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Our recent lunar eclipse puts me in mind of a well-worn historical tale of theological manipulation, recounted from February of 1504. It begins with Christopher Columbus and his crew languishing off the shores of Jamaica, having lost much of his fleet to storms and errors of seamanship and, of equal consequence, having long since lost the awe initially instilled in the natives. This, now, was the fourth voyage of discovery undertaken by Columbus, and the sheer magnitude of the Europeans' first arrival, over a decade before, had given way to the disappointing reality: for all their technological capacity, these pale people from faraway lands were but men, fault-filled as any. European rapaciousness for material gain had alienated the locals, depriving Columbus and his crew of an important source of sustenance which they had come to rely upon as their own stores of supplies had waned. The weary and beleaguered "Admiral of the Seas" retired to his flagship -- one of only two ships remaining out of an original fleet of thirty vessels, and began consulting his maps and charts for some hint of an advantage to be pressed.

But then, Columbus hit upon a snippet of information more valuable to him then and there than all the gold of the New World: a prediction by a German mathematician/astronomer (and, naturally, astrologer) born with the name of Johannes Müller von Königsberg, but better known by an adopted Latin sobriquet, Regiomontanus (a Latin translation of "Koenigsberg"). For Columbus was in possession of Regiomontanus' book on astronomy, titled Ephemerides. Turning through those aged pages, Columbus observed Regiomontanus' calculation that a total eclipse of the moon would soon happen, on February 29, 1504.

The Science of the Total Lunar Eclipse

Now, this is the sort of eclipse wherein the moon passes through the shadow of the Earth cast by the light of the Sun. This might be imagined to be a common thing, to those whose impression of astronomy is derived from two dimensional picture-book illustrations of astronomy. Too often these relate a moon making neat circles on a flat plane around an Earth itself then depicted as making equally neat circles on the same flat plane as it rounds the Sun, with all other planets politely occupying variously nested circles on that same plane. Were that the whole story, both solar and lunar eclipses would be a humdrum daily occurrence, and the phases of the moon and variations in the tides would be completely different, the latter becoming more focused on Earth's equator.

But the truth is far more dynamic. Even as the moon orbits the Earth (in a slight ellipse, not a perfect circle), so does its plane of orbit spin, as though that plane were a solid disk on an axis which someone had accidentally tapped, so that the entire disk slowly flipped around the gravitational well at its center. The object traveling the periphery of the disk thus moves across both directions at once. Recall, the Earth is only about 8,000 miles in diameter, and the moon a mere 3,000, while the diameter of the disk representing the constant travels of the moon exceeds 400,000 miles!! Only occasionally does the flipping of this disk cause it to line up with the plane of the Earth's orbit of the Sun, so that for a few hours, the moon would be eaten by Earth's shadow. And Regiomontanus did not simply set down a date for this eclipse in his book; he diagrammed the projected progression of the eclipse across multiple lines of longitude, inadvertently instructing Columbus as to the precise time to employ this information -- it, that is, the calculations were correct.

Gambling With Superstition

Columbus well knew how the appearance of the eclipse would manifest; first, a disk of blackness would seem to spread across the face of the moon, devouring it from sight; and then, when all of the direct light of the Sun was extinguished from its reflection, a barely-visible ghost of the moon would seem to reappear, like an object becoming visible as eyes adjust when passing from the bright of day into a darkened room, taking on an unsettling reddish hue (a product of its continued reflection of sunlight scattered around the Earth by its atmosphere, and some starlight for good measure). Obtaining an audience with native leaders, he informed them that their uncooperativeness had angered God, whose displeasure would be displayed the following night by the moon becoming "inflamed with wrath". The natives laughed off this warning, and Columbus returned to his ship to wait. But the calculations were correct. The following night, even as the moon broke the horizon the first signs of the eclipse of its face could be seen. By the time the satellite had become fully obscured and had donned its bloody hue for the night, the natives were running to Columbus to beg his god's forgiveness; Columbus responded that he would pray for such, and that his god would consider the matter; and some time later, Columbus reported that God accepted this submission and had indeed deigned to lift this curse, an announcement shortly followed by the reappearance of the moon in its regular form, as if whatever had swallowed it were just as slowly now spitting it out.

