A lunar eclipse hung above the starlit sky on Sunday night from 8:30 p.m. to midnight. Also known as the as the super blood wolf moon, this astronomical anomaly has significant scientific and cultural meaning.
William Oldroyd, an astronomy graduate student at NAU, explained that a number of astronomical phenomena occurred simultaneously to give this lunar eclipse such a unique name.
According to Oldroyd, the "super" part comes from the supermoon, which is when the moon is at the closest point of orbit to the Earth. This occurs three to four times each year. The "blood" aspect originates from the moon appearing red from our point of view. This happens as the sun rises and sets around the Earth, resulting in the sun’s rays reaching the surface of the moon and reflecting back to the Earth. Finally, a full moon in January is also referred to as a wolf moon.
“While each factor is interesting to witness by itself, it is special to see all of them happen at the same time,” Oldroyd said.
He added that visibility is an important variable as well, and that this lunar eclipse was the most observable one we will see for a long time. Additionally, a meteorite crashed into the moon during the lunar eclipse. Oldroyd said there were several researchers studying the rarity, adding this was the first time such an event was caught on video.
This astronomical event has heavy cultural implications as well. In Northern Arizona, there are many traditional elders from various tribes that reside here and practice their culture. A local Navajo woman, who asked to remain unidentified, elaborated on how significant this event is for the Navajo people. She explained that participating in the lunar eclipse depends on how Navajo people were culturally raised, and ranges on a spectrum of people not practicing their heritage to people implementing every tradition.
She clarified that the beliefs of the Navajo tribe, just like other tribes, are dense with information and stories. She said that each family has their own version of the traditional stories, but the ultimate message is the same. During the lunar eclipse, the moon is becoming the “young maiden,” and is returning to their homeland. It initiates the process of creating spiritual equilibrium with all living beings, including plants, animals and people.
“It’s a renewal of life and a chance for rebirth for everyone and everything,” she said.
Reiterating that each Navajo person and family has their own way of participating in the lunar eclipse, she described how her family prepares for the event. Her family’s experience goes on for hours. She said that during the eclipse, they have to go inside their home, shut the blinds and turn off the lights. During a solar eclipse, they do the best they can not to let any light in.
They do this to avoid witnessing the event. Her family also evades pictures or videos of it on the internet and other media platforms. They believe that seeing the eclipse can lead to health disparity such as cancer or blindness.
If preparation of the lunar eclipse, her family eats dinner early as they are not permitted to eat, sleep or go to the restroom during the experience.
“We have to plan ahead and eat dinner early. We have to mentally, physically and emotionally prepare for this,” she said.
She added that some families will tell stories, while others will pray together and sing traditional songs. Regardless of how practicing Navajo people engage in the spiritual event, every element of how to be humble during the eclipse and respecting the process is extremely important.
Another culture that gives significance to eclipses are the Maya people. Jeronimo Vasquez is a local astronomer from the Maya groups of Poqomchi’ and Mam. According to Vasquez, there are 31 Mayan speaking groups alive today, each with their own traditions and calendars. However, eclipses are typically a fearful time for the Maya and they would abstain from normal activity.
According to Vasquez, it was common in all Maya groups that people would avoid their normal activities because they were afraid of the eclipse causing supernatural events, such as tools coming to life and attacking their owner.
Vasquez said some Maya people believe that when there’s a lunar eclipse, the moon dies and is reborn. Other groups believe that an eclipse was a foretelling of death. Additionally, a handful of Maya groups believe eclipses are a fight between the sun and the moon. This astronomical tug of war depicts the sun beating the moon during a total lunar eclipse, as the shadow of the sun envelops the moon.
While stories about eclipses vary from culture to culture, Vasquez pointed out that there is something unique about the Maya.
“In the past, other cultures around the world had observational astronomy, but the Mayans had predictive astronomy,” Vasquez said.
Through scientific observation, the ancient Maya were able to understand the different relationships between the sun, moon and Earth. Vasquez said it took many generations of Mayan astronomers to routinely watch the sky in order to accumulate extensive knowledge regarding eclipses.
“If I have a hypothesis for any study, I have to observe an event happening repeatedly before I make any confirmation,” Vasquez said. “Imagine how many people were involved in creating these precise calendars.”
Vasquez added it took hundreds of years of observation to achieve such accuracy in predicting eclipses. The Maya had the full eclipse cycle mapped out by the 1200s, and astronomers were able to predict eclipses with an error of no more than a day.
Today, we have the benefit of technology to calculate when eclipses happen. Doing it the old-fashioned way was incredibly difficult and required rigorous observation.
According to Oldroyd, the next observable lunar eclipse will be in 2022. From both a spiritual and a scientific point of view, the super blood wolf moon was historic and will be remembered for years to come.