William H. Calvin's HOW THE SHAMAN STOLE THE MOON (chapter 1)
Home Page (and other books) || Table of Contents for this book
A book by
William H. Calvin
How the Shaman Stole the Moon

Copyright ©1991 by William H. Calvin.

You may download this for personal reading but may not redistribute or archive without permission (exception: teachers should feel free to print out a chapter and photocopy it for students).


Christopher Columbus,
Master Magician

Do you believe then that the sciences would ever have arisen and become great if there had not beforehand been magicians, alchemists, astrologers and wizards, who thirsted and hungered after abscondite and forbidden powers?
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1886

Everyone has probably wished to be present at some celebrated moment in history, just to see the surprised expressions on peoples’ faces, to hear their murmurs and exclamations. Personally, I’d like to eavesdrop on a seldom-celebrated meeting from about five hundred years ago. It’s an example of a stage-managed spectacle that probably shaped the emergence of civilizations out of the hunter-gatherer life style.

      Science — and maybe religion — might have gotten its start on such an occasion. Though we think them as somehow opposed, there once wasn’t much of a difference. The beginnings of one might have marked the beginnings of the other.

ON HIS FOURTH VOYAGE to the New World, Christopher Columbus got himself stranded while exploring in the Caribbean. It wasn’t a navigational error: his worm-eaten ship leaked so badly that it had to be beached for repairs in what is now known as St. Anne’s Bay, Jamaica. There he sat, for more than a year, impatiently awaiting the return of his lieutenant’s ship with assistance.

      The natives had received Columbus and his men with great kindness. But the sailors had been insubordinate earlier in the voyage, and trouble erupted once again. The sailors’ lawless conduct alienated the natives, who then cut off their food supply, which made the sailors even more mutinous. How Christopher Columbus got himself out of this mess shows a genius far above his navigational skills. He carefully scheduled a meeting with the Indian chiefs just before sunset on 29 February 1504.

      When they congregated, Columbus made a solemn announcement: God didn’t like the way the natives were treating Columbus and his crew. And so the Almighty had decided to remove the moon permanently, as a sign of his displeasure.

      No one records whether the natives laughed or not. Not long after this pronouncement just before sunset, the full moon peeked over the eastern horizon. The sun went down while the moon came up. The long shadows from the sunset seemed to point at the moon, as it crept on stage. Everyone’s attention was focused.

      Hah! It was there after all. Quite red, but still there. A buzz of conversation surely started.

      Yet when it rose a little further, the voices must have momentarily quieted. Something was wrong. By the time that the moon cleared the horizon a minute later, it had become obvious to all who could see that some of the lower half of the moon was missing, a little crescent.

      And over the next hour or so, more and more of the moon darkened. Finally, only a sliver was left. Then it really went dark, the dusky red moon hanging in the star-filled night sky, a ghost of its usual brilliance, surrounded by dazzling stars that were ordinarily invisible in the moon’s glare.

      The natives were reportedly terrified. They pleaded with Columbus to restore the moon; they would give him all the food he wanted if he would just bring back the moon.

      A dramatic pause ensued. Columbus told them that he would have to retire to confer with the Almighty (said to be an hourglass used for timing the 48 minute duration of totality!). Impatience reigned, probably including recriminations against the chiefs who had so presumptuously cut off the food supply.

      Just before the end of the eclipse was due, Columbus returned. He graciously announced that the Almighty had pardoned the Indians and would allow the moon to reappear. Sure enough, a sliver of white appeared not long afterward on the lower edge of the dark red orb. Within the next hour and a half, the moon was slowly restored to the natives. Columbus’s promise had come true.

      Columbus probably didn’t have much trouble with the natives thereafter. Perhaps even Columbus’s mutinous sailors were duly impressed and stopped challenging their captain. They undoubtedly reasoned that if Columbus had such a good private line to the Almighty, heaven knows how much more mischief he might cause.

BUT WHAT COLUMBUS HAD, like the other sailing captains of his time, was a private line to the accumulated wisdom of millennia of Persian, Greek, Islamic, and European science — a nautical almanac that listed the predictions of future eclipses. Presumably Columbus used it to schedule the meeting.

      Remember that A.D. 1504 date: Whoever wrote Columbus’s almanac was probably operating in ignorance of the geometry of our solar system, those near-circular orbits and cone-shaped shadows. Copernicus wouldn’t publish his revolutionary analysis of a sun-centered universe until he was dying in 1543. Galileo died in 1642, the year that Isaac Newton was born. By 1715, the astronomer Edmund Halley was producing maps predicting the path of a total solar eclipse across England. So that almanac from the year 1500 must have used some empirical method to predict eclipses, perhaps a scheme of "magic numbers" proved over the years, rather than a scientific understanding of what was going on.

      And remember the probable "mind set" of most people in Columbus’s day. While many older Indians had probably seen a total eclipse of the moon several times, "causing" one was powerful magic. When someone says that something improbable is going to happen, and then it does, the effect is far different from a spontaneous occurrence. One tends to assume cause-and-effect, even today.

