by Nancy Alima Ali

Oct 28 2004 total lunar eclipse-espenak

When the Moon turns red, it is surely a sign of doom. Or is it? On the night of April 14-15, 2014, people in North America, South America and parts of the Pacific will get to judge for themselves with the chance to observe a total lunar eclipse.

Lunar eclipses occur when the full Moon moves into the Earth’s shadow or umbra. Starting with a partial eclipse, the Moon’s bright face slowly darkens, as though something is taking a bite out of it. When the Moon moves completely into the Earth’s umbra, it takes on a reddish color like blood. This is the result of sunlight scattering through the Earth’s atmosphere. Then, the process reverses itself as the full Moon slides out of the Earth’s umbra, growing brighter and brighter until it is back to its normal appearance.

For a lunar eclipse to occur, the Sun, Earth and Moon need to be lined up in a row such that the Earth casts a shadow on the Moon. This alignment means that the Moon must be in its full phase. But not every full Moon results in an eclipse. That is because the path the Moon takes in its orbit around the Earth is inclined approximately 5 degrees relative to the path that the Earth takes in its orbit around the Sun. Most of the time, the full Moon is a little bit above or below the Earth’s shadow. But when the Moon is near the lunar nodes (i.e. the point where the Moon’s orbital path crosses the Earth’s orbital path), everything lines up just right.

Total lunar eclipses are some of the most spectacular celestial events that can be seen with the unaided eye. Some of the earliest recordings of eclipse observations are from China. During the Shang Dynasty (~1550-1045 BC), oracle bones were inscribed with the word shih meaning “to eat”. It was said that a celestial dragon was eating the Moon. This belief is echoed in the term “draconic month,” which is the time it takes for the Moon to make one complete orbit relative to the lunar nodes. In India, the lunar nodes are associated with Rahu and Ketu, who are the head and body of a cosmic serpent. When a lunar eclipse occurs, Ketu is eating the Moon.

Many cultures viewed total lunar eclipses as a sign that something was wrong with the celestial order. The word “eclipse” comes from the Greek ekleipsis meaning an omission or abandonment. Similarly, the Inuit people call eclipses pulamajuq meaning “obscured” or “being covered with a blanket”. Around the world, a common response to eclipses is to either hide for protection from the perceived threat or to scare the eclipse away. Stories abound of pulling window shades down, singing at the Moon, shooting arrows at the sky and banging pots to make noise. Those within the community who had a direct spiritual connection with the sky, such as shamans, were called into action to conduct rituals that returned order to the cosmos.

Jungian psychology provides an explanation for why people have often responded to eclipses with fear. According to Carl Jung, the shadow represents all the things about ourselves that we repress and deny. When we look at a total lunar eclipse, we are literally looking at our collective Earth shadow. Except for astronauts in space, this is the only time human beings ever see our planet’s shadow directly. So viewing a total lunar eclipse is akin to confronting our shadow selves – something that can cause terror at a deep level of the psyche.

As a way to more deeply understand (and perhaps gain control over) the cosmos, some cultures recorded detailed observations of eclipses. Noting the patterns of frequency increased the chances of predicting future eclipses. As early as the 7th century BC, the Mesopotamians kept records of eclipses which were used to foretell disasters such as the death of a ruler. In the 11th or 12th century AD, the indigenous Maya people in Mexico recorded eclipses in detailed tables in the Dresden Codex. This was linked to the ritual calendar which provided information about the astrological meaning of the eclipse days. In 1504 AD, Christopher Columbus used an astronomical almanac to trick the native people of Jamaica. As a way to force the Taino into providing food for his sailors, Columbus said that God would punish them by making the Moon “inflamed with wrath”. When he knew the eclipse was almost over, he announced that God had agreed to bring the Moon back as long as the Taino kept the food coming.

Fortunately, today information about future eclipses is widely available to anyone with an internet connection. For all necessary details about when and where to see the total lunar eclipse on April 15, visit

Wishing you clear skies!


NancyAli 2014 SmallNancy Alima Ali, M.Ed., is a Coordinator of Public Programs at Multiverse at the Space Sciences Lab at the University of California, Berkeley. For over 15 years, Ms. Ali has been active in both formal and informal education as a classroom teacher, college instructor, museum educator, curriculum developer and program manager. Ms. Ali has a particular interest in exploring the ways in which multiple worldviews contribute to our understanding of the cosmos. She blogs about the intersection of astronomy and culture at



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