The entire population appeared to have simultaneously decided to evacuate every building, and the streets and car parks were quickly filling with people standing almost shoulder-to-shoulder.


Traffic began to grind to a halt as drivers leaned out of their windows, and even the birds abandoned the sky to assemble in rows along guttering and telephone wires, chattering like some misplaced dawn chorus.

The large grey clouds obligingly parted to reveal a muted late- morning Sun that had a small bite out of its right-hand edge. As the dark spot grew, the birds fell silent and a sea of expectant faces became transfixed upwards. Three welders from a nearby garage became instantly popular as they passed around their dark-lensed masks, allowing the smiling onlookers a direct view of the diminishing solar disc.

Then it happened; the moment of totality arrived. The Sun disappeared for several seconds, allowing the darkness of night to wholly consume the day. Then slowly a bright sparkle materialized that soon looked like a diamond set on the band of some heavenly ring.

The last total solar eclipse of the twentieth century had just occurred on the morning of August 11th 1999. It had begun when the Moon passed between the Earth and Sun, throwing an umbral shadow, forty-nine kilometers wide, on the North Atlantic just south of Nova Scotia.


The inky black circle then swept across the ocean surface until it passed over the Isles of Scilly, off the south-west coast of England, some forty minutes later. Here the path width had expanded to 103 kilometers and was now covering the ground at a speed approaching 1,000 meters per second. The circular shadow then curved its way over Europe and on to the Middle East before crossing India and finally disappearing over the Bay of Bengal.

Such events do not happen often in the lifetime of an individual but once seen, a total solar eclipse is never forgotten. Solar eclipses occur around two to five times per year but the area on the ground covered by the totality is very small, so in any given location on Earth a total eclipse will only happen once every 360 years.

One can only imagine how primitive peoples may have feared for their lives as the Sun was apparently extinguished before their eyes. No doubt the astronomer priests of ancient time held sway over their people by having the apparently magical power of predicting such terrifying events.

But even today the magic and mystery of the eclipse is very real.

It is a very strange quirk of fate indeed that the disc of the Moon should seem, from an earthly perspective, to be exactly the same size as the Sun. Whilst we casually take it for granted that the two main bodies seen in Earth's skies look the same size, it is actually something of a miracle. Most people are fully aware that the Moon is tiny compared to the Sun but that it is much closer to us causing them to appear as equal discs.


To be precise, the Moon is 400 times smaller than the star at the centre of our solar system, yet it is also just 1/400th of the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Whilst the surprisingly neat number of 400 for relative size and distance is apparently an amusing coincidence of the decimal counting system, the odds against this optical illusion happening at all are huge. Experts are deeply puzzled by the phenomenon.


Isaac Asimov, the respected scientist and science-fiction guru, described this perfect visual alignment as being 'the most unlikely coincidence imaginable'.

This perfect fit of the lunar and solar discs is a very human perspective because it only works from the viewpoint of someone standing on the Earth's surface. But the magic of the Moon's movements above our heads goes to even more astonishing levels. By some absolutely incomprehensible quirk of nature, the Moon also manages to precisely imitate the perceived annual movements of the Sun each month.

So, when the Sun is at its lowest and weakest in midwinter, the full Moon is at its highest and brightest, and in midsummer, when the Sun is at its highest and brightest, the Moon is at its weakest.

If you want to understand how extraordinary this doppelganger effect is, stand on a hilltop or an open plain and film the Sun at midwinter sunset (its most southerly point on the horizon), at the spring equinox, again at midsummer and again at the autumn equinox.


Then on those same dates film the Moon setting and you will see that they both go down at the same point on the horizon at the equinoxes (March 21st and September 21st) but the Moon will have the opposite setting point to the Sun at solstices in December and June. 2


Figure 1

This drawing shows the peculiar relationship of the Sun and Moon throughout the year as seen from Earth. At midsummer in the northern hemisphere the Sun sets north of west, whereas the full Moon sets south of west.


At midwinter the situation is reversed, with the Sun setting south of west and the Moon setting north of west.


Figure 2

At the time of the spring and autumn equinox sunset happens at a due west position, whilst the full Moon also sets in this part of the sky.

