What Old Cultures Thought of Moon Eclipses

In the above video I’m reading out a chapter from Moon Lore by Timothy Harley, which talks about what ancient cultures thought of Moon, as well as Sun, eclipses.

Here is a brief summary of the chapter. You can also read it yourself on Sacred Texts.

Almost without exception, old cultures of the East as well as West thought eclipses to be catastrophic events with an uncertain result. Ancient peoples believed that their personal actions could change the outcome of the catastrophe, though some people, like certain Chinese societies, sometimes left this responsibility for their country officials to deal with.

The action that almost all cultures employed during eclipses was to use as much noise as possible. That’s because they believed the cause of eclipses to be the devouring of the Moon (or Sun) by some celestial monster. So they made a lot of noise to discourage the monster from swallowing the Sun or Moon.

It was often believed that the celestial monster was a dragon or serpent, and that’s the reason still today in astrology the nodes of the Moon are called Dragon’s head and tail.

To help the Moon win the fight with the celestial monster, people would make all sorts of loud noises, usually with kitchen utensils, to scare the evil one away. Some people thought being in water was the safest place to be during an eclipse, yet others would go outside, or stay on the roofs of their houses, so that the noise they made would be heard better by either the Moon or its enemy.

On some rare occasions it was thought that the Sun was swallowing the Moon on Moon’s eclipse, and the Moon – the Sun on the solar eclipse. For example, Mexicans used to believe this.

Chaldeans, who were star observers, as well as certain learned Greeks were of more scientific opinions. Berosus, a Babylonian writer, believed lunar eclipses to be caused by the Moon turning its dark side to the earth; Anaximenes believed that independent, usually invisible to us, celestial bodies were responsible for solar or lunar eclipses. (I obtained further information on Anaximenes by reading a Jstor.org journal article Anaximenes’ Astronomy by P. J. Bicknell).

Some Greek philosophers thought that when the Moon was eclipsed, it meant that it fell into the conjunction with the bright Sun, yet most Greeks believed the eclipse to be caused by the actions of evil magicians. Others believed the eclipses to be caused by the charms of witches, and they made various noises to prevent the Moon from hearing their spells!

Some of the tribes of American Indians, instead of attributing the eclipses of the Moon to being devoured by monsters, thought that the Moon on such an occasion was being hunted by huge celestial dogs. The Moon, they believed, reddened as a result of the blood released from its white flesh when being torn by the dogs. Ancient Germans believed that it was the wolf who was swallowing the Moon.

Greenlanders would carry boxes and kettles to the roofs of their houses and beat on them as hard as they could, and the Irish as well as Italians would also make as much noise as possible during eclipses.

Some American Indian tribes linked the Moon with dogs, probably because of their howling at the Moon, and thought that if they whip the dogs during the eclipse, the big celestial dog would desist from swallowing the Moon. A similar custom was observed among the Peruvians, who would strike their dogs in the belief that the Moon would listen to their cries and would recover (as they believed the eclipsed body to be diseased).

A tribe of what is the present-day Mexico believed that lunar eclipses were caused by the dust battle. They believed the Moon to be fighting with something, and they thought that by making much noise and shooting arrows heavenward they would distract the enemy and would help the Moon to win.

Orinoko Indians believed that lunar eclipses were caused by the Moon veiling herself in anger because of their habitual laziness, and therefore were particularly productive during the eclipses to obtain the pardon of the celestial body.

Some Londoners interpreted unusual celestial phenomena as the approach of the last day, and therefore would busy themselves in repaying all debts so that they are not found wanting on the day of judgment.

Tahitians believed the eclipses to be caused by some spell put on the Moon by evil spirits, and therefore would go to temples to pray for Moon’s release. Some believed that the Moon was eaten by some god which they offended by their neglect of offerings, and so they would offer various gifts in the hope that the god would eject the luminary from his stomach.

In the past the adherents of Islam also would try to make as much noise as possible during eclipses, thinking that the jinns laid hold of the luminary, and that it will be scared away by the noise.

In Canton city (I assume the author meant the city of China) one traveler observed yet another custom during an eclipse. People would light their lanterns outside of their houses and on boats, and would also make much noise. The greater the eclipse, the more lights would be lit. As the eclipse progressed, ever greater noise would be made to scare the dragon away.

Sometimes it was believed that some evil spirit is eating the celestial body when it was eclipsed. In India, many people would travel to the holy city of Varanasi, the seat of brahmanical learning, during such celestial events. It’s a city people aspire to die in, believing that by them being emerged in the holy river of Ganga flowing through the city, all their sins will be forgiven.

Sometimes people thought the eclipse of the Moon to be a warning of their bad conduct, or a warning against taking a particular action. For example, in China some rulers believed that it signified that the state is not being managed in the right way, and in the Roman Empire it once delayed the departure of the expedition against the Syracusans. The mass of the army was on the point of sailing when the Moon eclipsed, alarming the whole mass of warriors. The army only dared to move after the prescribed amount of days by soothsayers.

Apart from this, the Romans acted during eclipses in pretty much the same way as most cultures, making lots of noise and also lifting up pieces of burning wood and torches in the air, thinking that such actions would reclaim the light of the Moon.

Another traveller account is given about a particular custom in Galata, I presume in Turkey, which was reported in 1880. People, during the eclipse, would fire revolvers and pistols, in order to scare away the dragon lying in wait to devour the Moon.

So this is the end of the summary of the Moon Lore book by Timothy Harley.


  1. Dual Petal says

    Primitive people made up a legend or story for everything that they couldn’t understand.

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