From what I can discover, 1331 CE was an unmemorable year in the scheme of things. But one thing from that year reaches out across the ages to touch us this week. On July 5th 1331, as the northern midsummer sun dipped oh-so briefly into the Norwegian Sea, it was fleetingly eclipsed by the moon. The ripples from this eclipse, in the form of Saros Series 135, have expanded with time and will reach us on 1st September 2016. The Saros Series are eclipse cycles and Saros Series 135 is just past mid-cycle. It will be a 39th generation annular solar eclipse that hits the coast of western Africa on the equator on Thursday, and then tracks across the continent and Madagascar before ditching into the Indian Ocean and disappearing into the night.
But back to Norway and that progenitor of Saros Series 135. This was an ephemeral wraith that emerged, like Venus, out of sea-foam. At that time, the moon was in Cancer and had the ascending lunar node nearly sixteen degrees behind her. In other words, her shadow only grazed the sun. But then, one saros later or, to put it more finely, after the passing of 14 common years, 4 leap years and 11.321 days (or 13 common years, 5 leap years and 10.321 days) another came which shared characteristic similarities in the geometry of the Earth-Sun-Moon system. It was followed by another, then another, and another…and so it will carry on until the year 2593 which is when the last in the line of these 71 self-similar eclipses will dull the sun’s disc.
The coming solar eclipse will be in the 10th degree of Virgo and the retreating moon won’t fully obscure the sun’s disc but, instead, produce an annular eclipse with the sun’s rays surrounding her in a halo. Astrologically-speaking, the defining feature of the eclipse is its mutable T-square. The sun/moon conjunction will oppose Piscean Neptune and square Mars and Saturn in Sagittarius, with the last on the royal star, Antares, the scorpion’s heart. It’s an eclipse of rueful defeats and ignominious withdrawals, and of volte-faces and regretted, hasty, star-crossed actions. We are all, to a large degree, products of our ancestry and an eclipse is no different. So perhaps all this negativity is traceable to the mother of all Saros Series 135 eclipses which, remember, was born in 1331 out of frigid northern waters. This had Neptune on the south node just as it is now and a joyfully excessive opposition between Venus and Jupiter torn asunder by a square from an undignified, unwise, rather stupid Saturn. This was a mother who could ignite a cause that would send people careering off in defence of some principle or ideal only to find (sometime nowish) they were always on a hiding to nothing.
So, with the possibility of a trying eclipse in the offing, I think it might be an idea to put our small lives in the context of a bigger picture which takes in the sun and the moon and the space between them – which, from our perspective is us and our earth. Seeing a wider view requires a special lens. And the lens I’ve chosen is the Taijitu – the yin/yang symbol.
There’s an idea that this symbol describes polarity and all that is contrary – light/dark, good/bad and so on – but, rather than duality, it describes a trinity. This is because, whilst it’s true that there is active, initiating yang on one side and passive, receptive yin on the other, and that these can be antithetical to each other, nevertheless, they are only two-thirds of the story. This is because between them exists potential, spiralling, iterative space. And in terms of what goes on between the moon’s yin and the sun’s yang, that space is us: life on earth is the spiralling iterative space between the two. This means our turbulent small concerns are the Qi, or the life-force, energising the universe.
In the words of the ancient Tao Te Ching, “The One begets the Two, the Two begets the Three, and the Three begets the 10,000 things.” And so it was in the formation of our solar system. In the beginning, 5 billion years ago, a shockwave from a supernova triggered the formation of the sun by creating a super-dense region within the giant molecular cloud that was hereabouts. This collapsed under gravitational strain and formed the solar nebula…then the sun…the protoplanetary disk…the planets…our moon…And, in time, life on earth developed too. And, from this earthly perspective, it was very clear from the beginning that there was an extra-special relationship between the sun and the moon. Moreover, it was also apparent that this relationship was significant to us on earth in countless meaningful ways. Often in religious narrative the sun and moon are the earth’s parents. This, in terms of the tides, earthly growth, reproductive behaviour and so on, placed us all in a tug-of-love between them. So it is that we are continually pushed and pulled between the sun and the moon with a fluctuating strength dependant on the forming and dissolution of their angular relationships.
But, returning to notions of earthly spiralling and iteration, I want to start again with the founding solar eclipse that began a unique spiralling path from north to south 685 years ago. It was followed, as we know, one saros later, by a homologous eclipse that was clearly the offspring of First Generation Saros Series 135. However, its path had veered west so that it fell over Canada, on the south-western coast of King William Island. And then, a saros later, the series’ path took that eclipse east so that it fell, unsung, in the desolate Siberian wastelands. That’s what the Saros Series do: they spiral the earth as their eclipses evolve. With regard to Saros Series 135, this finally reached middle age and full maturity in 1962 with the sun and moon conjunct the north node. From now on, each saros will see the eclipses die a little. Their intensity will decline until, on 17th August 2593, the whole series will die in the Southern Sea off Northern Antarctica. The series’ swansong will be an opposition of Neptune and Uranus which might suggest that in 577 years’ time all the idealism and hasty action in the first half of Saros Series 135 has humans seeking out new territory where the grass might still be greener…
…Who knows? But, whether true or false, meaning has always attached to eclipses. Perhaps this is because their spiralling shows that this is intrinsic to them. Their spiralling is the most basic, primal and ubiquitous energy that is found right across the universe at macro and micro scales. It’s a pattern which occurs when two adverse forces move against each other, simultaneously attracting and repelling. Spiral energy is a rhythmical mathematical dance between what might get along but can’t. In terms of eclipses, each is a point of intersection resulting from the moon’s monthly, and the sun’s annual, oscillations between the north and south nodes. They are also due to the fact that we have monthly new and full moons. The eclipse seasons are biannual because it takes the sun 6 months to travel between the nodes. Thus, half of the Saros Series roll southward and half northward with two or three eclipses each season, at least one of which will be moving south and one north. This means that, at any time, around 40 families of eclipses are enmeshing the earth in patterns of withheld light which are either double or triple helices. And helices and spirals, as we know, are patterns of life: they are in DNA and collagen, they are in worms and flowers, ferns and finger-prints, whirlpools, hurricanes, galaxies…
So eclipses and their series are meaningful because they are reflective of meaningful universal patterns. But they are also meaningful to foraging animals which change their feeding patterns on account of the darkened sun or moon. Furthermore, they have meant much to us humans culturally too, in the constructing of our calendars, our understandings of celestial mechanics, in our religious behaviour…
But, as much as eclipses have meant they, like everything else, will one day be gone. As the aeons pass, so the moon inches away from us and, one day, when it’s too small in the sky to obscure the sun’s disc, people on Earth won’t see total eclipses any more. I’ve been thinking about this in the knowledge that we’ll entertain three ages of eclipse series during this season: 1st September solar eclipse is in its middle years whilst on 18th August we had dying Lunar Saros 109 in Aquarius and, on 16th September, infant Lunar Saros 147 will darken the moon. It’s as though the illusion of immortality that midlife stability conjures is being challenged on both sides by reminders of birth and death and the message is this: Our small concerns are not only big to us but are also important in the scheme of things since they are the manifestation of the Qi, or life-force, that moves between yin and yang forces. But the importance of our individual failures and successes can deny neither the fading of all that matters to us, nor our own transience. There again, the transience of life forms will never deny the immortality of the life-force.