It would be easy to dismiss these Sun-mimicking performances by saying that it is simply a consequence of the Moon's distance from Earth and its orbital characteristics. And that is what most scientifically trained people will say because it is self-evidently true. But what they are really saying is 'It is so because it is so' - which takes us nowhere.


Of course, it could, and logically has to be, one big coincidence. What else could it be?


Even most of the ninety-two per cent of the American population who state that they believe in God would probably assume coincidence and only a minority might claim that it is the grand plan of the Almighty.

The Moon's dance around the Earth that produces these startling performances is extremely complex and it is a consequence of the relative movements of the Earth and the Sun as well of the Moon itself.

The path of the Moon's orbit is inclined at 59' to the line of Earth's path around the Sun, known as the plane of the ecliptic.


The Earth is also tilted at an angle of just over 2327", although this is slowly decreasing so that in several million years it will reach 2254', after which it will again increase.

Figure 3


It follows that solar eclipses can only occur when the Moon passes through the plane of the ecliptic and the Sun's light is blocked by the Moon.


These points of intersection happen twice for each lunar orbit and are known as 'nodes'. These nodes appear to move slowly around the background stars giving the impression of moving backwards through the calendar occurring 19.618 days earlier per year. The cycle completes every 18.618 years, which amounts to a surprisingly neat 6,800 days.

Closely allied to this node cycle is the so-called 'Saros cycle', which governs the periodicity and recurrence of eclipses, where each eclipse sequence has a duration of approximately 6,585.32 days (eighteen years, eleven days, seven hours, forty minutes and forty-eight seconds). The people of Ancient Mesopotamia knew of this astronomical principle and it is quite possible that earlier observers, long before written records began, were also aware of it.

However, one has to wait for three Saros cycles in order for a solar eclipse to repeat at the same spot on Earth because successive eclipses in the Saros cycle happen one-third of the way around the world from each other. You would therefore have to wait over fifty- four years to see an eclipse return to the same geographic area.


There are twelve different Grand Saros eclipse series at the present time.

Human knowledge about the movements of the Moon is far older than most people might imagine. More than 25,000 years ago an early astronomer created a lunar calendar that is still intact.


The bone he engraved was excavated nearly a hundred years ago at Abri Blanchard, not far from Lascaux in France.



The Abri Blanchard bone. Experts agree that
the markings carved onto the 25,000-year-old Abri
Blanchard bone accurately correspond with a two month
lunar calendar.



Experts agree that the markings accurately correspond with a two-month lunar calendar. Around 250 generations later another astronomer also recorded this already ancient knowledge, using various natural minerals daubed onto a cave wall to leave the image of an empty rectangle followed by a series of fourteen sooty dots. It was realized that these marks might also be a lunar calendar.


The fourteen dots, it was argued, represented the face of the Moon from full to new, after which the empty rectangle would symbolize the disappearance of the Moon's face on the fifteenth day.

If anyone doubted that the marks on the cave walls at Lascaux really was a lunar calendar, or even continued to believe counting was something that did not appear until the arrival of the written word some 5,000 years ago, another picture close by might cause them to think again.




The Lascaux caves. Around 250
generations after the Abri Blanchard bone was
carved, another astronomer recorded this already
ancient knowledge onto a cave wall at Lascaux in
France. These photographs show reconstructions of
the paintings.



On this part of the cave wall there were twenty-nine dots, snaking around the bottom of a beautifully executed painting of a wild horse.


Twenty-nine days is the period from new Moon through full Moon to new Moon again. And yet another artifact known as the Isturitz Baton, displays an even more advanced four- month and five- month lunar calendar.

It is humbling to realize that these records were created more than ten thousand years before the Ice Age ended and the woolly mammoth disappeared.

These kinds of lunar observations are not restricted to southern France. The Ishango Bone, which was found in the Congo, Africa, also carries markings that seem to represent a lunar calendar. What is more, it is of an almost identical age to the Isturitz Baton, though it originated many hundreds of kilometers to the south and on a different continent.

The existence of lunar calendars from such an early date is of great importance to our understanding of our own development.


They demonstrate a clear awareness of the passing of time and the cycles of the natural world. The discovery of an archaeological artifact is a matter of chance and is dependent on the number of objects of any particular sort that once existed.


