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"The spirit of the ghost took the spirit of the moon": this is how the residents of the Torres Strait anticipate eclipses.

Early in the morning a lunar eclipse is visible from Israel. In two weeks, a total solar eclipse will be visible from the US. With the beginning of eclipse season, researchers explain the use made of knowledge about them in ancient cultures

An illustration of Columbus predicting a lunar eclipse to trick the Taino people into providing his crew with food and supplies. Credit: Popular Astronomy (1879) by Camille Palmerion, via Wikimedia
An illustration of Columbus predicting a lunar eclipse to trick the Taino people into providing his crew with food and supplies. Credit:Popular Astronomy (1879) by Camille Palmerion, via Wikimedia

By Duane Hamcher and David Bosson, The Conversation

"The ghost took the wind of the moon": this is how the residents of the Torres Strait predict eclipses An illustration of Columbus predicting a lunar eclipse to trick the Taino people into providing his crew with food and supplies. Credit:Popular Astronomy (1879) by Camille Palmerion, via Wikimedia

It's eclipse season. The Sun, Earth, and Moon are aligned so that the Earth and Moon can cast each other's shadow.

lunar eclipse weak  Occurs tonight, March 25, 2024, and will be visible at dusk from Australia and East Asia, at dawn from West Africa and Europe, and for most of the night from the Americas. Two weeks later, on April 8, an eclipse full hot will wash over North America.

These events are a good time to think about an infamous incident 520 years ago, where eclipse prediction was allegedly used to exploit an indigenous population. The incident shaped the way we think about astronomy and indigenous cultures - but the real story is much more complex.

Columbus and the eclipse

In June 1503, on his fourth journey to the American continent, the Italian explorer got stuck Christopher Columbus and his team in Jamaica. They were saved by the natives Bani taino, who gave them food and supplies.

As the months passed, the tension increased. Columbus's crew threatened mutiny, while the Taíno grew frustrated that they had provided so much for so little in return. In February the Taíno reached their breaking point and stopped providing food.

Apparently, Columbus consulted an astronomical almanac and discovered an impending lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504. He Take advantage of this knowledge to trick the Taino, and threatened to use his "magical power" to turn the moon deep red - "ignited with rage" - if they refused to deliver supplies.

According to Columbus, it worked and the frightened Taino continued to supply his crew until relief arrived months later. This incident inspired the idea of ​​the "comfortable eclipse", which became an image Familiar In works such as "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" by Mark Twain (1889) and"The Adventures of Tintin"  (1949)

But is there truth in the image? How much did the indigenous peoples really know about solar eclipses?

Old Marple

In Torres Strait, knowing the stars is central to culture and identity. Traditionally, special individuals were chosen for years of intensive instruction in the art of astral knowledge, which took place in a secret place of higher learning called kwod. They will start as "Zugubau Mabaig" (Zugubau Mabaig), a term meaning "man of the stars" - astronomer.

Ish Mualgal David Buson, a talented artist and the son of Zogubau Mabaig, explains that these people paid careful attention to all heavenly things. They constantly watched the stars to inform the the comer Theirs (kinship group) when to plant and harvest gardens, hunt and fish, travel and hold ceremonies.

The final stage of Zugubao Maibai's initiation involved a rare celestial event. The apprentices were required to prove their bravery as well as their mental prowess by taking the head of an enemy, especially a sorcerer. In this way they will absorb the powerful magic of that person.

Bounty raids followed immediately after Full moon eclipse, signaled by the moon's blood-red appearance. During the eclipse, communities held a ceremony where dancers wore a special dari (head covering) while they systematically recited the names of all the surrounding islands.

The island named when the moon emerged from the eclipse was the home of the sorcerers they planned to attack. Women and children sought refuge while the men prepared for war. The ceremony, called Merlpal Maru Pathanu ("The wind took the wind of the moon"), was planned long in advance by Zugubau Mabaig.

Lunar Analma. Credit: György Soponyai

How is it done?

Solar eclipse prediction

The moon does not orbit the earth in the same plane as the earth orbits the sun. It's off by a few degrees. The position of the moon appears to zigzag across the sky for 29.5 days in a lunar month. When it crosses the plane connecting the Earth and the Sun, and the three bodies are in a straight line, we see an eclipse.

We know that ancient cultures, including the Chinese and Babylonians, had the ability to predict eclipses, and this Pretty hard to do. How did the Zugbao of Beijing get it?

There are some things they would know. First, lunar eclipses only occur during a full moon, and solar eclipses occur during a new moon.

Second, the "eclipse seasons": times when the planes of the earth, The moon and the sun can cross and create an eclipse. It happens twice a year. Each season lasts about 35 days, and repeats itself six months later.

The third is Saros cycle: Eclipses repeat themselves every 223 lunar months (about 18 years and 11.3 days).

The details are extremely complex. But it is clear that predicting eclipses requires careful, long-term observations and the keeping of detailed records, skills that Torres Strait astronomers have long possessed.

reverse the narrative

Beijing's Zugubao solar eclipse predictions turn the common understanding of the history of science on its head. In fact, indigenous peoples have developed the ability to foresee deficiencies.

Perhaps the real situation is better described in a short story called El Eclipse (1972), by Honduran author Augusto Monterosso.

In the story, a Spanish priest is captured by the Mayans in Guatemala, who choose to sacrifice him. He tries to use his knowledge that a solar eclipse will occur that day to trick his captors, but the Mayans look at the priest in disbelief. Two hours later, he meets his fate on the altar during the entire eclipse.

As the sun darkens and the priest's blood is spilled, a Mayan astronomer recites the dates of all upcoming solar and lunar eclipses. The Mayans already predicted them.

The truth behind this story lies in the Dresden Codex, a thousand-year-old book of Mayan records that includes charts of eclipse predictions.

For the article in THE CONVERSATION

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