A couple of weeks ago, we observed a “Lunar Eclipse”. Because this year is when the moon is in its minor “Lunar Standstill” (refer to article on Lunar Standstill at Chimney Rock), it was the shortest Lunar Eclipse for many years. Because of the nature of the Moon’s and the Earth’s planes of orbit, an eclipse is an irregular event, that is, it appears to happen randomly.
A Lunar Eclipse is when the moon is shaded by the shadow of the earth; when the earth is between the sun and the moon. A Solar Eclipse occurs when the moon blocks the sun from the earth; when the moon is between the earth and the sun. The moon passes between the earth and sun once a month. And the moon passes behind the earth from the sun once a month. Consequentially, Solar Eclipses can only take place during a new moon and Lunar Eclipses can only take place during a full moon. But because the plane of the moon’s orbit is at an angle to the plane of the earth’s orbit around the sun, the proper alignment to cause an eclipse is rare.
Since it is so rare, many ancient cultures were surprised by and afraid of eclipses. Therefore, many fanciful stories and legends were created to explain the phenomenon. David Dearborn, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and an expert on the Inca, explained, “[The Inca] didn’t see eclipses as being anything at all good.” Based on accounts written by Spanish settlers in the New World, the Incan believed that during a Lunar Eclipse, a jaguar was attacking and trying to eat the moon. As often happens during a Lunar Eclipse, when the moon turned red, the Inca saw it as the blood of the moon. Fearing that after the jaguar ate the moon, he might come down to earth and feast on people, Dearborn, in a report in National Geographic, says that they would try to drive away the big cat by “shaking spears at the moon and making a lot of noise, including beating their dogs to make them howl and bark.”
Also from the National Geographic article by Jane J. Lee , published he eclipse myth told by the Hupa, a Native American tribe from northern California, has a happier ending.
“The Hupa believed the moon had 20 wives and a lot of pets, says Krupp [author of “Echoes of the Ancient Skies”]. Most of those pets were mountain lions and snakes, and when the moon didn’t bring them enough food to eat, they attacked and made him bleed. The eclipse would end when the moon’s wives would come in to protect him, collecting his blood and restoring him to health, Krupp says.
“To the Luiseño tribe of southern California, an eclipse signaled that the moon was ill, says Krupp. It was tribe members’ job to sing chants or prayers to bring it back to health.”
Ray A. Williamson, in his book “Living the Sky”, notes that the Tewa tribe of the Rio Grande region, “… dreaded the eclipse of the sun, an event that takes place in a given area only a few times in a lifetime. According to their explanation of the event, when the burning shield of the sun Father gives only a little light [total Solar Eclipse], he has moved away from the earth in displeasure with the people of this world who ar fighting. When this happens, the Tewa fear that he will retire to his house in the underworld (just as he does at night) and never reappear.”
This would prompt an elaborate celebration by the Tewa to implore the Sun to return.
On the website, “Starry Skies” (starryskies.com), several legends are noted:
The Pomo tribe of Native Americans are from the northwestern US. The Pomo name for a solar eclipse was “sun got bit bear.” They tell a story about a bear who goes out for a stroll along the Milky Way. Soon Bear met up with the Sun and the two began to argue about who would move out of the other’s path. The argument turned into a fight, which was represented by an eclipse of the Sun. Eventually the Bear continued along his way, but soon met up with the Moon, the Sun’s sister. Again, an argument ensue about who would move over and again the argument turned into a fight. Now there was an eclipse of the Moon. After the eclipse Bear continued on his way along the Milky Way and the cycle repeated.
Eclipses according to the Ge’
The Ge’ are among the Amazonian tribes of Brazil. They also believe that eclipses are a result of a fight between Sun and Moon. They say the eye of the Sun or Moon is pierced by a small boy who shoots them with an arrow. The wound bleeds symbolized by the Moon turning reddish and dimming. A shaman removes the arrow and the wound heals.
The Serrano Indians of California believe an eclipse is the spirits of the dead trying to eat the Sun or Moon. So during an eclipse, the shamans and ceremonial assistants sing and dance to appease the dead spirits while everyone else shouts to try and scare the spirits away. Meanwhile, everyone avoids eating food with the idea that it would starve the spirits out.
We know that ancient Native American cultures tracked, recorded and, therefore, were able to predict many astronomical events. But what about eclipses? I know of no concrete evidence that eclipses were predicted, but they were definitely observed and may have contributed to intensifying interest in the heavenly events. A case in point is the series of events that occurred between 1050 and 1100 A.D. This time in history produced a series of startling events that clearly captured the attention and imaginations of the Chaco Culture centered in New Mexico. Starting with the Supernova of 1054, followed by Haley’s Comet in 1066, a total solar eclipse in 1076, sunspots large enough to see with the naked eye in 1077, maximum Lunar Standstill 1076-1077, again in 1075-1076, 1093-1095, and another total eclipse in 1097.
The supernova was so impressive that it was recorded under a cliff in Chaco Canyon. There was extensive building on the peeks at Chimney Rock, Colorado, in anticipation of observing the full moon at maximum Lunar Standstill rising between the two spires. It was definitely an exciting time for ancient astronomers.