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Photo of illustration of Peruvians during eclipse.

The Inca feared that a lunar eclipse was caused by a jaguar attacking the moon. They'd try to drive it away by making noise, including beating their dogs to make them howl and bark.

Photograph of illustration by Leonard de Selva, Corbis

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published April 13, 2014

Marauding demons, murderous pets, and ravenous jaguars are just some of the culprits that cultures around the world have blamed for the moon's disappearance during lunar eclipses.

During the night of April 14 through April 15, the first total lunar eclipse in more than two years will be visible across North and South America, and from Hawaii. (See "Viewing Guide: Watch Moon Turn Red During Total Lunar Eclipse.")

While such celestial events are celebrated today with viewing parties, road trips, and astronomy talks, eclipses haven't always been events that people looked forward to.

Many ancient cultures saw solar or lunar eclipses as a challenge to the normal order of things, says E. C. Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, California. "Things that shouldn't be happening are happening." (See "Solar Eclipse Myths From Around the World.")

Howling at the Moon

"[The Inca] didn't see eclipses as being anything at all good," says David Dearborn, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who has written extensively on how the Inca viewed astronomy. Accounts written by Spanish settlers in the New World record the Incan practices surrounding eclipses, he says.

Among the collected myths is a story about a jaguar that attacked and ate the moon. The big cat's assault explained the rusty or blood-red color that the moon often turned during a total lunar eclipse. (See "Lunar Eclipse Pictures: When the Moon Goes Red.")

The Inca feared that after it attacked the moon, the jaguar would crash to Earth to eat people, Dearborn says. To prevent that, they would try to drive the predator away by shaking spears at the moon and making a lot of noise, including beating their dogs to make them howl and bark. (Read about the Inca Empire in National Geographic magazine.)

A Substitute King

The ancient Mesopotamians also saw lunar eclipses as an assault on the moon, says Krupp. But in their stories, the assailants were seven demons.

Traditional cultures linked what happened in the sky to circumstances on Earth, he says. And because the king represented the land in Mesopotamian culture, the people viewed a lunar eclipse as an assault on their king. "We know from written records [that Mesopotamians] had a reasonable ability to predict lunar eclipses," says Krupp. So in anticipation of an eclipse, they would install a surrogate king intended to bear the brunt of any attack.

"Typically, the person declared to be king would be someone expendable," Krupp says. Though the substitute wasn't really in charge, he would be treated well during the eclipse period, while the actual king masqueraded as an ordinary citizen. Once the eclipse passed, "as you might expect, the substitute kings typically disappeared," Krupp says, and may have been dispatched by poisoning.

Healing the Moon

The eclipse myth told by the Hupa, a Native American tribe from northern California, has a happier ending.

The Hupa believed the moon had 20 wives and a lot of pets, says Krupp. Most of those pets were mountain lions and snakes, and when the moon didn't bring them enough food to eat, they attacked and made him bleed. The eclipse would end when the moon's wives would come in to protect him, collecting his blood and restoring him to health, Krupp says.

To the Luiseño tribe of southern California, an eclipse signaled that the moon was ill, says Krupp. It was tribe members' job to sing chants or prayers to bring it back to health.

Modern Myths

Not all cultures view an eclipse as a bad thing, says Jarita Holbrook, a cultural astronomer at the University of the Western Cape in Bellville, South Africa, in an interview last year.

"My favorite myth is from the Batammaliba people in Togo and Benin" in Africa, she says. In this myth, the sun and the moon are fighting during an eclipse, and the people encourage them to stop. "They see it as a time of coming together and resolving old feuds and anger," Holbrook says. "It's a myth that has held to this day."

Ancient rituals will mingle with contemporary science as the Griffith Observatory marks the April 14-15 eclipse. "Based on past experience, we expect a very large crowd to show up," Krupp says, as staff and astronomers gather on the Los Angeles observatory's front lawn with telescopes—and with noisemakers.

"If there's a celestial object threatened, Griffith Observatory is in the business of protecting and observing," Krupp says with mock gravity. He plans to don his "official eclipse-dispersing wizard's robe and hat" and lead marchers around the lawn with noisemakers, to scare off whatever is swallowing the moon.

Follow Jane J. Lee on Twitter.

48 comments
Alexandra P.
Alexandra P.

Wow! It's really interesting to see the different manners that the different cultures would react to the most simple thing (well, simple for us now, of course).

Juliet C.
Juliet C.

I'm a big fan of Mythology and LOVE these Moon Myths. I really like the Mesopitamian one.

Rodolfo Bucur
Rodolfo Bucur

This eclipse is generating a lot of perturbations on the Terra's magnetic fields

Udeny Dayarathna
Udeny Dayarathna

I wonder from where the Inca got the idea that a "jaguar" was attacking the moon ?

Seth Boahen
Seth Boahen

Hi

Are we gonna see it in ghana? If we r exactly at what time?

Seth

J. Griffin
J. Griffin

I don't believe that the Incan people reacted to the lunar eclipse in exactly that manner. After all that was written by Spanish settlers and we all know how they viewed the American people at that time.

Fabio De Oliveira Ribeiro
Fabio De Oliveira Ribeiro

In the book "The march to the West", the Brazilian Villas Boas brothers tell how the Brazilian Indians reacted to a solar eclipse in 1947. Indigenous women and children burst into tears frightened, adult male Indians shoot arrows burned to light the sun making invocations. A true ethnological trance was seen by Villas Boas, who reported the case through the radio to Rio de Janeiro, where the fact was relayed. It was the first radio broadcast of this type of occurrence in the History of Brazil, perhaps in World History.


