When I photograph an eclipse, I set out with a plethora of information. I know the date of the event, the timings of everything from the first shadowy curve to the minute of deepest totality, and the curve the moon will trace through the sky relative to wherever I choose to be standing that night. I can scout my sites, set my alarm, and take full advantage of the viewing and photographic opportunities.
The one thing I don’t know in advance–because so far even NASA has not figured out how to predict it–is how dark the eclipsed moon will be. This characteristic, ranging from nearly invisible grey to bright orange, is determined by the amount of light refracted by Earth’s atmosphere onto the moon, and can be affected by cloud cover, dust, and even recent volcanic activity.
Last October’s eclipse was a bright brick red, strongly visible in the sky, but this morning I was shocked by how dark and dull the shadowed moon became. This surprise brought to mind people around the world for thousands of years who didn’t have access to celestial time tables. How must it have felt, to see something as constant as the moon in the sky, disappearing before your eyes?
Incan people believed that the moon was attacked by a jaguar, and the red shadow was the stain of his blood spreading across the sky. There are reports of communities collecting to beat drums and shout, even provoking their dogs to howl as well, to frighten off this celestial predator before it turned on Earth.
If you looked up and saw the moon go dark, would you have been afraid? Would you have assumed that everything would be fine? Would you have done what your legends said was necessary to call the moon back, or chase its attacker away? Or would you have been the person who happily slept through it all, and woke only to the constant morning sun?