I sat on my back patio past midnight. It was a frigid twenty degrees, and I had my winter jacket zipped to my chin. Next to me was a small table holding a hot chocolate mug, a box of crackers, and a digital camera. My 70 mm binoculars were mounted on a tripod and positioned at eye-level in front of my cold but comfy chair. Bach and Vivaldi strummed beneath the starlight. I was ready for the five hour show.
Before me was the canvas of light that I have come to call my home. The full and glorious moon radiated her grandeur in Virgo, with the bright blue and sparkling Spica just to her west. Above her blazed the copper throne of Mars. Towards the western horizon glittered another white jewel, Jupiter, standing between the Twins. And to the the east, like a pearl balanced in the Scales, lay Saturn.
Not long after midnight the true spectacle began. The full and brilliant moon was touched by a shadow. Within minutes the touch had become an impression. Moments later a cosmic fingerprint had marked the Moon, as if some invisible daemon had reached across the expanse to pluck a pearl out of the waters and imbue it with a new order. Fiat Lux had become Sit Visum.
The dark curved shadow of the Earth slowly drifted from east to west across the Moon. As the dark shadow encompassed the celestial orb the color of the Moon transformed into a reddish-amber. They call it a Blood-Red Moon. In reality, the sunlight refracts through the Earth’s atmosphere spinning the celestial glass of a thousand sunsets onto the lunar sphere.
A total lunar eclipse is a marvel to behold. One needs to sit and watch through the several hours that the Moon passes through the Earth’s shadow to see first hand what modern people take for granted. Light and shadow follow the rules of physics. As the Moon became completely enveloped in the Earth’s shadow I became aware of a light display on the surface of the moon that has, I believe, reaching implications.
If one draws or paints a three dimensional object such as a ball or sphere, placed on a table underneath a direct light source, the object displays the light across its surface in zones. Here is one example:
Notice that on the back edge of the sphere there is a thin lighter area. Why isn’t this portion the darkest, as it is deepest into shadow? Because a small amount of light is actually reflected from the table surface onto the back edge; this is called reflected light. During the lunar eclipse I noticed for the first time that as the Moon passed through Earth’s shadow it displayed a very similar texture of light and shadow. The moon showed brighter on part of its surface, with its eastern end in shadow, but with a sliver of lighter area at its edge, as if there were reflected light. Moreover, as the moon passed through the Earth’s shadow the highlighting and shadow on the moon changed over time, and it was visually clear that the Moon was a sphere:
This may seem elementary. It begs the question however, in antiquity, how many people actually believed the Earth was flat? Clearly, ancient man understood the Moon was an orb. It moved in a circular orbit. The sun is also an orb moving in a circular orbit. Moreover, the shadow crossing the Moon during an eclipse is curved, and it is from the Earth. Oral peoples viewing the skies would have understood the pattern: the spherical nature of the celestial bodies, including the Earth.
Plutarch tells us that the Egyptians had a great celebration when the Sun and Moon were in a straight line (Isis and Osiris 52.1); that is on the day of an eclipse. They understood that the Earth was between the Sun and Moon and that the eclipse was caused by the Earth’s shadow.
As I sat watching the lunar eclipse these were some of the thoughts floating through my mind. How much of those ancient cosmologies do we really understand? I think very little. Like the splendor of the Moon, the greatest things in history are in shadow, and reveal themselves in little slivers of light.