The Moon in Folklore

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The moon (Drew’s Photo Shoots via Flickr)

March’s folklore article for the North Clare Local. 

Public interest in all things space has undergone a renaissance in recent years. Whether it’s new discoveries, the exploration of Mars and Pluto, or the popularity of astronauts like Chris Hadfield, the cosmos are cool again.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about space, but we have explored our nearest neighbour, the moon. It wasn’t always so. To the ancients, the moon was as strange and unknown as the furthest reaches of the most distant galaxy.

We tend to associate the moon with femininity and the sun with masculinity, but male lunar gods were common in many cultures, such as the Germanic Mani, the Mesopotamian Sin and the Japanese Tsukuyomi. Cultures with moon gods tended to have sun goddesses, and vice versa.

The Greeks associated the moon with several goddesses, notably Hecate, a deity who also ruled over dogs, witchcraft and crossroads. More famous was Diana, the virgin goddess of the hunt; a full moon would assist her in her hunting missions. Selene, sometimes called Cynthia, was a moon goddess, and her Roman equivalent was Luna. Western culture still associates the moon with femininity, doubtlessly arising from the prevalence of moon goddesses in classical culture.

It wasn’t all mysticism for the Greeks however. They understood the cause of lunar eclipses, and accurately charted the distance between the moon and the earth. However, they did believe that the full moon caused insanity and irrationality. Both Aristotle and the Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder believed that the “water in the brain” could be influenced by the moon just as the tide is.

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A rising moon (by Jose Eugenio Gomez Rodriguez via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a belief that refuses to die. Called the ‘lunar effect’, it’s quite commonly believed that the moon has a sway on human affairs. Women’s menstrual cycles also follow a 28 day span, cementing the Western association between the moon and femininity (the words ‘menstrual’ and ‘month’ both derive from the same root as ‘moon’). Scientists believe this is just a coincidence.

Police and emergency services across the world give anecdotal evidence of increased rates of accidents and violence during full moons, but statistics don’t bear this out. Indeed a British Tory MP, David Tredinnick, told the House of Commons in 2009 that surgeons refuse to operate under full moons, due to clotting. The Royal College of Surgeons told him that its members would “laugh their heads off” at this suggestion.

To be fair, certain breeds of fish and sea tides are affected by the moon, but its influence on human affairs is limited.

For our ancestors, it was not easy to understand lunar cycles or eclipses. An eclipse was a frightening event; in a time where lifespans were considerably shorter, people may only have seen one in a lifetime.

Eclipses were seen as omens of ill-fortune. The tendency of the moon to appear reddish or rusty in the lead-up to an eclipse (a blood moon) was understandably unnerving. The ancient Incas believed that the moon had been attacked and eaten by a jaguar and they had to perform ceremonies to save it. The Hupa Native Americans also favoured a bloody explanation. The moon had twenty wives and many more pets. When he was unable to feed all of them, the pets attacked. The moon’s wives gathered around him in protection, eclipsing him from view. The ancient Mesopotamians believed that seven demons attacked the moon during an eclipse, and an attack on the moon was also an attack on their king.

Cultures, including that of the Irish Celts, worshipped the moon. The Chinese still have a yearly Moon Festival and work off a lunar calendar. There are some beautiful traditions associated with the Moon Festival. It’s a time for family to come together and reunite, release lanterns and eat moon cakes. It’s as a time for lovers. The Chinese believe their man in the moon has a big ledger of all the world’s couples, and this is an auspicious time to find love.

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The iconic image from “La Voyage dans la Lune”, one of cinema’s earliest films (via YouTube)

The ‘man in the moon’ is common to all cultures. The moon’s pitted and strange surface has led to all sorts of curious beliefs and tales, and many people see a face in its “seas”. Incidentally, while there may have been water on the moon once, there are no seas. An Italian astronomer named Giovanni Battista Riccioli coined all the wonderfully evocative terms still used to describe the moon’s geography, like the Sea of Tranquillity, back in the 17th century. John Heywood wrote “the moon is made of green cheese” in 1546 (as a joke, it must be said) and it’s often depicted that way in children’s media. Irish folklore had a hare in the moon. In China, the goddess Chang’E was exiled to the moon, with moon rabbits for company.

The moon continues to capture our imagination. Next month I’ll be writing about werewolves.

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