with the rising and setting sun. This is called Rayleigh scattering. The opposite is true for the blue sky when the lights with short wavelengths are scattered about and those with long waves slip through the atmosphere.
In solar eclipse, the moon passes in between the Earth and the sun. In lunar eclipse, the moon passes directly behind the Earth and into its shadows. As it travels through the Earth’s umbra (central dark shadow) it blocks direct sunlight from illuminating its surface. Solar eclipse is a brief event, and can be observed only in certain regions of the Earth, while lunar eclipse can be viewed throughout the entire hemisphere of the Earth.
Over the ages, humans all over the world, thought of eclipses of the sun or the moon as omens, mostly bad. They were regarded as prophetic signs of how somebody or something would fare in the future. While I was a little boy of 8-9 years old, I used to watch solar eclipses through a piece of dark broken glass, along with my elder sisters. They used to say that Rahu and ketu were swallowing the sun. It was called suraj grahan, the swallowing of the sun in Sanskrit.
In Vedic astrology, Rahu and Ketu were, part unseen planets and part divine in snake form, like Meetei Pakhangba. Rahu and Ketu vowed that they would avenge the sun and the moon by swallowing them when they came near them. I can’t remember this part, why. It’s Hindu mythology, a bit like Abhimaynu in the Mahabharata, who, while his father Arjuna with Krishna was fighting somewhere, was forced to penetrate the Chakravyhu (tactical military formation of the Kaurabs). He knew only the strategy of how to enter the maze, but not to get out. While in the womb of his mother Subhadra, he was listening when his father Arjuna was telling his mother about the chakravyhu. During the narration his mother had dozed off and so had he. As a result, he heard the entry stratagem but missed the exit part. The Moral is, Abhimaynu’s selfless sacrifice was a call of duty. He knew he was going to die.
He was like the martyrs of 18 June uprising in Manipur. Meiteis were doing very well with Hindu mythology and its spiritual philosophy (Eastern philosophy) with bits of Sanamahi on the side, until die-hard Sanamahists made a meal out of it after WWII.
I knew about the mechanism of eclipses only in secondary school (nowadays, my 5-year-old granddaughter knows about it). Three celestial bodies ie Earth, moon and sun must find themselves in a straight line within their elliptic orbits. It was explained that umbra is the dark shadow behind the moon or the sun, and penumbra, the faint shadow surrounding the central dark shadow.
Eclipses didn’t only bother ancient primitive people, even now they exercise great gloom in the minds of uneducated and educated people. In Hinduism the lunar eclipse is called Chandra Grahan with many religious significance and certain rituals. It’s regarded as a bad omen, as the full lunar cycle is very brief, only a few hours, rather than 28 days. As the gravity or the energy of the moon affects the human body system, the brief lunar cycle changes things on Earth and it deteriorates things very fast, such as nourishing food turning into poison. The stomach should be kept empty without drink or food. In time for the coming solar eclipse, many devout Hindus would throng at Kurukshetra, Hardwar or Varanasi for a dip in the holy water to wash their sins during the eclipse.
On January 15 2010, there was Maha Kumbh Mela at Hardwar attended by millions. On the day of the solar eclipse, the festival came to a standstill. People stopped eating and drinking. Temple doors were locked; idols of gods and goddesses were covered up, until washed with holy water from the Ganges after the end of the eclipse. There were only chants of Vedic hymns and occasional announcements on the tannoy about the course of the eclipse. These superstitions are things of the past.
In America, many believe this July 2018-lunar eclipse is a signal for the ‘End of the world’. This apocalyptic belief, linking the moon to the world’s end, stems from the interpretations of the Christian Bible, which some superstitious Christian ministers claim that Doomsday is well nigh (Acts 2:20 and Revelation 6:12). One passage in the Hebrew Bible, (the Book of Joel 2:3) reads: “The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, the great and the terrible day of the lord come.” American astronomers and others dismissed the belief as ludicrous.
In ancient times, all over the world, the complexity of human events and a specific course of history, was often considered, as determined by eclipses. In Babylon (southern Mesopotamia) 2,000 years ago, Babylonian scholars thought they could foretell the death of their king from lunar eclipses. So they devised mechanisms to pre-empt the death of the king. In ancient China, superstitions were no less constrained. Eclipses provided contemporary justifications or explanations for entangled courses of history.
In the 13th century, the Inca civilisation in the highlands of Peru, which lasted only about 100 years, no thanks to Spaniards, who destroyed it gradually, beginning in 1532, had a particular conviction.
According to National Geographic Channel, the Incas believed that the lunar eclipse was caused by a jaguar who attacked the moon and turned it blood-red colour. They feared that the jaguar, when he finished eating the moon, would crash to Earth and eat them. They would try to drive it away, by shaking their spears at the moon and beat their dogs to make them bark. Three decades earlier, Italian Christopher Columbus, who did not discover America, but introduced America to European explorers, was stranded on the northern coast of Jamaica, during his fourth and the last voyage to America in 1502. During the voyage he lost two of his ships, while the remaining two were infested with shipworms that ate the ship’s wood They were not seaworthy.
It was on June 30 1503. At first, the natives received them well, and fed them for six months. But when half of Columbus’s crew mutinied, and frequently raided, robbed or cheated the natives, the locals eventually decided to stop giving them food and supplies. Faced with starvation, Columbus had to do something quickly. He pulled a rabbit out of his hat, to cower Jamaicans to provide provisions for his crew.
He consulted his almanac (reference book of astrological tables). Looking in the book he noticed that a total lunar eclipse was predicted on February 29 1504, giving an estimated time and duration.
Armed with this information, he requested a meeting with the leader of the islanders. He told him his God was angry with them, and he could show his displeasure, by making the rising full moon “inflamed with wrath”. The chief and his people didn’t believe him and laughed at him. The lunar eclipse and the blood moon appeared on time. The native people were very frightened.
With great howling and lamentation they came running from every direction to the ships laden with provisions and begging Columbus to intercede by all means with his God on their behalf. Columbus went to his cabin, apparently to pray and timed the eclipse with his hourglass. Shortly before the eclipse ended 48 minutes later, he told the crowd that they were going to be forgiven by God. So when the moon came out from the shadow of the Earth, it was all normal again and he told them God had pardoned them for their good deeds.
One theory now, why Columbus thought he had reached India (not the India we know now), was probably because of his wrong calculations using the almanac with lunar eclipses to determine his geographical longitude. He had no means of knowing how far he had travelled west on the globe. Understandably, he made the error, oblivious of the fact that he discovered an unknown continent, a new world.

The writer is based in the UK

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