"I will produce portents both in the sky and on the earth – blood, fire, and columns of smoke."
"The sunlight will be turned to darkness and the moon to the color of blood, before the day of the LORD [Yahweh] comes – that great and terrible day!"
This is from the book of the Hebrew prophet Joel, Chapter 2, verses 30 and 31 (NET [New English Translation] Bible, Biblical Studies Press, Richardson, Texas, 2005). It was written at some time between 800 B.C.E. and 350 B.C.E., and it clearly shows what in the minds of the ancients it was thought of the origin or cause of eclipses.
And in other cultures it was similar: "The eclipse of the Moon which took place in Marchesvan (month VIII) began [in the east]. That is bad for Subartu. What [is wrong]? (...) What is being done to (make) its evil pass? . . ." cried the scribe Bel-sum-iskun of Babylon in 675 B.C.E. (quoted by F. Richard Stephenson, "Historical Eclipses and the Earth's rotation", Cambridge University Press, London, 1997, page 125).
But in the "Book of Odes" of the eighth-century B.C.E. China some regularity on the phenomenon was already intuited: "Then the Moon became small (...) For the Moon to be eclipsed is but an ordinary matter." (Quoted by Stephenson, in the same book, page 222).
At that time the Babylonians already had records of centuries of astronomical observations, written on clay tablets, with the positions of the Sun, Moon and planets at different points in time. With this database they realized that if there is an eclipse today, there will be another similar eclipse within 223 full moons. This cycle was then known as the Saros cycle, and was the first system used to predict eclipses with more or less accuracy.
GREECE AND ROME
About the year 450 B.C.E. a Greek named Anaxagoras was sent to prison for not practicing religion and for teaching theories about the "things above." He said that the sun was not a god and that the moon was made of common earths, and it simply reflected the sunlight. Most of his writings have been lost unfortunately, but Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170 - ca. 236 ), in his "The refutation of all heresies" (reprinted in "Ante-Nicene Fathers", Volume 5, Book 1, chapter 5, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, revised and arranged chronologically by Cleveland Coxe, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1885), brings us one important fact about him: "This person affirmed (...) that the moon is eclipsed when the earth is interposed (...) This person was the first to frame definitions regarding eclipses and illuminations."
But this knowledge was hardly seeping out of scientific circles. Thus Plutarch tells us of the stumbling of Nicias (ca. 470 - 413 B.C.E.), an Athenian general who was besieging Syracuse and was preparing for the final assault. But on that night there was a lunar eclipse. Nicias was flooded with a superstitious terror and immediately abandoned his plans. This gave the enemy time to counterattack and Nicias ended prisoner.
But Alexander the Great, possibly the most successful general in Hstory, was to be smarter. On 20 September of the year 331 B.C.E., while preparing for the Battle of Arbela, a lunar eclipse occurred. Historian Quintus Curtius Rufus ("De la vida y las acciones de Alexandro, el Grande" ["Of the life and actions of Alexander the Great"], translated from the Latin language into Spanish by Don Mateo Ibañez de Segovia y Orellana, Marquis of Corpa, Knight of the Order of Calatraba. With license. In Madrid: in the press of Ramon Ruiz. Year M. DCC. XCIV. , Book Quarto [Fourth], Chapter X) relates that "caused in the Army such a religious commotion that unforeseen incident (coming about in occasion of being such a bloody battle just to begin, and whose success had everybody in quite a care) than passing into unrestrained terror, bursted forth the soldiers, worried about it, in voices high and disconsolate." Alexander quickly summoned his generals and ordered his Egyptian soothsayers give their views. These wisepersons already knew the real cause of eclipses: that the cyclical movement of the Moon led it to be right behind the Earth. But it was decided not to explain this to the common soldiers: instead, they said "That the Greeks were denoted by the Sun and the Persians by the Moon; and that no eclipse of this ever failed to be to [these enemies] unlucky omen of some calamity. (...) With such, not being there more effective means to curb popular barbarianism, which as unrestrained and inconstant as it were, if it was to be touched of some useless shadow of religion, better obey the Diviners, than their Generals."
The Roman tribune, later consul, Sulpicius Gallus had a slightly more democratic behavior in a similar circumstance. Literary aficionado man, he was aware that there was a eclipse forecast for the night of 21 June 168 B.C.E.. Historian Titus Livius tells us ("History of Rome", volume 6, book 44, section 37, Ernest Rhys, editor, Rev. Canon Roberts, translator, J. M. Dent & Sons, London, 1905) that in the previous day Sulpicius Gallus addressed the troops of his fellow countryman Lucius Paulus, saying to them that "they ought not to take its obscuration [of the Moon] when it is hidden in the shadow of the earth for a supernatural portent" because just as they did not fear the cycle of day and night and the moon phases, they should not fear the eclipses, "because this happened in the natural order of things at stated intervals." The enemy's soothsayers, instead, could not give an explanation about the phenomenon other than the downfall of their kingdom: "Shouts and howls went on in the Macedonian camp". Lucius Paulus won the battle and with that the Third Macedonian War came to an end.
But superstition was slower in leaving off heavily theocratic cultures. Incidentally, Jewish historian Josephus gives us the death date of the cruel Herod the Great, saying it was shortly after one of his famous massacres, in which night there was a lunar eclipse. With modern Astronomy it is estimated that this may have been the eclipse of 23 March of the year 5 B.C.E. or the one of 13 March of 4 B.C.E. With these data and referring to the Gospels, one can speculate that Jesus of Nazareth was born before that date.