The God invoked by Columbus had, seemingly, prevailed. But, naturally, the eclipse was not caused by Columbus' invocation of any deity; it was simply a natural phenomenon, which he had knowledge of which happened to be superior to that of this primitive tribal civilisation whom he dealt with -- though the science available to Columbus was itself primitive by leaps and bounds to what we now enjoy, over five centuries later. And, verily, Columbus had not even made his own discovery of this bit of information, but relied on charts and compilations of the same assembled by others decades before, most prized amongst these being Abraham Zacuto's Perpetual Almanac compiling over 300 astronomical tables, as well as Müller's Ephemerides. Columbus had heretofore chiefly relied upon these works for purely navigatory purposes, but in his dealings with the indigenous Caribbeans was able to glean one vital piece of information with which to sway less informed minds. The ability of Columbus to wrench religious significance from this mundane occurrence speaks volumes as to the power of religious sentiment, and the power of men having a little bit of scientific knowledge to establish theologically grounded fear and control.

To be sure, Columbus did take some moment of risk in promising the eclipse to come; the charts might have contained an error, even a minor miscalculation of a few days would have undone this ploy. And, equally, Columbus must have wagered that the native response would be supplicant, and not simply a deepening of a sentiment already pregnant with hostility. And yet, at the same time, there is remarkable fortuity in the very fact that the scheduled occurrence of the eclipse in the coincided with this period in which Columbus needed to be able to call upon the spectre of supernatural assistance; for eclipses are, after all, uncommon events, and Columbus might have occupied a point where months or years separated an appropriate astronomical event from his time of need for one to be predictable. But both wagers paid off; the one being on the correctness of calculation of the mechanistic motions of spheres; the other as to the almost-as-mechanistic inclination toward human superstition, to believe that events celestial and terrestrial are dictated by the whims of a deity powerful enough to devour worlds.... and yet pliant enough to be persuaded to such feats by the words and deeds of the naked ape.

The Faith of Columbus

This personal experience ought to have been instructive as to the ease with which any hoaxster might ignite any religious tradition in the minds of a sufficiently unsophisticated peoples. And yet, Columbus himself is recorded as a sincerely religious man, referring on occasion in his letters and journals to Biblical prophecies of which he may have believed himself an agent -- prophecies, unsurprisingly, of voyage and discovery. An odd twist of religiosity arises even in Columbus' refusal to allow the Baptism of the native New World peoples encountered on his voyage; for to Baptise them would make them Christians, and ecclesiastical law would then forbid them from being enslaved. And Columbus viewed these superstitious natives as fit for enslavement, and not assimilation into European culture (which was the only other alternative he could conceive for them). A considerable body of literature suggests Columbus to have been crypto-Sephardim, one of the secret Jews who maintained the practice of their faith even in the face of their people experiencing torture and execution across Europe, and especially in Inquisitorial Spain, in whose name Columbus had sailed. In the light of this theory, it is claimed by some that Columbus' endeavors take on new meaning, for he may have sailed not simply for glory, but to secretly secure a haven for the Jewish people. If that was his endeavor, then in retrospect perhaps he met with greater success than he could have imagined.

As for Columbus himself, his provisions replenished and ships repaired, he was able to sail for Spain, arriving there by November 7 of that year. His dreams of a royal governorship of the islands having been dashed by royal politics, Columbus would never again cross the ocean; the following year he published a Book of Prophecies advancing his claims of being the fulfillment, through his explorations, of certain Christian prophecies. And the year after that, Columbus himself died, aged 55, and living in such comfort as plundered East Indies gold would allow. And, for all of his religiosity, one article of faith remained strongest within him until the day he died: his belief that in all of his voyages, he had been exploring the contours of Asia.

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