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A Brief History of Lunar Eclipses
by Jay Ryan

" And of Joseph he said, Blessed of the LORD be his land, for the precious things of heaven, for the dew, and for the deep that coucheth beneath. And for the precious fruits brought forth by the sun, and for the precious things put forth by the moon." -- from the Blessing of Moses, Deut 33:13, 14

An eclipse of the Moon occurs at the time of a Full Moon. During most Full Moons, the Moon lies a little higher or lower than the Earth as compared to the Sun. So normally, the Sun's light shines fully onto the Moon's surface. But once in a while, the Full Moon lines up with the Earth and the Sun, and the Moon passes through the Earth's shadow. The Earth blocks the Sun's rays from falling on the Moon's surface, and the Moon grows dark for a time. And this is called a "Lunar Eclipse."

In Western history, the causes of the phases of the Moon and of lunar eclipses were first given by the Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxagoras, who flourished around 450 B.C. An historian named Aetius wrote of him:

"Anaxagoras, in agreement with the mathematicians, held that the moon's obscurations (phases), month by month, were due to its following the course of the sun by which it is illuminated, and that the eclipses of the moon were caused by its falling within the shadow of the earth, which then comes between the sun and the moon, while the eclipses of the sun where due to the interposition of the moon."

In about 350 B.C., The Greek philosopher Aristotle observed that the curved umbral shadow of the Earth on the Moon during a lunar eclipse was a proof that the Earth was in fact spherical. After all, what figure besides a spherical Earth could cast a curved shadow on the Moon?

"As it is, in its monthly phases the moon takes on all varieties of shape -- straight-edged, gibbous and concave -- but in eclipses the boundary is always convex. Thus, if eclipses are due to the interposition of the earth, the shape must be caused by its circumference, and the earth must be spherical."
-- De Caelo, Book II, Ch. 14

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus records only a single lunar eclipse in his writings. King Herod had dispensed with two enemies both named Matthias. Josephus writes, "And that very night there was an eclipse of the moon." In a footnote, the translator points out that the rules of astronomy date this eclipse as March 13, 4 B.C. This fact helps date the death of Herod and helps establish the accepted traditional chronology of Jesus. This is another example of the practical usefulness of God's celestial order.

During the Age of Exploration, lunar eclipses had been used to determine the longitude of places far from home. Suppose a lunar eclipse was predicted to occur when the Moon was high in the sky from a location of known longitude. The same eclipse would also be seen as the Moon was rising somewhere far to the West. It would also be visible as setting somewhere far to the East. And anywhere in between, the Moon's position in the sky could be measured using an instrument such as a sextant. By comparing the Moon's measured position with its predicted position at home, a navigator could determine how far in longitude a ship was from home.


This technique was used by Christopher Columbus on his voyages of discovery:

"On September 15 by the mercy of God they sighted an island which the Indians call Adamaney.... That night he observed an eclipse of the moon and was able to determine a difference in time of about five hours and twenty three minutes between that place and Cadiz." -- "The Life of Columbus" by his son Ferdinand

Unfortunately for Columbus, his reckoning was considerably in error. His ship was in the Caribbean, somewhere near the island of Hispaneola (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). However, the longitude he calculated is actually on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico! Columbus was a notoriously poor celestial navigator. His journals indicate so many navigational mistakes, many historians consider it a miracle that he found his way home from the West Indies!

Columbus was however a pretty savvy guy when it came to using astronomical knowledge to manipulate the native people he encountered. Columbus used his knowledge of an upcoming lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504 to intimidate some uncooperative Indians:

"The Admiral recalled that in three days time, at midnight, there would be a total eclipse of the moon.... The day before the eclipse, the chiefs having arrived, he told the gathering through an interpreter that we were Christians and believed in God, Who lives in Heaven, and were His servants.... As for the Indians, God was very angry with them for neglecting to bring us food.... They should therefore attend that night the rising of the moon: She would arise inflamed with wrath, signifying the punishment they were about to receive.

"But at the rising of the moon the eclipse began, and the higher it rose the more complete the eclipse became, at which the Indians grew so frightened that with great howling and lamentation they came running from all directions to the ships, laden with provisions, and praying the Admiral to intercede with God that He might not vent His wrath upon them.... From that time forward they were diligent in providing us with all we needed, and were loud in praise of the Christian God. For they believed that eclipses were very harmful, and since they were ignorant of their cause and of their regular recurrence and did not suspect that men living on the earth could know what was happening in the sky, they were cetain that his God had revealed that eclipse to the Admiral." -- also from "The Life of Columbus"

So anyway, Columbus's little deception worked and he saved himself and his men from a certain threat. But I hope we can all agree that is not a good way to conduct missionary work! There are many other historical eclipses, and the regularity of the clockwork of the sky gives nightly testimony to the wise and loving Creator who established such a wonderous order. Keep that in mind as you enjoy the "precious thing brought forth by the moon" this weekend.

Also by Jay Ryan:  
Signs & Seasons Book, Field Journal and Test Manual Pack
Signs & Seasons Book, Field Journal and Test Manual Pack


Signs & Seasons: Understanding the Elements of Classical Astronomy
Signs & Seasons: Understanding the Elements of Classical Astronomy

Signs & Seasons Field Journal and Test Manual
Signs & Seasons Field Journal and Test Manual


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