Wednesday 25 July 2018


Two Men Contemplating The Moon is by Caspar David Friedrich

On Friday 27th July 2019, there will be a spectacular lunar eclipse, which according to astronomers, will the longest eclipse of the 21st century, lasting a total of one hour forty-three minutes. Now as some of you may already know, a lunar eclipse is somewhat different from their better known solar cousins, and rather than the moon going black, they have the effect of turning our moon as ruddy red colour. This occurs because although the moon is completely behind the earth, our planet's atmosphere still allows some light from the sun through and making the moon glow an eerie red colour. 

These days it is seemingly traditional now that countless newspapers, magazines and websites will report the news of a forth-coming lunar eclipse with the added salacious spin. And that is that according to some fringe thinks and self-proclaimed mystic experts, that the appearance of this so called "blood moon" is a sign that the End Times are upon us. Now of course, lunar eclipses are relatively common - often there are two a year - and seemingly there's always some nutter somewhere willing to proclaim to the press that the latest one is a sign of a coming apocalypse. 

Now the basis for these predictions of on-coming doom are nearly always based on a handful of Bible verses. In the good book, the moon turning to blood is mentioned three times. Firstly in the Old Testament, the Book of Joel, gives us an outline of the Day of Judgement, with chapter 2, verse 31 telling us -
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come.
This prophecy is echoes again, this time in the New Testament, with Acts chapter  2, verse 20, telling us -
The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and notable day of the Lord come
And finally in the prophetic Book of the Revelation, the final book of the Bible, in chapter 6 we have a highly detailed vision of the Apocalypse, expanding on the outline given in Joel, and we are informed that as the world ends -
the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood
And so given the prominence and influence of Christianity in the Western World for many centuries, it would seem reasonable to assume that there would a great deal of folklore pertaining to lunar eclipses, in particular to when the Moon turns a blood red colour. However surprisingly, while there are many customs and superstitions associated with the moon, there is very little folklore relating to eclipses. And so it would seem that all these Doomsday predictions relating to lunar eclipses and the so called "blood moons" are actually a rather recent phenomena. In fact, according the Oxford English Dictionary, which traces the origins of words and phrases, the first reference to the phrase "blood moon" only appears in 1871. And what is more, it does not appear in a work of prophecy, but rather it turns up in a novel, Joshua Marvel by Benjamin Farjeon. The revenant line is - 
Blood-moons, and such a wealth of stars in the heavens, and such feather-fringed azure clouds as made the heart beat to think of them.
Furthermore the phrase's next appearance as noted in the OED, is in another novel, this time an American book entitled Black Hand by W. C. Blakeman, published in 1908 -
On the evening of the fete a fiery meteor swept the heavens from the pillars of Hercules to the Winter Palace and a great blood-moon stood over Paris.
Once again the phrase is being used in a somewhat poetic sense and there's no real indication that either Farjeon or Blakeman are actually referring to lunar eclipses at all. In fact, in these instances and others that appear later in the 20th century, I suspect the phrase "blood moon" is not referring to the shadowed moon of an eclipse, but rather other times when the moon sometimes appears red, orange or even pink. And these lunar colour changes often occur when the moon is faintly visible in the sky around sunset, or is low on the horizon. For example, harvest moons - traditionally the last full moon before the Autumn equinox, but often a name given to any full moon in late summer - are frequently red or orange due to the moon's position above the horizon at that time of year. 

A very red harvest moon - no eclipse needed! 

And all the above rather explains the absence of blood moon folklore. To begin with it would appear that the linking of the red moon of a lunar eclipse and the phrase "blood moon" is relatively recent, and seemingly is an invention of modern times. Furthermore when we examine Biblical passages the three oft-quoted lines come from, the absence of any doomy lore associated with lunar eclipses would indicate that our forebears in centuries passed quite clearly read their Bible a good deal more carefully than certain modern folks. For all three verses quoted above about the moon turning to blood are excerpts of longer prophecies. And in every case, the moon turning to blood is not given as a sign or harbinger of the End Times, rather it is something that will occur as part of the Apocalypse. To put into a modern idiom, it's a scene in the main movie not the trailer.

For example, as I remarked above, the Book of Joel and the Book of  Revelations gives us detailed timelines of the Apocalypse, and in both the moon turning to blood occurs fairly late on in the Apocalypse itself, in both cases after the infamous Four Horsemen have ridden out. Also the moon turning to blood is only a significant symptom of the Apocalypse happening if the sun has already gone dark too. Hence people in ages past were not unduly concerned by the moon appearing red, as these events lacked the relevant supporting signs and wonders, and indeed given the Horsemen are supposed to have ridden out by then, the appropriate carnage and devastation, to make it a signifier of the End of Days. 

Now currently there is a somewhat prevalent view that we are somehow superior to our ancestors. The view basically is that we have science and iPhones and therefore all very clever people, while people in ages past were just superstitions morons. However while it is true that we do have marvellous technologies and have made great advances in the field of science, this view of our forebears proves that despite most of us being au fait with Instagram and Xboxes, most people actually know next to nothing of real history.  For the truth is many societies down the ages have paid close attention to the phases of the moon, and eclipses were well understood even in the ancient world. Assyrians, Mayans, ancient Egyptians all had eclipses figured out, and the ancient Greeks even had a computer made of gears for calculating when they occured. While we measure years by the sun and are more concerned with minutes and hours, in centuries past when we lived in agricultural societies, it was far more important to know exactly what time of year it was. And in the longer term, documenting and calculating when rare astronomical events (such as eclipses) occurred, formed the basis for many calendar systems. For while these events may have been infrequent, they were absolutely regular, and hence were the foundations of accurate long range time-keeping. And even in the more recent past, almanacs used by farmers regularly featured when eclipses and other celestial events would happen as an extension of these ancient methods of time-keeping using the heavens. 

More importantly for this discussion, as our forebears paid more attention to the moon and the natural world, they were well aware that the moon can frequent appear a variety of different hues. And while they may not have understood the astrophysics behind it, they still recognised that an eclipse was a natural, and therefore fairly unremarkable, occurrence. The idea that our forebears were superstitions idiots who thought the world was ending with every eclipse is a nonsense. Hence there is no great body of folklore relating to eclipses. Ironically is it actually us, in our age of genetics, computers and technology who are lapping up nonsense about blood moons signifying the End of the Days. 


Anonymous said...

After eight unprecedented weeks of clear skies, deep heat, and dry air... it fucking clouded over and rained last night and there was no moon to be seen where I am, spectacular and blood red, eclipsing, or otherwise. Clear again, this morning.

Sometimes I hate this bloody country.

Unknown said...

Excellent article!