Here are some fragments of the narrative :


"There is great expectation in the total eclipse of the sun tomorrow. From United Press we received two radio messages calling our attention on reactions that may have the Indians on the phenomenon. Dispatches, inform also, will be disclosed in special edition, if interesting . A network would formed for transmission.


.....................................

.....................................


May 20, 1947 , Tuesday. Despite the bad weather the night dawned with a very good time. We went out that the eclipse would be half-past eight on, but at eight we contacted our station in Aragarças and thi , in turn, informed us that he was listening to Rio de Janeiro. While our station work, many Indians come to the door of the ranch to hear, but did not need to come, they are camped under a tree less than thirty meters from the ranch. None of them could dream of surprise that there would be a moment. We three (Leonardo , Claudio , Orlando) observe aware their every move.


.......................................

.......................................


At eight- forty people Indians still quiet chatted quietly with us.Thereafter the confusion begins. Screams, cries , speeches , raids, with fire arrows to light the sun. Women and children, all white of ash and causing vomiting with sticks. Food thrown into the river. Pal , the Indians ran and shouted that the sun was going to die. Arrows and arrows smeared resin were burned and thrown to light the sun. A big picture of distress .


..............................................

..............................................


Not added to our orders, but we note the air of astonishment and concern of our men of Expedition (the sertanejos workers). And to them since yesterday we have been talking and explaining the phenomenon of solar eclipse."


The march to the West, Villas Boas, publisher Companhia das Letras, 2012, p . 250/251.

David Toussaint
David Toussaint

This is funny in this article here we don't talk about the Hebrew culture..

“Between 1400-1500 there were four tetrads, two of which fell on feast days: 1428-29 and 1493-94. Interestingly, it was in 1428 that an assembly of Jews met in Florence to gather funds to give Pope Martin V (to pay) for his protection. And in 1492, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella signed an edict to expel all the Jews from Spain.

Between 1900-2000 there were five tetrads ... two occurred on feast days, 1949-1950 and 1967-1968. These were epic years for the Jewish people, with major prophetic implications. In 1948 Israel became a nation and in 1967 the Israelites recaptured Jerusalem. Not only do we have four blood moons in a row, with all four falling on feast days, but they also happened at a time when historic prophecies were fulfilled.

In his book, Blood Moons: Decoding the Imminent Heavenly Signs, Pastor Mark explained things quite clearly. He does not make himself out to be a prophet: “I am just letting the world know a pattern exists between when eclipses have fallen on past feast days and major events that have occurred at the same time.”

God really exists, Jesus Christ is alive guys, and He really loves you all. This is a sign for all of us.



Mary Sastre
Mary Sastre

Thank you for the information, it's good to know about other cultures and traditions.

vasyl ts
vasyl ts

Ancient people really felt the Earth, nature, and life-word. Thus, there no doubt that they saw existence in everything. When I read stories like that I so admire about human being.

Nauman Memon
Nauman Memon

Nice information- In the past it was common that people were considering the moon their god and when the lunar eclipse appeared  then they thought that our god is asking the death of someone then they kill their children.

د.محمد الروسي
د.محمد الروسي

When Ibraheem the son of prophet Mohammad (570 – 632 A.D.) died, there was a simultaneous solar eclipse. The prophet's companions thought that the eclipse is a result of  the death of Ibraheem.

However prophet Mohammad -peace be upon him- said that : the sun and the Moon both are signs of God - greatness-  that do not eclipse for the death or life of anybody - even for me or my son-

Ceasar Khan
Ceasar Khan

The best are from the Hindu Mythology... Ganesh, snake, sun & moon... Research, it will amuse you....

Wytch Childe
Wytch Childe

Everything has a mystery and a myth.  It would be so boring otherwise.  Wish I was  there to see the wizard or wise man and make a little noise.  Will be howling at the moon personally.  What a wonderful way to honor our ancestors, science or no....

Vijaya Naik
Vijaya Naik

interesting...every culture has such a beautiful fictional interpretation.... 

allan Muguti
allan Muguti

very informative article.. many thanks NG

Hasan Kabir
Hasan Kabir

I like the myth of Togo & Benin. Troughout the ages man looked at eclipes as bad omen, even today knowing the 'truth' behind eclipses, yet some continue their form of archaic rituals.

Why not enjoy the party and have fun!

Hitesh Kumar
Hitesh Kumar

Interesting myths about lunar eclipse that existed in various cultures in different times. Good. 

Nogie Loiva
Nogie Loiva

Very interesting to heard the story of myths about the lunar eclipse

Bhavi Ramsu
Bhavi Ramsu

I 'd like to know about the lunar eclipse myths made during the ancient times in India



Pervaiz Malik
Pervaiz Malik

Thanks NG for another interesting Article, as usual. :)

mark perez
mark perez

Great reading.....Thanks NG.....

Emman Clarion
Emman Clarion

so it's not total lunar eclipse in the Philippines?

ilza rizzo
ilza rizzo

It is nice to look back and see how far we have got. Lets enjoy this show without "myths.".

Ahmad Alkurdi
Ahmad Alkurdi

@Seth Boahen  i don't think so, i live in Egypt and as i read that non in Africa will witness it, but you can check via timeanddate.com

Udeny Dayarathna
Udeny Dayarathna

@J. Griffin  You may be right ! ...But, the Incas did have some pretty strange beliefs. The comment below by Fabio Ribeiro is interesting...

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