The fact that so m any of these bones, antlers and paintings have been discovered is a good indication that they were not unique and that Moon knowledge was important to the Paleolithic people of Europe and Africa, though this does give us cause to wonder why such an early lunar fascination developed.

A recent discovery has shown why such intricate observations 'suddenly' became possible for our distant forebears around 32,000 years ago.


In July 2004, Rachel Caspari of the University of Michigan and Sang-Hee Lee of the University of California published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concerning comparisons of 768 different human fossils from a huge span of human development. They then divided the fossils into two groups adults of reproductive age, which they settled on as fifteen years, and adults that lived to be twice as old, based on tooth wear.

In primitive societies, people were often grandparents by the age of thirty, if they were lucky enough to live that long.

Dr Caspari said,

'We found this proportion of older to young adults in the fossil record increased over time and in the Upper Paleolithic that proportion just skyrocketed.'

By calculating the ratio of old to young individuals in the samples, the researchers found that their numbers soared up to fivefold in the Upper Paleolithic group, a leap that was so surprising that the team at first questioned its own results.

This dramatic leap in average lifespan allowed individuals to grow older and wiser and afforded each of these new elders time to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of adults. The wear on the teeth suggests that this leap in longevity must have given rise to a true form of education that could build up a body of 'species intelligence' where the entire social group knows far more than any one individual.


This would allow for the first specialization in which talented men and women were fed and protected by the group to allow them to add value to their early society.

This sudden transition from a society of children to one of 'greybeards' must have been a watershed that laid the foundations for what would eventually become true civilization.


The period of history, known as the Upper Paleolithic Period, marks a time when modern man was becoming established in Europe and there was an expansion of population, creating social pressures that led to the growth of trade networks, increased mobility, and more complex systems of co-operation and competition.

We could now understand why observational astronomy became the first real science for humankind. All science is based upon observation of patterns that stand out from the 'noise' of simple random chance and then, through understanding, we can make predictions of future events and outcomes. In this way the tides, the seasons and the movements of the heavens could be seen as being parts of a single engine driving the variations in the immediate environment of the early thinkers.

These early observational scientists would also note where patterns from completely different events appeared to be related.


Why should high tide happen twice a day and rise higher when the Moon was full or when there was no Moon at all? Did the Moon have some kind of control over something as massive as the oceans? Even stranger, why did women of childbearing age lose blood once for every complete cycle of the Moon?

We can be sure that this particular fact was not lost upon these people.

Back in 1911 a French physician by the name of J.G. Lalanne was examining caves in Laussel, in the Dordogne, when he chanced upon something that turns out to be very illuminating in terms of the Paleolithic mindset.


Carved into the wall of a limestone rock shelter, he found a 33cm female figure. The artistry involved from so early a period is quite remarkable, the more so given that it was executed with flint tools. The naked and full-bellied woman has her left hand on her abdomen and in her right hand is holding a bison horn, in the shape of a crescent moon. Upon the bison horn there are thirteen incised lines.


The Venus of Laussel, as she is called, is at least 20,000 years old.

This carving is one of many that strongly suggest there was a very early recognition that human fertility seemed to be tied to the phases and period of the Moon. Human female reproduction is dependent on the menstrual cycle which has an average of twenty-eight days, and approximately halfway through the cycle a mature cell is released from a woman's ovaries and becomes available for fertilization.


If sexual intercourse does not take place and the egg is not fertilized, it disintegrates after a couple of days. At the end of the cycle, if no conception has taken place, menstruation begins and the cycle commences once again.

A series of intriguing studies by Professor LeRoy McDermott of the Missouri State University has suggested that these early 'Venus' images of the female figure were self-portraits. His analysis showed that the figurines were made from the point of view of 'self' rather than 'other' and they could only represent a women's view of her own body both emotionally and physically as she looks downwards.


Using photographic simulations of what a modern female sees of herself, McDermott demonstrates that the anatomical omissions and proportional distortions found in various Venus figurines occur naturally in autogenous, or self-generated, information.


The size, shape, and articulation of the objects appear to be determined by their relationship to the eyes and the relative effects of foreshortening, distance, and occlusion rather than by any symbolic distortion.