      Columbus could hardly have been the first person to impress an audience by ordering the sun or moon to disappear, and then reappear: Clever people had probably been pulling that same stunt for millennia. Certainly, an Indian named Tenskwatawa won great fame as a prophet in 1806 in the American Midwest in just such a way. Just imagine how impressive it must have been when the audience was ignorant of what we take for granted: that it’s just a predictable, clockwork matter of orbits and shadows, not susceptible to human whims. But who was the first to predict an eclipse, and how did he or she figure it out?

      Forecasting methods are not obvious. If a group of modern astronomers, who know all about orbits and shadow cones, were shipwrecked on an island without any reference books or computers, they probably would not know how to impress the natives with their knowledge of eclipses. However the earliest astronomer got his or her start at predicting eclipses, the method has been lost through the overlay of one improvement after another, just as people forgot how to make flint knives after metal ones became common.

      Early science is unlikely to have been built on the rational application of logic, in the manner of the myth that has grown up around modern science. Logic is usually the last step, after a lot of back-and-forth fitting, in the way that a carpenter hangs a door. You can get the general drift of things by remembering that philosophy subdivided a few centuries ago into natural and religious philosophy (the latter went on to become theology), and then natural philosophy further split in the last century into natural science and what we presently call "philosophy." Looking back, these splits suggest that philosophy-religion-science were all mixed up originally that what we call science was once part of religion, that scientists were once priests. Or vice versa. But before the priest came the shaman.

      Was the first scientist a shaman, the spiritual leader of a Stone Age band or tribe? Probably. I can see a way in which early science could have paid off quite handsomely (even without Columbus-style social manipulation), if only some simple observation was combined with supernaturalism and superstition. The payoff, strange to say, was priest-run religion.

AN OBSESSION WITH ECLIPSES could have started long ago, even in small bands of hunter-gatherers, long before agriculture came on the scene 12,000 years ago. How early might it have happened? Potentially, as early as we developed our obsession with the future (apes, however, have not been seen planning for tomorrow, or worrying about what the future might bring). It would have happened after we rediscovered an ancient concern with the phases of the moon.

      Why pay any attention to the moon? All animals have built-in rhythms, the best known of which are the circadian rhythms: even if we live in a deep cave without obvious clues about day and night, our bodies have cycles of activity that are about 24-25 hours long. And even if animals don’t watch the moon’s phases in any obvious way, their bodies often have cycles of activity that are about 28-30 days long (the menstrual cycle of women, for example), left over from ancient reproductive rhythms that synchronized mating or birth with the high tides caused by the full moon.

      Besides such predispositions, the full moon is sometimes a minor spectacle as when it sits on the eastern horizon, just before sunset, looking dusky red. The moon usually seems extra large at first appearance. For some reason, being both dusky red and sitting on the horizon makes the moon appear entirely different — enormous and strange. An hour later, when it is higher in the sky, the very same moon looks white and considerably smaller.

      Occasionally, a bite gets taken out of it, later that evening — sometimes, the moon almost disappears for an hour or so, becoming a dim relic of its former self. Exaggerated reddish moonrises happen a few times each year, and noticeable lunar eclipses happen more rarely, but the dramatic reddish moonrise always (clouds excepted) precedes the major spectacle of a lunar eclipse. And so we watch the full moon.

CONSIDER THE PSYCHOLOGY of the moon’s disappearances in a little more detail. We tend to associate unusual happenings with one another. And it isn’t just humans: A monkey being trained to press a button that delivers food (the psychologist’s version of a vending machine) is often "superstitious." If he happens to chase his tail just before pressing the button accidentally, he will sometimes chase his tail again before pressing the button intentionally ("It seems to work — why quarrel with success?" is how a human might rationalize similar behavior).

      Associations are powerful. Mary Catherine Bateson once told me about being in Iran in 1978 when an earthquake occurred one evening, up on the shores of the Caspian Sea at Babolsar. The ceiling lights were swaying back and forth, and everyone ran outdoors into the night air — and that night, there was a lunar eclipse! After the memorable earthquake, the people blamed it on another part of their universe that seemed out of joint. And what had happened before this memorable night? Well, the Shah of Iran had been acting strangely, causing all manner of comment: he had actually apologized to the people for past mistakes; this conciliatory move was a most unusual happening (rulers, in their experience, acted like rulers). And it was antecedent: the Shah, they reasoned, was responsible for the earthquake! But how? Since they thought that the Shah was omnipotent, they rationalized the Shah-earthquake association in a very modern way, by postulating that he had triggered the earthquake via an underground nuclear test.

