The Blood-Red Lunar Eclipse Mythology

by Junelie Anthony Velonta | Feature Writer


Colors reflect multiple things in different cultures. There are, however, certain trends that transcend cultural barriers. Gold denotes wealth and royalty. Red represents leadership, courage, and even love. However, when these colors do not occur naturally, humans tend to do strange things.

This was the case in the past when a red moon rose in the night sky. Cultures around the world, however different, tend to rely on arcane or mystic esotericism for explanations. From the animistic Sköll and Hati of the Norse to the beheading of the immortal demon Svarbhānu of Hindu folktales, these explanations are reflections of the people’s beliefs and cultures. Of course, the colorful tapestry of Philippine culture has many explanations to this.



Bakunawa and Laho

Perhaps the most commonly known eclipse explanation, the Bakunawa has been immortalized in written, spoken, and even digital media. The Bakunawa is a giant serpentine creature that encircles the Earth.

In Visayan folklore, seven moons were created by Bathala to give light on the seven nights of the week. Jealous of Bathala’s powers, the Bakunawa ate six of the seven moons. This prompted Bathala to take precautionary measures. However, this did not stop the Bakunawa from trying to devour the last moon. Because of this, every time the Bakunawa tries to eat the last remaining moon, the locals try to scare it off with noises, chants, and even ritualistic challenges.

The earliest account of the Bakunawa was documented by the Augustinian missionary Fr. Alonso de Mentrida in Diccionario de la Lengua Bisaya Hiligueina y Haraya. Published in 1628, it was the first to define the Bakunawa and record the sentences and phrases associated with it.

The pre-colonial Tagalogs have a similar tale with a monster named Laho. According to The Soul Book, it was a serpent that was responsible for the uncommon eclipse – the “blood moon.” Today, Laho as the monster is almost forgotten. Its name now reflects those that disappear suddenly and without a trace, as if swallowed by nothingness – the same way the Laho swallowed the moon.

Minokawa and Tambanokano

Hailing from the island of Mindanao, both of these colossal beasts are unlike the serpentine moon-eaters. The Minokawa is described as a monstrous bird by the Bagobo people. Taking the form of a quarrelsome and violent crab, the Mandaya people of Eastern Mindanao believe Tambanakano to be a sibling of the stars.

The Minokawa is a bird whose beak and claws are made of steel, eyes are mirrors, and feathers are as sharp as swords. It was said that long ago, the Minokawa swallowed the moon. Terrorized by the moon’s sudden disappearance, the ancient people began to panic – creating a loud distraction. Curious of the ruckus, the Minokawa spat out the moon to investigate. This created a chance for the moon to escape. After this, the moon created eight holes in the Eastern horizon for her to rise at night and eight holes in the Western horizon for her to hide. To prevent the demise of the moon, the Bagobo create distracting noises to distract the Minokawa.

The earliest record of the Minokawa is the work of Laura Watson Benedict, who travelled to the Philippines in the early 1900’s. She was the first anthropologist to travel to the Philippines and record the practices of the Bagobo people. Her findings were published in the book A Study of Bagobo Ceremonial, Magic and Myth in 1916.

On the other hand, the Tambanokano is the product of the union between the Sun and the Moon. The Tambanokano is the second child of the quarrelsome Sun and the beautiful Moon – a younger sibling to the stars. Being a crab, he spends most of his time in a hole in the bottom of the ocean. Due to his size, the tides recede when he leaves his hole and rises when he goes home. As he moves about, great waves form on the surface of the sea. The Tambanokano however, inherited his father’s temper. Whenever he’s angry with his mother, the Moon, he swallows her – creating an eclipse. The people, however, adore the moon. Afraid to lose the Moon, they scare off the Tambanokano with chaotic noises.

Most of what we know of the Tambanokano is from Mabel Cook Cole, in the book Philippine Folk Tales. This tale was recorded by Cole in 1916. Records of the tale, and also of the Mandaya people, is also present in The Wild Tribes of Davao District, Mindanao – a work of Fay-Cooper Cole published in 1913.

While the folkloric explanations of the eclipse may provide a grand and fantastic feel for such, lunar eclipse are actually very simple. Lunar eclipses happen when the moon passes by the shadow cast by the Earth. The Sun emits light towards the Earth. Being solid, the Earth casts a shadow behind it. This shadow encompasses the moon, creating an eclipse.



       The Scientific Explanation

The “Blood Moon” phenomenon, however, is a slightly different case. The reddish hue of the moon is produced because of a total lunar eclipse. A total lunar eclipse occurs when the moon is completely enveloped by the shadow of the solid part of the Earth – meaning the light from the Sun can’t reach it. It must be remembered, however, that the Earth is not completely solid. The earth’s atmosphere is gaseous. This means that light could pass through it, albeit not every color.

The red coloration of the “blood moon” is a product of Rayleigh scattering. Recall that atmosphere is gaseous, and light has the ability to pass through it. However, each time a wave of light hits a molecule in the atmosphere, a certain color of light is scattered. The color blue is the easiest to scatter since it has a short wavelength. Red, on the other hand, is not so easily scattered because of its relatively long wavelength.

Say the solid part of the Earth is drawn as a circle, and a bigger concentric circle serves as the atmosphere. Multiple parallel straight lines are then drawn, to represent light, on different parts of the Earth. It could be observed that light enters through different amounts of the atmosphere. The closer the lights are in the center of the earth, lesser amount of atmosphere is passed through. As the light approaches the sides of the earth, more and more of the atmosphere is passed through. At the very edge, where the light doesn’t touch the solid part of the earth. but still passes through the atmosphere, the most amount of atmosphere is passed through by the light.

Since the light at the sides of the earth passes through the most amount of atmosphere, most colors are scattered. What is left when it passes beyond the atmosphere and the earth is red light. The moon, of course, does not produce light of its own – it merely reflects. When a total lunar eclipse occurs, light directly from the sun does not touch the moon. However, the light that passes through the atmosphere but goes beyond the Earth still reaches the moon. Recall that this light is red in color. As the moon reflects this light, it gives a reddish hue of the moon.

Eclipse of a Lifetime

This year’s total lunar eclipse is, according to Space.com, among the longest in this century – clocking in one hour, 42 minutes, and 57 seconds. Furthermore, according to Russian news agency TASS, this lunar eclipse was simultaneous when the Earth was closest to Mars – a coincidence that occurs only every 250 thousand years!

Hopefully, this eclipse provided an insight to the Philippine culture and bragging rights for witnessing an occurrence that happens once in thousands of lifetimes.

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