Myths and legends of the Blood Moon
SIGNS. Portents. Omens. There's something primal about the Moon. Even in this enlightened age, its glow can evoke a mystical experience. Little wonder so much mythology surrounds it.
It's just a rock in the sky.
And plenty of tricks of light play across its face as it joins the Sun and Earth on their dance across the cosmos.
We understand everything about it down to the millimetre and millisecond.
That's how we know that this Saturday will be the longest 'blood moon' for the century. Because it is at a far point in its orbit, the process will last some six hours and 14 minutes.
It will be completely in shadow for 1 hour 43 minutes.
The moon will start getting red about 4:30am AEST Saturday morning. The moon will be close to the horizon in the west-south-west. The total eclipse will takes place between 5:30 and 6:30am. It will then set at 6:55am.
This well-established clockwork of phases, colours and alignments still evokes a strong sense of mystery.
All are time-honoured responses to the moon. Whether you see beauty in a solar or lunar eclipse, or impending doom, will be based on your cultural and social background.
Knowledge, too, plays its part.
For those of us on the surface of the Earth, there are two kinds of eclipse: solar and lunar.
In a solar eclipse, the Moon passes between the Earth and the Sun.
In a lunar eclipse, it's the Earth's shadow that falls on the Moon.
What makes a lunar eclipse different is its scale.
The Moon's shadow only falls on a small portion of the Earth's surface, and often passes over quickly.
But when the Earth's shadow falls on the Moon, its blood-red stained face haunts the entire half of the planet that happens to be in darkness at that time.
Throughout history, though, those that have experienced either event have often felt it was all about them. It was a rare but personal sign from the gods. Therefore, it had to be observed, interpreted, tracked - and predicted.
And all this can add to the eerie red sense of foreboding, doom - and change.
The ancient Babylonian civilisation was fascinated by the heavens. It soon developed a complex school of astrology.
This is distinct from astronomy as it was all about interpreting the will of the gods - not understanding the clockwork of the universe.
But that understanding quickly became a necessary component.
"The level of astronomical knowledge achieved in ancient Babylonia (southern Mesopotamia) cannot be separated from the astrological tradition that regarded eclipses as omens: Astronomy and astrology were then two sides of the same coin," Associate Professor of Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies Gonzalo Rubio wrote.
Babylonian mathematicians were able to calculate that, over a period of 223 months, there were 38 possible eclipses. While not exact, their understanding of this cycle enabled them to predict the date and nature of upcoming eclipses.
And in ancient Babylon - almost 4000 years ago - that meant the difference between life and death.
Priests believed the timing of an eclipse could foretell the fate of kings.
The Babylonian holy book Enuma Anu Enlil (The Gods Anua and Enlil) declared that the lunar eclipse - such as we're experiencing this weekend - portended the death of a king.
Each eclipse was judged according to the position of other stars and planets (particularly Jupiter), and how much of the Moon was darkened.
If the expected omens were bad, the Babylonian king would ritually step down from office - and anoint a substitute king and queen.
It wasn't as benevolent as it sounds.
"I wrote down whatever signs there were, be they celestial, terrestrial, or of malformed births, and had them recited in front of Samas, one after the other. They (the substitute king and queen) were treated with wine, washed with water and anointed with oil; I had those birds cooked and made them eat them. The substitute king of the land of Akkad took the sins on himself."
In other words, a temporary royal family was appointed to take the fall for the real king. They were killed.
"His royal throne, his royal table, his royal weapon, and his royal sceptre" were burned for "the purification of the land".
Fortunately, the original royals were waiting in the wings to take back their old jobs.
Ancient Babylon wasn't the only culture that felt the Moon held their very fate in its hands.
"Even if they mix astronomy and astrology, or history with legend, humans have been preoccupied with the inescapable anomaly embodied by an eclipse for as long as they have looked at the sky," Dr Rubio wrote.
It was because of the all-powerful Sun.
To the Egyptians, the life-giving Sun was the god Amun-Ra. To the Greeks, it was Helios. To the Japanese, Amaterasu. Its warm presence meant fertile crops and health. Its absence meant famine and cold.
That such an entity of supreme power over life or death could be seen to 'struggle' with the Moon was terrifying.
"So the idea that the Sun deity could be temporarily extinguished in a total eclipse inspired a number of imaginative explanations," writes Emeritus Professor of Physics Roger Culver.
"Most involve some sort of evil entity trying to devour the Sun. Such myths undoubtedly arose from the fact that during the early stages of a solar eclipse, the sun appears to have a bite taken out of it."
Likewise, the powerful Moon appeared to be suffering a blood-smeared fate as the Earth's shadow - turned red by the refracted glow of sunset - passed across its face.
For the Chinese, this demonic entity was a dragon. For the Vikings, it was sky wolves. For the Hindu, it was the decapitated Rahu who chases down the Sun and Moon because they betrayed his bid for immortality. Occasionally, he catches and devours them - only for them to reappear from his severed throat.
"Of course, mythologies surrounding total solar eclipses still exist today, Professor Culver says, "perhaps a testament to the endurance of the superstitious side of the human psyche".
RED SKY WARNING
"And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth:
Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness. And the moon into blood,
Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord"(Joel 2:30)
The West's Christian roots are little different to any other when it comes to dire expectations from blood moons. And this lingers in our culture even now.
In Rennaisance 1621, a health guide recommended: "When thou guest to thy bed … draw close the curtaines to shut-out the Moone-light, which is very offensive and hurtfull to the braine, especially to those that sleepe."
As late as the 1950s, European mothers would refuse to hang out nappies under a blood moon for fear it would bring bad luck to their babies.
Evangelical pastor John Hagee predicted a sequence of four lunar eclipses in 2015 was a sign of the apocalypse. Later, as the events passed, it was wound back to being a sign of impending changes that would lead to the apocalypse …
If there was a link between blood moons and the apocalypse, we'd all be dead thousands of times over.
If you miss this Saturday' eclipse, it'll be back.
On average, there are three lunar eclipses every year. Total eclipses come roughly twice every three years (the next is January 2019).
They won't be quite as long. They won't all be in your part of the sky.
But they'll be there, like clockwork.