In the early hours of this morning something quite extraordinary happened in the skies which will only occur again in 2033: a “supermoon” in a total lunar eclipse.
What’s needed for this to happen and why is it so rare?
First, the moon has to be a full moon.
Second, the full moon has to be at its closest point to the earth. The moon travels in an elliptical path round the earth and has both perigee, closest, and apogee, farthest, points. The closest the moon gets to the earth is 225,804 miles (363,396 km) at the perigee and the farthest 251,968 miles (405,504 km) at the apogee… That’s a difference of 25,000 miles. No wonder that at its perigee the moon looks almost a third larger!
Third, there has to be a lunar eclipse. This means that earth is exactly aligned in the middle between the moon and the sun.
A blocked-out moon does not occur here for the sun’s rays can penetrate the moon’s shadow and create a rusty red colour much in the same way that sunsets and sunrises are reddish since the other colours in the spectrum are scattered away.
A blood moon has intimations of prophecy. It may, in the minds of some, forecast the end of the world. In the Bible’s book of Joel, for example it is written: “the sun will turn into darkness, and the moon into blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes”.
This year signals (for a few) the end of the world for some time to come (if that isn’t an oxymoron!) since there have been a series of four consecutive lunar eclipses which coincide with six full moons in between, with no partial lunar eclipses and all coinciding with Jewish holidays. The technical term for this is a tetrad.
Strangely I did wake up at around three (Italian time) in the morning to witness the lunar eclipse. I’m sure that those with more powerful cameras and telescopes will have produced some dazzlingly red pictures. I was only able to come up with the following however. But you can still see the first phase of the eclipse and the spreading of a reddish glow over the moon’s surface.
Blood moons have always haunted me. Here is one stanza from my poem on the battlefield of Verdun:
Spiked helmets of ghostly armies
rise up in the smoking dawn,
the pregnant moon is still red,
hanging over the new day’s uncertainty.
And here’s another of my poems on the same subject. If you know Salzburg poet Georg Trakl you’ll recognize the theme:
Pale clouds spin trails across the sky
like cotton wool upon deep wounds;
they hide the centuries’ lone cry
and wrap in silence cold earth’s sounds.
Still could you touch the inner heart
that beats against forbidden walls?
And might you ever feel apart
from something vast that never palls?
Your skin, pellucid as dried bells
that inked a fertile alpine grass,
feels like the velvet twists of shells
cast up in folds high on the pass.
That light which takes from night’s false dawn
sings like an unknown eastern bird
and sees a life that’s yet unborn
and hears a music still unheard.
While wolves amass by freezing trees
a dark red moon hangs by a star:
with memories of summer bees
my sister comes both near and far.
When very young and on an autumns twilight in Lewisham Park London, I remember being scared by the vision of a red moon rising above the poplars. My brother and mother were with me and they said it was a strange apparition but nothing to worry about. Let’s hope that this time round, even with the supermoon, there’s still nothing to worry about!