The 520 splendours of the Moon

Indigenous pitcher found at Agüimes (Gran Canaria), kept at El Museo Canario, catalogue number 260, featuring two shapes presumably depicting a sun and a solar eclipse (source: El Museo Canario).

To the Canarian historiography the legendary episode of the raid over the indigenous village of Agaldar (Gran Canaria) by Portuguese captain Diogo da Silva de Meneses is a well-known one.

After landing under cover of the night, the Luso-Castilian expedition, composed of about two hundred troops, tried unsuccessfully to raze the islander village at dawn getting trapped in turn by a threefold contingent of fighting men. Sieged inside a large facility surrounded by high walls of dry stone, the invaders remained locked there for two days and one night until the Guanarteme -chieftain- of Agaldar, uncle of the future Fernando Guanarteme, agreed to parley with Diogo da Silva. Chronicles tell that after berating the Portuguese his audacity and contravening the desire of his own warriors to end the lives of all the besieged, the indigenous leader pretended to fall into the hands of the Europeans to facilitate their release, who as a result of this supposedly pious act began to name him Guanarteme the Good.

But here we are not interested in describing the different versions of this story, from the shortest, most sober offered in the Cronica Ovetensis[1]MORALES (1978), pp. 116-119. to the novelistic rewriting by Leonardo Torriani,[2]TORRIANI (1959), pp. 120-126 but to draw attention to a curious datum provided by this Cremonese engineer in the baroque speech he makes the islander leader pronounce. This particular passage is as follows:

ne il minore esser perturbati uuoi altri, che quando ci bastasse hauerui scacciati da i nostri lidi infinite uolte et amazzati et lunghi tempi tenuti prigioni (como dal uostro Vescouo diego lopez lo sapete 520. splendori della luna ch’è nostro cattiuo) poteuamo far giudicio l’ira d’Iddio con noi esser placata.[3]TORRIANI (1590), Ms. 133, fol. 42r.

Of this [punishment of God] is not the lesser part to be disturbed by you; for if it would be enough for us having chasen you away infinite times off our shores, and killing you, and taken you many times as prisoners (as you know by your bishop Diego López, 520 splendours of the moon since he is our captive), we could count on God’s wrath against us has been soothed.[4]TORRIANI (1959), p. 124. This translation by PROYECTO TARHA.

Diego López de Illescas, Bishop of Rubicon

The character that appears in the above quote, Don Diego López de Illescas, was holder of the Bishopric of Rubicon, Canarian diocese suffragan of the Archbishop of Sevilla, between 1460 and 1468. There is no evidence in any other documentary record on he was captured by the Canarians while, on the other hand, we know scarce details of his biography.

We know he contributed with Diego García de Herrera, consort Lord of the islands of Canaria, to the European political and cultural penetration in Tenerife and Gran Canaria, mediating in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Acts of Las Isletas and Bufadero.[5]ABREU (1848), pp. 67-68.. Also, on October 7th, 1462, by means of the bull Pastor bonus, Pope Pius II had granted him broad missionary powers on the Canaries and Guinea, including the authority to enter into pacts with the natives of the rebellious islands.[6]VIERA (1783), p. 624.

We also know that Diego de Herrera appeared in 1468 before King Henry IV of Castile, carrying the documentary evidence –presumably the above cited acts– demonstrating the obedience of the islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife and La Palma (sic) to the Seignory, signed by the bishop himself.[7]AZNAR (1990), p. 134.

Finally, we know that López de Illescas, for reasons not registered, that year resigned from his episcopal position before the Holy See, resignation that was accepted by Pope Paul II on April 16th, granting him a pension of a quarter of the Bishopric revenues, payable annually by his successor, Brother Martín de Rojas, brother of Diego de Herrera and a monk at the Hieronymite monastery of Santa María de la Armedilla.[8]VIERA (1783), p. 626. That Martín de Rojas was Diego de Herrera’s brother is clear from, among others, Abreu Galindo –ABREU (1848), p. 65– and the will of Marshal Pedro García de Herrera, father of both –Municipal Archive of Burgos, catalogue number C3-3-16–.

Literary license or real time count?

While it may be attributed to the prevailing Baroque fashion in the Italian states the theatrical dialogue Torriani makes Guanarteme el Bueno and Diogo da Silva engage in, the strength of the expression 520 splendours of the moon makes plausible the knowledge by the Cremonese engineer of some aspect of the indigenous culture related to the computation of time, closely linked to a lunar calendar, as we know from ethnohistorical sources.

It is clear that the above expression cannot refers to lunations –that is, time elapsed between two identical moon phases; in this case, since we are talking of a splendour, between two consecutive full moons, loosely one calendar month–, because it would imply that the alleged imprisonment of the Bishop lasted:

520 lunations / 12 months ≈ 43 years

something completely unacceptable.

Of course, there are other possibilities if we take into account that one real lunation or synodic month lasts approximately 29.5 days.

For instance, we could speculate that one splendour of the moon equals the number of days that a complete full-moon phase lasts. Thus, in absolute terms:

29.5 days / 4 phases = 7.375 days per phase

520 splendours × 7.375 days = 3,835 days / 365.24 days per tropical year = 10.5 years

a result that fits better to the duration of Diego López de Illescas’ stay in the Canaries, yet incompatible with a physical prison.

We could also consider a possible error of interpretation by Torriani, who never mentions Magec in his work, identified by other authors as the name that the indigenes of Gran Canaria and Tenerife gave to the sun, so we might guess that the engineer confused this islander name with that of the moon. In that case, computation of time yields a more realistic value:

520 splendours of the sun (days) / 365.24 days per tropical year ≈ 1.42 years

Some researchers currently studying in detail these and other manifestations of the Canarian archaeoastronomy have risen suggestive hypotheses. For example, Professor José Barrios García proposes a symbolic-religious prison of the Bishop framed in a plausible indigenous computing of lunar eclipses.[9]BARRIOS (2004), pp. 76, 157.

Indeed, an eclipse year or draconic year (346.62 days) is the time it takes the sun to return to one of the two apparent positions -called nodes– in the sky that can match the trajectory of the moon seen from Earth and therefore a solar eclipse may occur; alternatively, instead of coinciding on the same node, both the sun and the moon can be simultaneously in opposite nodes, with the Earth “in the middle” –and give rise to a lunar eclipse. Since there are two diametrically opposed nodes, eclipses may occur only every half draconic year at least–. In addition, the set of eclipses produced follows a pattern that is repeated approximately every eighteen years, an interval named by the Chaldean as Saros, which has been calculated by various cultures since ancient times.

The most interesting thing in the present case is that, as Professor García Barrios points, the 520 splendours of the moon exactly equal to one and a half eclipse year:

520 splendours (days) / 346.62 days per eclipse year = 1.50 eclipse years

Antonio M. López Alonso



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