As self-portraits of women at different stages of life, McDermott believes these earliest representations of the human form embodied obstetric-al and gynecological information and probably signified an advance in women's self-conscious control over the material conditions of their reproductive lives.

The lunar month symbolism in the Venus of Laussel strongly suggests that women 20,000 years ago knew the length of their menstrual cycles and already equated them with the phases of the Moon. The thirteen lines on the crescent-shaped bison horn could easily relate to the thirteen menstrual cycles an average woman could expect in each year.


At the same time, it is not at all uncommon for a human female to menstruate on the same Moon phase each month because twenty-eight days is merely an average, whilst the period between one full Moon and the next is 29.53 days.

The historical connection between human fertility and the Moon even extends to the word 'menstrual'. It derives from the Latin mensis, meaning month, whilst the word 'month' is very ancient and refers to the period of four weeks as being one 'moonth'.

The connection between human fertility and the cycles of the Moon is considered to be 'apparent rather than actual', but it isn't in the least surprising that the possibility of a relationship was noticed by our ancient ancestors. The clincher probably came when someone realized that the average gestation period of a human female, from conception to birth, is around 266 days or nine full lunar synodic cycles.

In a social and a religious sense, fertility undoubtedly played a crucial part in the lives of people at the time the Venus of Laussel was carved. It is m ore or less universally accepted that female deities were important to human culture for thousands of years of prehistory.


Statues of pregnant women with exaggerated genitals and breasts are common from the Palaeolithic to the Neolithic periods and there are strong indications of the existence of a fertility-based deity who has come down to us as 'The Great Goddess'.


The Venus of Laussel could quite easily be a representation of this deity, complete with a representation of the heavenly body with which she was equated - the Moon.

About 6,000 years ago there was an outbreak of building in stone across the western parts of Europe, particularly in the British Isles, that tells us a great deal about the Neolithic people's fascination with the Moon.

Dr Philip Stooke, of the University of Western Ontario, Canada had always been puzzled as to why there were no maps or drawings of the Moon older than the one drawn by Leonardo da Vinci five hundred years ago.


He decided to look at ancient manuscripts and the records of excavations of the Neolithic sites on the British Isles. Amongst other sites, he looked at the truly amazing prehistoric structures known as Newgrange and Knowth in County Meath, Ireland.


And it was at the recently excavated Knowth that he found a 5,200-year-old carving made up of a set of lines and dots.



A drawing of the Moon surface map found at
Knowth, Ireland, superimposed onto the face of the



Dr Stooke realized that this was not simply a Stone-Age doodle but a drawing of the face of the Moon.


He said:

'I was amazed when I saw it. Place the markings over a picture of the full Moon and you will see that they line up. It is without doubt a map of the Moon, the most ancient one ever found. It's all there in the carving. You can see the overall pattern of the lunar features, from features such as Mare Humorun through to Mare Crisium.

The people who carved this Moon map were the first scientists - they knew a great deal about the motion of the Moon. They were not primitive at all.'

Figure 4

These people were not merely Moon watchers.


Chris, along with Robert Lomas, had already published his analysis of the astronomical function of nearby Newgrange, which was carefully designed and engineered to allow the light of Venus to penetrate deep into the domed structure once every eighth winter solstice.3


This focused beam of light gave these early scientists a very precise tracking of Venus, which allowed them to maintain a calendar that would be accurate to a matter of seconds over each eight-year cycle.

There was no doubt that these builders were far from primitive, as archaeological convention once suggested.

Investigations at Knowth had already shown that at certain times moonlight shines down the eastern passage of the structure. Dr Stooke has now pointed out that these narrow moonbeam s would also fall right onto the Neolithic lunar map. He concluded, 'It was obviously built by men who had a sophisticated understanding of the motions of the Sun, Moon and stars.'

The switch from a powerful female deity, often equated with the Moon, and solar-based masculine deities seems to have taken place at about the same time humanity began to discover writing. This occurred in Sumer (modern Iraq and Kuwait) and Egypt just after structures like Newgrange and Knowth had been constructed.

One researcher, Dr Leonard Shlain, Chief of Labroscopic Surgery at the California-Pacific Medical Center, has suggested this connection in his controversial but immensely popular book, The Alphabet versus the Goddess.4


Here Shlain outlines his view that the evolution of writing specifically involved the use of the practical left hemisphere of the brain, as a direct contrast to the many thousands of years during which the more intuitive, inspirational right hemisphere had predominated.


