For centuries, a ”total eclipse of the Moon” has inspired mythology, folklore, songs, and even movies. (Watch out for the werewolves!) Let’s revisit the ancient stories and superstitions about the “Blood Moon.”
Here at The Old Farmer’s Almanac, we have been recording celestial events and eclipse dates since 1792—but the mythology goes back centuries. It’s fun to separate the facts from folklore …
Why Does the Moon “Disappear” During an Eclipse?
Folklore: For centuries, people around the world struggled to explain the momentary disappearance of the Moon that resulted from a total lunar eclipse. This astronomical phenomenon was often faced with fear, although occasionally with wonder. Here are two (of many) ancient stories from around the world:
The Incan Empire was a vast empire in South America that flourished from the early 15th century A.D. up until its conquest by the Spanish in the 1530s.
They called their Moon goddess Mama Quilla and thought that she cried silver tears. They believed that lunar eclipses were caused by an animal or serpent attacking Mama Quilla. Their custom was to try to scare away eclipses by making as much noise as possible.
In mythology, this animal is often a big cat (a jaguar) that attacks the Moon; the blood-red color is the result of the cat’s attack. However, the Incan warriors ultimately prevail in scaring away the predator by making noise—plus exciting their dogs so that they howl and bark.
The world’s earliest civilization developed in Mesopotamia in southwest Asia; this culture’s influence extended throughout Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East from the prehistoric period to the Arab conquest in the 7th century A.D.
Mesopotamians believed the Moon was being attacked during a total lunar eclipse. By association, they saw that their king might be assaulted as well.
These ancient peoples were able to predict the Moon’s phases and the natural pattern of when a total lunar eclipse might occur. During a total lunar eclipse, they would protect their king by hiding him and installing a substitute ruler. When the total eclipse had passed, their king came out of protection and resumed his position as ruler.
Fact: We now know that a total lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun, Earth, and Moon line up so that Earth’s shadow covers the entire Moon. Consequently, the normally bright full Moon is shielded from the Sun’s direct rays and seemingly “disappears” (although not as much as a new Moon does).
The name “Blood Moon” gathered a lot of attention back in 2014–2015, when there was a “lunar tetrad”—a rare occurrence of four consecutive total lunar eclipses at approximately 6-month intervals. Some organizations attached religious significance to this astronomical event—suggesting that it was a sign of the end times. The term “Blood Moon” was attributed to statements in the Bible.
For example, statements in the Acts of the Apostles 2:20 read, “The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the day of the Lord comes, that great and terrible Day.” The Blood Moon is also featured in Revelation to John in passage 6:12, which states: “When he had opened the sixth seal, there was a violent earthquake, and the sun went as black as sackcloth; the moon turned red as blood all over.”
Fact: During a total lunar eclipse, thanks to the partial blocking-out of the Sun’s light by Earth’s shadow, the Moon turns an orange-red color, which results in a reddish glow throughout Earth’s atmosphere. This has been called a “Blood Moon,” although it appears to be more of a coppery color to many of us.
Do Supermoons Cause Higher Tides and Tsunamis?
Folklore: Tsunamis and higher tides can be caused by the increased gravitational pull of a Supermoon.
Fact: The 2019 total lunar eclipse will occur during a Supermoon—when the Moon is closest to Earth in its orbit. The Moon’s orbit is elliptical, so it’s not unusual for the Moon to periodically come closer or go farther from the Earth. The tides, of course, do rise and fall because of the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and Sun and the rotation of Earth. And the Supermoon will exert 42 percent more force at its closest point to Earth than at its farthest. So, yes, a Supermoon will cause higher tides.
Tsunamis, however, are caused by geological events here on Earth, such as shifting tectonic plates or landslides falling into the ocean. The tidal effect from the Moon won’t induce a tsunami.
Do Full Moons and Lunar Eclipses Cause Earthquakes?
Folklore: There is a higher chance of an earthquake occurring during a full Moon and a lunar eclipse.
Fact: In a recent study based on data from over 200 earthquakes, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) concluded that there’s no apparent correlation between the full Moon and the occurrence of earthquakes. However, a separate study from Japan found that when earthquakes did coincide with the full Moon, the earthquakes tended to be stronger.
This being said, the gravitational effects of the Moon are just so minute compared to the energy needed to move Earth that the probability of a high-magnitude earthquake being caused by any particular phase of the Moon seems very, very small.
Many people believe that the full Moon affects human behavior and psychology. The Latin name for the Moon—Luna—is the root of modern words like “lunacy,” “lunatic,” and even “loon,” as in “crazy as a loon.”
Fact: Science says that there is no clear statistical evidence of a full Moon affecting human behavior. Yet this belief about the Moon persists. Nurses and hospital staff often claim they also see more visits during a full Moon. Sometimes, there is no explanation.