You’ve probably seen the lunar eclipse of 21 October 2011, when the moon is partly and then entirely turned black, courtesy of the Earth passing between it and the sun. A few years ago, it got its name from an obscure lunar calendar book, Numbers 14:15-16.
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This isn’t the only way the strange astronomical event of eclipses is known to the public, or the only time the 12-month lunar cycle was captured by humans. In fact, there’s a long, complex history of such events, going back to the beginning of time.
In Roman times, eclipses were quite common, and were given great importance as a predictor of astronomical events. Alchemists suggested they were a sign from the gods that something precious was about to occur; and Renaissance writers, such as Petrarch, appeared to use eclipses as a sign of a dire time coming.
That said, it wasn’t until Johannes Kepler published his masterpiece, The Progress of the Solar System in 1609 that we know of eclipses being chosen as religious rituals. However, by then astronomers were already developing occultations and geomagnetic as well as astronomical events that could be portrayed this way.
In this manner, they intended for periodic astronomical events to be influenced by religious doctrine, and the reported ‘influence’ of eclipses was thus, in effect, a presentation of the dark night sky as an aesthetic choice, something that belongs to the altars of great deities.
Lunar eclipses aren’t unique: in Europe, we have regularly occurring ‘donut’ eclipses and one-month long La Plume rechecks (which will be visible in the UK from 6 September) to trace the edge of the sun.
The longer duration of the lunar eclipses of 17 August 2013 are shown as blue dots in red.