He maintains that this explains the virtual abandonment of a generally peaceful feminine-centered society across much of Europe, the Middle East and Asia. This transition was staggered but it began around 3,000 BC, when a more aggressive, patriarchal social structure emerged with masculine deities predominating.

This thesis sounds very reasonable and, if true, we could expect to find this legacy of the Moon-associated goddesses still present at the dawn of writing, when myths and stories were first being catalogued. And this is indeed the case.


In Sumer we find Nana, a very early Moon goddess, whilst in nearby Egypt, where writing came just a little later, there is an even better example in terms of Isis, who rose to become one of the most important and revered goddesses across the whole known world for several thousand years.


Isis originated as a Moon goddess, and the fact is borne out by one specific part of her story. Isis had to rebuild the body of her husband, Osiris, after he had been brutally murdered and his body chopped into pieces. She travelled all over the world to find the dismembered parts of her husband of which there were fourteen in total.


The story is analogous to the gradual increase in size of the Moon across fourteen days from new to full.

Referring to the Egyptians, Plutarch, the Greek essayist, writing around 60 AD said:

'Egyptian priests called the Moon "the Mother of the Universe", because the Moon, having the light which makes moist and pregnant, is promotive of the generation of living beings.'

Although to some early cultures the Moon was associated with a masculine deity, such as the Babylonian Sin for example, in by far the majority of cases the Moon was considered to be female and carried strong aspects of fertility.


This goddess had many names across the world. To the Greeks she was Artemis and the Romans called her Diana and Selene.


Her Finnish name was Kuu and to the Celts she was worshipped as Cerridwen. Nor was she ignored in the New World; in what is now Mexico the Moon goddess was called Tlazolteotli and to the Mayans she was Ixchup.


These names represent only a tiny proportion of those that are still remembered and there can be no doubt at all that Earth's Moon has been deeply important to humanity across the whole world and for many thousands of years.

The Moon was almost certainly the first heavenly body used to measure the passage of time for reasons other than human fertility. In this capacity it is still enshrined in our own systems by the use of months to split the solar year. Looking back at history it is easy to see the repeated attempts of different cultures to reconcile lunar time with a growing recognition of the length of the year, which is governed by the Sun.


A truly ancient culture, such as that of the Sumerians, never abandoned its lunar calendar, beginning each month as the first crescent of the Moon showed itself in the dawn sky. However, at the same time Sumerian Priests adopted a 'stylized' month of thirty days in length, which fitted the solar year in a more regular way. Lunar reckoning is still used in Islam, a legacy of the religion's origins in the Arabian Peninsula.

In a physical sense this intense interest in the Moon is not at all surprising.


We tend to forget in our modern world of electric lights that there was a time, not so long ago, when the Moon was a welcome sight on a dark night, but at the same time it was recognized to have awesome powers. It was believed by cultures from across the world that the Moon could have a bearing on people's mental states (see chapter five).


The English word 'lunatic' enshrines this belief and, up to very recent times, it was considered that those who were mentally unstable could be triggered into madness and violence by the appearance of the full Moon. In addition, our ancient ancestors were well aware that the Moon was responsible for one of the most frightening and awe-inspiring happenings that periodically 'stole' the Sun from the sky.

Solar eclipses happen when the new Moon passes directly between the Sun and the Earth.


At such times the shadow of the Moon is cast upon the Earth. If the observer is in the right place on the Earth, it will appear that the light of the Sun has been blotted out and day can suddenly become night. A total eclipse is a truly remarkable event because in order for it to happen the size of the Moon and the Sun, as seen from the Earth, must be identical.


Nevertheless it does happen and it must have struck absolute terror into the hearts of early humans. This fear would have been slightly mitigated when it became possible to predict eclipses, something that a number of early cultures sought to do.

A second sort of eclipse, which is seen more often because of the planetary geometry involved, is called a 'lunar eclipse' - and in its own way this must have been just as potent and frightening. A lunar eclipse happens when the Moon moves through the shadow of the Earth, so the full Moon is seen to slowly disappear in a clear night sky. (See figure 19, pg 246)

On these occasions the Moon's face is not totally blotted out by Earth's shadow, often appearing as a ghostly blood red disc. Even today this is a chilling sight and one can sympathize with people who viewed the event with a sense of foreboding.

