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The Scrivener: The Pale-faced Moon Looks Bloody

For many centuries we humans have been reading terrible portents by gazing into the heavens, as Brian Barratt most entertainingly reveals.

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In April 2011, the BBC reported that astronomers had been amazed by an "unprecedented blast of gamma rays, the highest-energy light in the Universe" from the Crab Nebula. This nebula is the remnant of a supernova which was observed and recorded by Chinese astronomers nearly 1,000 years go. In Europe, however, nobody recorded that something like a bright star had suddenly appeared and then faded from view. They didn't notice it.

In England, monks who were writing documents that we now know as The Saxon Chronicle recorded different kinds of phenomena in the sky. It was noted that in the year 734:

Her węs se mona swylce he węre mid blode begoten,
"This year was the moon as if he were covered with blood;"

This was followed by:
& foršferde Tacwine arcebiscop, & eac Beda.
"and Archbishop Tatwine and Bede departed this life."

The blood moon had been a portent of the death of the Venerable Bede, author of Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), the first written history of the English church.

Again in the year 1117, there was a blood moon:

And on žęre nihte III Ižus Decembris žearš se mona lange nihtes sžylce he eall blodiž žęre & syššan ažistrode.
"And in the night of the third day before the Ides [the 13th day] of December was the moon during a long time of the night as if covered in blood, and afterwards eclipsed."

During the following month, the sky was "seen red as if it were burning". Later there was an earthquake in Lombardy. The corn crop was blighted (withered) during the year though the rains had hardly ceased.

Comets were also ominous portents. In 678, the appearance of a comet se steorra, a "comet-star", was followed by the removal of Bishop Wilfrid. In 729, when a comet had been seen in the heavens, St Egbert, bishop of Lindisfarne, died, as did Prince Oswald; and Osric, King of Northumbria, was slain in battle.

In 891 a feaxede steorra, a “hairy star”, was seen, and the writer notes that in book-Latin it is called Cometa. In 975, yet another comet was the harbinger of a great famine and commotion throughout the land.

The entry for 1066 describes what we now know was Halley’s comet, which apparently heralded one of the great battles in English history — the Battle of Hastings where William, Duke of Normandy, got rid of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. Death and calamity nearly always followed the appearance of a comet, meteor or shooting star, or a significantly large star that appeared to have a tail. Others were recorded in 1095, 1097, 1106 and 1114.

The Saxon Chronicle for the year 793 records that the people of Northumbria were terrified when great sheets of lightning and fyrene dracan on tham lyfte fleogende, fiery dragons flew across the sky. Famine followed very soon afterward. Michael Swanton, in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles (Phoenix Press, London 2000) comments that these fiery dragons might have been long-tailed comets which were thought to portend disaster and famine. As they seem to have accompanied great sheets of lightning, they might also have been extended displays of cloud-to-cloud lightning, which can move almost horizontally and light up its surrounding clouds in grotesque shapes.

As dragons and monsters of various kinds, from various invading tribes and cultures, were part of folklore, it seems logical to imagine our distant ancestors interpreting such terrifying meteorological phenomena as the work not only of the gods but also of dragons.

William Shakespeare coupled comets and blood moons as portents in this speech from Richard II, Act 2, Scene 4:

‘Tis thought the King is dead, we will not stay;
The Bay-trees in our Countrey are all wither’d
And Meteors fright the fixed Starres of heauen;
The pale-fac’d Moone lookes bloody on the Earth…

'Tis thought the king is dead; we will not stay.
The bay-trees in our country are all wither'd
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth

At about five o'clock in the morning on June 2011, I stepped out of my front door, shivering a little in the dark winter morn, and gazed up at the heavens. There it was, high in a cloudless sky — the famous blood moon eclipse. It was certainly the most remarkable eclipse I have seen. As far as I know, no archbishops have since departed this life. Not in Australia, at least. But we'll just have to wait and see what happens to the corn crop.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2011





Ingram, J., The Saxon Chronicle, first published 1823, reprinted Studio Editions, London 1993.
Swanton. M., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, Phoenix Press, London 2000.


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