SS #49: Lunar Eclipse and Superstition

In light of tonight's lunar eclipse, I thought it would be prudent to share some Superstitions and tales associated with this astronomical event:

Ancient Europeans firmly believed that one should never have marital relations during a lunar eclipse, for surely the resulting offspring would be born with demons inside them.

A well-known (still modern!) superstition says that a pregnant woman shouldn't touch her belly during a lunar eclipse. Doing so will cause the baby to be born with quite a noticeable birthmark. In India, one newspaper advised pregnant women not to go outside during the eclipse to avoid having a blind baby or one with a cleft lip. Food cooked before the eclipse should be thrown out afterward because it will be impure and those who are holding a knife or ax during the eclipse will cut themselves, the Hindustan Times added.

"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 Moons 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."

"A more modern turn of history hinged on a lunar eclipse that auspiciously occurred not only in the leap year of 1504, but on February 29th of that year.

That February found the famous explorer Christopher Columbus on the small island of Jamaica, where he had been marooned for several months. Though the island natives had originally brought food and provisions to Columbus while he awaited rescue, the arrogant and overbearing Columbus had alienated the natives to the point that they ceased to provide food to Columbus and his crew.

Facing starvation, the resourceful Columbus came up with a desperate ploy: Consulting a shipboard almanac and finding that a lunar eclipse was due, he called together the native chiefs and announced to them that God would punish them if they did not supply his crew with food. And as an omen of Gods intent to punish them, there would be a sign in the sky: God would darken the Moon.

Right on cue, the Moon started being eclipsed. Columbus dramatically disappeared into his cabin, ignoring the loud pleas from the natives to restore the Moon. After an interlude of more than an hour, Columbus emerged from his cabin and announced that God was prepared to withdraw his punishment if they agreed to continue supplying him and his crew with everything they needed. The native chiefs immediately agreed, and within minutes the Moon started emerging from shadow, leaving the natives in awe of Columbus power.

Columbus got his food and supplies, and from then until he was rescued in June of 1504 the natives continued to supply him."

Dispelling the superstition:
An eclipse of the Moon (or lunar eclipse) can only occur at Full Moon, and only if the Moon passes through some portion of the Earth's shadow. The shadow is actually composed of two cone-shaped components, one nested inside the other. The outer or penumbral shadow is a zone where the Earth blocks part but not all of the Sun's rays from reaching the Moon. In contrast, the inner or umbral shadow is a region where the Earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the Moon.

Astronomers recognize three basic types of lunar eclipses:

1. Penumbral Lunar Eclipse
The Moon passes through Earth's penumbral shadow.
These events are of only academic interest since they are subtle and quite difficult to observe.

2. Partial Lunar Eclipse
A portion of the Moon passes through Earth's umbral shadow.
These events are easy to see, even with the unaided eye.

3. Total Lunar Eclipse
The entire Moon passes through Earth's umbral shadow.
These events are quite striking for the vibrant range of colors the Moon can take on during the total phase (i.e. - totality).

Unlike an eclipse of the Sun which often requires a long journey to the path of totality, those of the Moon can be observed from one's own backyard. The passage of the Moon through the Earth's shadow is equally visible from all places within the hemisphere where the Moon is above the local horizon. Moreover, coming as it does early on a Saturday evening, this eclipse should arouse wide interest among tens of millions of people in the eastern parts of the United States and Canada who can see it during normal waking hours.

There is nothing mysterious about an eclipse, rather it is a thing of beauty.

Enjoy your stargazing tonight. Better Half and I certainly will.

14 responded with...:

Just Meg said...

I love your beautiful background on your webpage. I also appreciate your AIDS facts.
I will be watching for the eclipse tonight, although I am not an expert on eclipses.
Here, in the Carolinas, the full moon is so beautiful, especially against a grove of tall pine trees, which tonight, are rustling in the blustery winds.
What a beautiful day, these last two days!

NuttersNotes said...

Wow...thanks for the headsup. I was just out and saw the full moon. I am heading to check what time the eclipse is here in California.

Enjoyed the Columbus story....that took some cunning...and faith in those charts!

jillypoet said...

Thanks for all this information! I think it is so interesting how people will come up with explanations for things when they have no other idea how to explain. On the other hand, I have to admit to the urge to run across the street (at 11:30 pm!) and warn my due any day neighbor not to touch her belly tonight!

Kamsin said...

We had a perfect view of the eclipse last night as for once the skys were not overcast! I was thinking how it was probably kind of scary for people in times when they did not understand and couldn't predict when it would happen, especially as the moon was often an important part of their beliefs/ superstitions.

Nautical Parrot said...

Wish we could have seen the was snowing here in Steubenville just at the right time!!!

paris parfait said...

Fascinating and little-known facts associated with a lunar eclipse. Thanks!

Unknown said...

So informative and fun to read!

wrchili said...

Very informative! I never knew there were so many superstitions based around the lunar eclipse. I'm just sorry I missed it. I didn't know that we were having one :(

Laini Taylor said...

Such interesting tidbits! Thank you. I love stuff like this. The one about demons being born inside babies conceived during an eclipse. Wow! Crazy. And the Columbus story is great too. It seems so cinematic, like something a screenwriter would come up with but that couldn't possibly have really happened!

gautami tripathy said...

I am very familiar with the Indian stories of Lunar Eclipse.

I anyway enjoy watching it.

Nadeem1414 said...

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Bernard Ian M. Nieto said...

hi please give me some superstitious belief about weather

Kimberly Ann Petersen said...

Ack, I am pregnant with a baby that was conceived during the eclipse! Hopefully no demons here. :)

Anonymous said...

My mom went out in a moon eclipse and touched her belly with me and I have a very visible birthmark on my left thigh