Without a good understanding of the planetary cycles involved, eclipses of both sorts could easily appear to be random events and many early cultures sought to discover the patterns involved, probably working on the assumption that understanding inferred a degree of control. This may well have represented the first serious attempts at astronomy.


It is known that both the Assyrians and the Babylonians could predict eclipses. In both cases many of the astronomical skills were inherited from the earlier Sumerians and it is highly likely that eclipse prediction already existed before 3,0 BC.

Further west there have been suggestions that some Megalithic monuments were built as eclipse predictors, maybe as early as 4,000 BC. Astronomer Gerald Hawkins in his book Stonehenge Decoded used a computer model to demonstrate that Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, might have been partly built with eclipse prediction in mind.5

By at least the second millennium BC the Chinese could also predict eclipses. As far back as 2650 BC, Li Shu was writing about the subject of astronomy. Three and a half centuries later, ancient Chinese astrologers had sophisticated observatory buildings, and solar eclipses were considered essential for forecasting the future health and successes of the emperor.


These astronomers were keen to be accurate as failure to get the prediction correct was likely to be lethal for them. In one documented case referring to the eclipse of 2136 BC the two astrologers who got it wrong were beheaded.


The following recorded their fate:

'Here lie the bodies of Ho and Hi, Whose fate, though sad, is risible; Being slain because they could not spy Th' eclipse which was invisible.'
Author unknown

For thousands of years the Moon was a thing of awe and wonder to human beings across the entire planet and it remains so to millions of people today, despite technological advances and a good understanding of its physical characteristics.


For example, the Moon has always been equated with agriculture. Even in some parts of the fully developed world there are farmers and gardeners who would not dream of either planting or harvesting without direct reference to the phase of the Moon or even the part of the zodiac it occupies at any particular point in time.


The Moon is the fastest moving astronomical body when viewed from the Earth and appears to pass through all the zodiac signs in only 27.322 days.

Generally speaking, crops were often planted close to the new Moon, so that they could grow with the face of the Moon. Whilst there is no known scientific basis for such ideas, the advice offered is often very specific and doesn't vary much across the world. Nor does Moon-lore relate only to sowing seeds.


For example, it is suggested that when picking apples for immediate eating, it is best to harvest them at the time of the full Moon, though if they are to be stored, the new Moon is preferred, since the apples are believed to be less likely to rot.

Even today the Moon has always been important to humanity and it is central to one of the most important festivals of the Christian religion. Easter, which falls in the early spring in the northern hemisphere, is an ancient celebration of rebirth that long predates its association with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The New Testament states that Jesus Christ was 'crucified' on the eve of Passover before rising again a short time later.


In consequence, the ancient Easter festival was reassigned to commemorate this miracle. There was, however, considerable debate over the date on which Easter should fall. The early Christians of Jewish origin celebrated the Resurrection immediately following their Passover festival, which, according to their lunar calendar, fell on the evening of the full Moon.


This was the fourteenth day in the month of Nisan (the first month of their year), thereby causing Easter to fall on different days of the week.


The new breed of non-Jewish Christians from around the Roman Empire wished to commemorate the Resurrection on a Sunday - their newly defined Sabbath. In 325 AD the Roman emperor Constantine I convened the Council of Nicaea to debate whether or not Jesus Christ was a man or a god.


Having officially designated Jesus to be God, by a narrow margin, the council then ruled that the Easter festival should be celebrated on the first Sunday after the full Moon following the vernal equinox; and that if the full Moon should occur on a Sunday and thereby coincide with the Passover festival, Easter should be commemorated on the Sunday following.

The origin of the word 'Easter' is thought to come from Eostre, the Anglo-Saxon name of a Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility.


Her festival was celebrated on the day of the vernal equinox which now falls around March 21st when the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and the day has twelve hours of daylight and twelve hours of darkness.


Traditions associated with this pagan festival survive in the idea of the Easter rabbit, a symbol of fertility, and in brightly decorated Easter eggs, which were a symbol of rebirth.


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