'Blood Moon' Myths: Superstitions in the Skies

Tonight's "blood moon" has inspired myths, legends, and superstitions. Continue reading →

Lunar eclipses are always interesting, though the "blood moon" is a much rarer event. Instead of a total eclipse, the moon is bathed in a red-orange hue of refracted light coming from around Earth.

With tonight's impending blood moon eclipse (the first of four over the next 18 months or so), many people are discussing its cosmic significance; some are even suggesting that it may be a sign from God such as a portent of the apocalypse. As an ABC News story notes, "for some it signals a certain foreboding. ‘Something is about to change,' Pastor John Hagee of the Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, writes in his newest book on the four blood moons. Because many biblical references cite the celestial bodies, Hagee says, ‘God uses the sun, moon and stars to send signals to us on the earth.'"

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Among the more alarming Biblical verses referring to the moon can be found in Joel 2:30: "And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth:
 Blood and fire and pillars of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness. And the moon into blood,
 Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord" (KJV). Pretty heady stuff, though the moon has turned "into blood" several times before, and nothing apocalyptic happened.

Moon Myths and Folklore The moon has always held sway over human fears and imaginations. Moonlight - which is, after all, merely sunlight reflected off the surface of the moon and back onto Earth - is said to be powerful indeed. According to Iona Opie and Moira Tatem's classic "Dictionary of Superstitions," as late as the 1950s, "mothers refused to hang their baby's nappies out in the moonlight for fear of bad luck." A 1621 guide to healthy living helpfully offers the following advice: "When thou goest to thy bed... draw close the curtaines to shut out the Moone-light, which is very offensive and hurtfull to the braine, especially to those that sleepe." Those careless enough to sleep under a full moon risked insanity, blindness, or even being turned into a werewolf (but only if it happened to be a Friday night).

The infamous witch-finding manual "Malleus Maleficarum" published in 1486 notes that "The stars can influence the devils themselves... Certain men who are called lunatics are molested by devils more at one time than at another; and the devils... would rather molest them at all times, unless they themselves were deeply affected by certain phases of the moon." If the moon can affect even supernatural beings, then surely ordinary men are no match for moonlight!

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Many police and doctors believe that people go "a little extra crazy" on full moons, though the evidence seems largely anecdotal and has not been borne out in scientific studies. Researchers Ivan Kelly, James Rotton, and Roger Culver, in their study "The Moon was Full and Nothing Happened" (published in the book "The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal") examined more than 100 studies and found no significant correlation between phases of the moon and disasters or homicide rates.

Pointing at the moon has traditionally been considered unlucky, though various explanations are offered for why; some say that the "man in the moon" who resides there considers it rude. According to one superstition from the British Isles, anyone who points at the moon nine times cannot enter heaven, no matter how pious he or she has been. It's not clear if the nine times are in a row (which would be pretty easy to avoid, to secure a place in heaven) or over a lifetime (in which case each person better have a good memory to keep the pearly gates open; I wonder if anyone pointed to the moon eight times, and they just started to point a ninth time, just to tempt Fate).

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Claudia de Lys, in her book "The Giant Book of Superstitions," writes that "Because of the moon's silvery glow, it was anciently believed to be made of silver, and so that metal became one of its symbols... Among the commonest superstitions connected with the new moon are: that to see the thin crescent over the left shoulder is lucky; to see the moon straight before you signifies good luck to the end of the season; and any wish made at the first sight of the new moon will come true... Superstitious persons believe that the time of the new moon is propitious to planting, courtship, the starting of new business ventures or trips, cutting the hair or fingernails to effect better growth, and so on."

Many farmers and gardeners take into account the phases of the moon when deciding when to plant their crops and vegetables. There seems to be little credible evidence that "planting by the moon" actually produces healthier plants, though of course superstitions need not be true to be believed.

Moon myths and legends aside, it's hard not to be awed by celestial shows like the blood moon. North America has a front-row seat to the show, and the best time to see it is around 3 a.m. Eastern Time.

Artwork of a thin crescent moon (just after the new moon phase) and earthshine, a phenomenon where the moon is faintly lit by sunlight reflected from the Earth.