In Acts, chapter 2, Simon Peter continues associating the wrath of God with eclipses, insisting that Joel's prophecy was fulfilled when the crucifixion of his teacher. Modern calculations show that the change of "the moon to blood" was witnessed on Jerusalem on 24 November of the year 29 Common Era, and again on 3 April of the year 33, potentially indicating the date of death of Jesus of Nazareth.
In those days the Greeks already had complex mathematical formulas to predict even the hour of eclipses, mainly thanks to the observations of the movements of the Moon and of its distance made by the greatest astronomer of Antiquity, Hipparchus. Yet in the Middle Ages it was still possible to see in Western literature phrases like "Her wæs se mona swelce he wære mid blode begoten" in 734, and "eall blodig" in 1117, as can be read in "The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle". (The first sentence in the manuscripts "A" [Cambridge], "B" [London], "C" [London], "D" [London] and "E" [Oxford], at least, and the second in the manuscript "E" [Oxford], transcription and review by Tony Jebson, http://asc.jebbo.co.uk).
THE TRICK OF COLUMBUS
In the Modern Age, the brilliant yet authoritarian Christopher Columbus decided once again to apply that thing of "knowledge is power". In 1504, he and his crew of over 50 Spaniards were isolated in the small bay of Santa Gloria (now Saint Ann), in Jamaica, for quite a long time by then. The situation worsened in February, when the natives refused to continue supplying food to the foreigners.
David Thomas, in his book "Christopher Columbus: Master of the Atlantic" (Andre Deutsch Ltd., London, 1991, p. 194) relates that Columbus summoned all local chieftains. He warned them that his god would punish them with hunger and disease if they did not help the Spaniards. And as proof of his intentions he would make a sign in heaven: a darkening of the Moon.
Some chieftains feared and others scoffed, but soon a dark shadow began to pass over the face of the Moon. Great fear seized the Indians. They implored Columbus to intercede with his god. The European retired to his cabin for about one hour, and then went back to the chiefs. He explained that the Spaniards were Christians, that they believed in a god who lived in heaven and rewarded the good and punished the bad. He informed them that the god was ready to withdraw his threat of punishment if they behaved well and provided food and other necessities to the Christians again, and that as a sign that he was willing to forgive the Indians, he would remove the shadow from over the Moon.
Of course, the trick was that Columbus had in his ship "Capitana" a copy of Johann Müller's calendar, published in Nuremberg back in 1474. It contained predictions of lunar eclipses for many years ahead. Columbus noticed that there was a prediction for 29 February 1504, precisely at the time of the dispute he wanted to settle.
The Indians, in their ignorance, accepted "the terms of the Christian god," and when the shadow was gone they marveled. From then on, the Spaniards always obtained whatever they wanted from these Indians.
EXAMPLE OF PREDICTION USING THE SAROS CYCLE
As we read, the Babylonians perceived that there is a rare interval of 18 years and 11 days when eclipses usually occur. For example, the lunar eclipse seen on the date 2014 OCT 8 occurred 18 years and 11 days after that of the date 1997 SEP 27. The one occurred on 2015 APR 4, was 18 years and 11 days after the one of 1997 MAR 24. The most recent one was on 2015 SEP 28, and once again, reviewing historical records, we see that it was also at 18 years and 11-odd days of another eclipse from the past, in this case the lunar eclipse of 1997 SEP 16:
1986 APR 24
1986 OCT 17
1989 FEB 20
1989 AUG 17
1990 FEB 9
1992 DEC 9
1993 JUN 4
1993 NOV 29
1996 APR 4
1996 SEP 27 ←
1997 MAR 24 ←
1997 SEP 16 ←
2000 JAN 21
2000 JUL 16
2001 JAN 9
2003 MAY 16
2003 NOV 9
2004 MAY 4
2004 OCT 28
2007 MAR 3
2007 AUG 28
2008 FEB 21
2010 DEC 21
2011 JUN 15
2011 DEC 10
2014 APR 15
2014 OCT 8 ← this eclipse occurred at 18 years and 11-odd days after one from the past.
2015 APR 4 ← this eclipse occurred at 18 years and 11-odd days after one from the past.
2015 SEP 28 ← this eclipse occurred at 18 years and 11-odd days after one from the past.
2018 JAN 31
2018 JUL 27
2019 JAN 21
2021 MAY 26
2022 MAY 16
2022 NOV 8
Continuing our analysis of records at the top of this table, we see that there was a lunar eclipse on date 2000 JAN 21. With this data we can try to predict the next eclipse:
2000 + 18 years = 2018.
JAN 21 + 11-odd days (with a slight correction of -1 day because we already have gone over 5 leap years) = JAN 31 / FEB 1, whichever night contains the full moon.
Data from NASA show the Moon in eclipse at 13:29:50 hours on 31 JAN 2018, Universal Time. Genial!
And with this "magic", we adjourn. I wish you all clear skies.
If you want to share this article with others, you may establish an Internet link, but you cannot copy any part of this page. Copyright 2007-2016. Reproduction prohibited. All rights reserved. Eclipse Predictions by Fred Espenak, NASA's GSFC.