It was cloudy here last night – it still is, as I write this morning – so we had no chance of seeing the celestial rarity: The eclipse of the moon coinciding with the date of the winter solstice, something that had not happened since 1638.
I think about that, that lunar eclipse of three hundred and seventy-two years ago, and I have to sort things out for some perspective. The hardy souls of Plymouth Colony in what would someday become Massachusetts had been on American soil for eighteen years. What they – and the colonists also in several other places along the Atlantic seaboard – might have thought of the ruddy moon sailing during the longest night of the year is a mystery. (At least it is for me this morning; I imagine some archive or colonial history might have the tale.) Was it seen as an omen or a sign of some judgment?
It comes to mind that none of my ancestors would have seen that solstice eclipse from the American side of the Atlantic. The Swedes, Germans and Austrians who were my ancestors were still European, half of them in rural areas in the Swedish province of Småland and the other half scattered through the patchwork entity called the Holy Roman Empire. In about two hundred years, some of their descendants would board ships and in stages make their ways to the American Upper Midwest and finally to Minnesota.
But on the night of that most recent reddish solstice moon, the place that would become Minnesota was still wilderness and still was home – if I read things correctly – to the Dakota tribe of Native Americans. The Ojibwe had not yet driven the Dakota from the forests of Minnesota onto the plains of the lands that would be called the Dakotas. For those at home in the woods in the center of North America, the eclipse would have taken place during the early evening of the day that Europeans called December 20. And just as I have no idea what the colonists in Plymouth thought about the eclipse, so do I have no idea what meaning, if any, it had for the Dakota.
Thousands of miles to the east, the eclipse took place in the early morning of December 21, 1638, bloodying the moon from 2:12 to 3:47 a.m. in those lands where my ancestors lived. Later that day, at about 5 p.m., the solstice arrived, and from then on – as was true every year – the daylight began to reclaim the minutes and hours that had been lost for the last six months to the darkness. And – from a distance that includes thousands of miles, three-hundred-seventy-eight years and uncountable technological advances that would have seemed like sorcery to those long-ago Swedes, Germans and Austrians – I wonder what they thought as they saw the ruddy moon make its way across the sky on the longest night of the year.
We can read, we can watch period dramas on television or at the movies, and we can imagine, but we can never really know how it felt to live in Seventeenth Century Europe (or Seventeenth Century anywhere for that matter). Cold and hard are the words that come to mind. Terrifying, too, I think, for the dark European woods held perils both imagined and real, and I’d guess that the eerie sight of an eclipse – combined with whatever interpretation the clerics of the time gave to the phenomenon – would serve as an unnecessary reminder that life was harsh and scary.
We live in softer and supposedly wiser times. We have at our hands tools that can tell us at exactly what time of day the residents of Bremen saw a lunar eclipse in December 1638. We know, even as the daylight diminishes and the north wind calls, that come the 21st day of December, the moments of daylight will once again increase. We know that the red shadow on the moon during last night’s eclipse was created by the Earth interrupting the path of the sun’s light shining on the moon. We are – the vast majority of us, anyway – well-sheltered from the winds of December.
But even with all that working for me, I admit that the thought of a blood-red moon riding across the sky on the longest night of the year brought to me an involuntary shudder, a momentary fellowship of awe and fear with those long-ago Swedes, Germans and Austrians who remain my distant kin. And I wait in my December of 2010 – just as they did in their December of 1638 – for the light to return and the darkness to diminish.
(Lisa Torban’s version of Jesse Colin Young’s “Darkness, Darkness” comes from the soundtrack to Ghosts of the Abyss, a 2003 film exploring in 3D the wreck of the RMS Titanic.)
Tags: Lisa Torban