      What would you do if you associated (for whatever reason) eclipses with all manner of bad luck, but were solemnly told that an eclipse was coming — and by someone who was right last time? However it got started, trying to prevent eclipses through fervent prayer, before and during an eclipse, surely must have seemed to work most of the time. After all,

  • many of the predicted eclipses didn’t happen (the methods were crude and so there were a lot of what are now called false positives); this could have led many people to believe that their prayers had prevented the eclipse; and
  • many of the predicted eclipses that nonetheless happened were partial, allowing someone to conclude that the prayers had reversed the moon in its tracks, preventing a total eclipse.
And so prayer was powerfully reinforced because it seemed to work. If the priestly predictions were nearly always wrong, the announcements would have soon lost their credibility (the behavior would have "extinguished," as the psychologists like to say). If the predictions are always right (as they are today for eclipses, though not for earthquakes and such), eclipses would have lost their fascination for many people. Being right just enough of the time is what makes some situations, such as gambling, so attractive.

      A control experiment, which would have omitted prayers after half of the eclipse warnings, would have shown them that the eclipse occurrence or duration was independent of their prayers. Again, priestly credibility would have suffered. But the control experiment is a recent scientific innovation, invented after scientists discovered that they were fooled too often by mere coincidence.

      I can see how large groups of people would have been psychologically trapped, how predicted eclipses would have made them believe in the power of wishful thinking. I’m not surprised that people were fooled by post hoc, ergo propter hoc — the classical fallacy of "after this, therefore because of this," a fallacy that fools us every day even when we’re alert to it. Despite its unreliability, one thing following another is a powerful way in which we learn our way around our environment, especially when dealing with the unfamiliar, such as a novel happening.

      Partial eclipses might have gotten prayer started back before prediction was discovered. After all, every total eclipse is preceded and followed by a partial eclipse but most eclipses are only partial. Wishful thinking during the partial phases, once the coverup starts reversing, could get the credit for the eclipse not advancing into totality. Given something (the shaman’s warning) to trigger the prayers a few hours or days ahead of time, the effect seems even more powerful: Sometimes, the eclipses don’t occur at all! Belief in the power of prayer to move the heavens was sure to emerge — and, of course, prediction itself would have become valued by the tribal leadership, a powerful incentive to more and better science.

      Of all the early scientific discoveries we can imagine, none has the same ability as eclipse prediction to impress and manipulate large groups of people. Oft-fulfilled prophesies might convert a shaman into a full-fledged prophet, lending authority to whatever the seer had to say on other subjects. Pythagoras’ theorem is important, as is Euclid’s geometry, but one cannot imagine swaying a crowd with their proclamation. The scientific discovery that the earth isn’t the center of the universe didn’t please the crowds at all.

      And eclipse forecasting would have helped the shaman with everyday matters as well. The shaman of most known hunter-gatherer tribes is supposed to be able to predict the weather, cure illness, and bring down illness upon enemies. Given the strength of the placebo effect (the power of suggestion alone seems to work for one out of three pain sufferers), one can easily imagine that a shaman who had just manipulated the moon or sun would have even more success than usual at relieving pain.

      Even if the tribal leadership was blind to the Columbus-style possibilities for manipulation, even if the healers didn’t know about eclipses, a fortune-teller could still have made a good living from eclipse forecasting. We humans seem to have an inordinate appetite for predictions about what the future might bring. While eclipses might be unrelated to "You will meet a dark stranger" and other such staples of the repertoire, a fortune-teller’s ability to predict an eclipse would be a powerful validation of her or his abilities. (If she’s right about the moon disappearing for an hour, then surely she has a powerful pipeline to the spirits — and maybe we’d better make her a nice gift.)

      So while this is a limited story about how predictive science might have originated via imperfect methods, it may also be one of the stories about how primitive religions arose and were sustained by their apparent success in predicting or manipulating the heavens. That potential priming of the human belief system is of far more significance than eclipses themselves. The social organization provided by religion has been of vast importance in human evolution, though we have no idea how far back the religious impulse goes (still, no one has seen apes holding prayer breakfasts). Did predictive science start a million years ago in prehuman days, or in our hunter-gatherer days of the last ice age, or with our big agricultural civilizations of the last 6,000 years? Or just among Euclid’s geometric predecessors in ancient Greece, maybe 2,600 years ago?

      Given the invention of eclipse forecasting, I have no trouble imagining an almost-modern form of mass religion with its belief in the efficacy of wishful thinking (and, while prayer may not move the moon, it’s still mentally useful) and the emergence of powerful leaders with specialized knowledge. Those early leaders may have been the shamans who seemed to have such power over the sun and moon because they’d figured out a method of eclipse prediction — and likely kept it a secret among themselves.

      Asking about the origins of eclipse prediction isn’t merely an attempt to understand one of the great spectacles of nature, or just an attempt to understand the origins of religion or fortune-telling or early astronomy-astrology-cosmology, fascinating as they are. It is also an attempt to understand how science got started.

      The intellectual challenge faced by the earliest scientists was enormous, trying to take the first steps without scientific predecessors. What was the tradition they operated within, what led up to this discovery of how to predict eclipses?

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.
John Maynard Keynes, 1942
Email || Home Page (and other books) || Table of Contents || End Notes || read Chapter 2