Last Sunday night, anyone who happened to wander outside around 9:00 and had the presence of mind to look up would have seen something that just isn’t seen that often.
Yes, it was the moon. But far from being the silver, ethereal, shimmering, spherical astronomical body we’re accustomed to seeing as it travels across the sky, this moon was bathed in red, looking ancient and foreign, like something from another world. And it had an ancient, almost mystical sounding name to prove it, too.
It was called a Super Blood Wolf Moon.
Any name that as cool as that deserves a little research into its origin.
For those who may not recall that science class from…ahem…a few years ago, the moon is neither planet nor star but is, instead, a satellite that orbits the Earth. In fact, that’s basically what the word “moon” means: the satellite that orbits Earth.
All other planets that have moons have names for their moons. Not so, Earth. In fact, until 1610 when Galileo discovered that Jupiter had moons, it was assumed that our moon—that is, Earth’s moon—was the only moon there was. That’s why, just like we call it the Earth or the sun, we call it the moon.
Once that discovery was made, you can bet your binoculars that astronomers went scrambling for the latest version of “Popular Names for Moons” and, boy, did they come up with some good ones.
As of 2015, there are 146 official moons in the Solar System, all with names that either come from mythological gods or characters from Shakespeare. (Of course, that doesn’t include the 27 provisional moons who are patiently waiting to hear back on whether or not they made the cut.)
There is only one moon—one—in the entire Solar System that has the generic name “moon”, and, yup, that’s our guy. But that’s not to say that our moon doesn’t have his (her?) strongpoints. For example, our moon is the fifth largest natural satellite in the Solar System and the largest of all the planetary satellites in relation to its planet.
And if that isn’t enough information to keep in your back pocket in case you need something to say, try this: there’s a chance that a long time from now (like, a really long time from now) the moon may become a planet itself. Just goes to show you, there’s always hope.
The moon orbits the earth once about every 29.5 days. Halfway through that lunar cycle, it goes into the “full moon” phase when the side of the moon facing earth (that is, the “near” side) is fully illuminated by the sun, and the far side is completely in shadow.
A lunar eclipse, which only happens during a full moon, occurs when the moon passes directly behind Earth (and into its shadow) such that the Earth, Moon and Sun become exactly (or, at least, very close to exactly) aligned. But the moon’s orbit isn’t perfect; sometimes, it swings a little closer to Earth than others. During those times, when it’s the closest its’ going to get, the moon will appear larger than usual. When that occurs, it’s called a “supermoon” or “super”, for short.
So, where does the red color—that is, the hue that resembles the color of blood—come from?
Even though the moon is completely within Earth’s umbral shadow, indirect light from the sun will still reach the moon and illuminate its surface. But, in so doing, that sunlight must first pass deep through Earth’s atmosphere which filters out the blue light, giving a blood-like tint to the remaining light.
Throughout the centuries, mythology had all sorts of explanations for the “blood” moon. One of the better known ones came from the Incas who referred to the moon goddess as Mama Quilla. The Incas believed that Mama Quilla shed silver tears, and lunar eclipses occurred when she was attacked by an animal or a serpent. In order to protect Mama Quilla, it became their custom to attempt to scare away the animal by making as much noise as possible, usually enlisting the aid of dogs to howl. A blood moon was the evidence of the attack, a belief that was shared by other cultures, as well.
With many of the ancient cultures, the presence of animals was a part of everyday life, and that presence would likewise be reflected in the names they gave to months or stories that explained natural phenomenon. And so it was with January, often referred to as the month of the wolf (or the hungry wolf or the old wolf) as that was the time when, in the Northern Hemisphere, the temperature is the coldest and wolves would most frequently be heard howling not far from the villages. Other historical names for January include its original Roman designation, Ianuarius, the Saxon term Wulf-monath (which means "wolf month") .
Hence, Sunday night’s moon was known around the world as the “Super Blood Wolf Moon”.
Perhaps explaining the origin of the name robs it of some of its mystery. Perhaps, for some, there was no mystery, at all. But for anyone who looked up into the dark heavens on Sunday night, there was an intriguing sight to spark the imagination, and it’s one that won’t be seen for that long or with that much clarity for a number of years to come.