The moon, the largest and brightest object in the night sky, has long inspired curiosity and wonder. It appears at night, the time of sleep and dreaming that sometimes seems to approach the borders of death and the afterlife. Radiating an air of mystery and magic, the moon is also associated with love and often serves as a symbol of unattainable beauty.
Unlike the sun, the moon does not present the same face every day. It waxes, or grows larger, until it becomes a glowing silver-white disk. Then night by night it wanes, or shrinks, to a curved sliver until it vanishes altogether. A few days later a slender new moon appears and begins to grow again in an endless cycle that
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
repeats each month. In ancient times, people used these phases of the moon to measure time.
Themes and Beliefs. The moon's waxing and waning have made it a symbol of time, change, and repetitive cycles around the world. One such cycle is the constant alternation of birth and death, creation and destruction. People have linked the moon with both birth and death.
The Polynesian islanders of the Pacific Ocean said that the moon was a creator goddess named Hina and that women called wahines were her representatives on earth. In ancient Persia*, the moon was Metra, the world mother.
For some people the moon had a destructive aspect. The Aztecs of Mexico called it Mictecacuiatl and believed that it traveled through the night skies hunting out victims to consume. The Maori people of New Zealand referred to the moon as "man eater." Africans and Semitic* peoples of the ancient Near East also feared this terrifying aspect of the moon.
In certain cultures, the moon had a gentler association with death. Some ancient Greek sects thought that the moon was the home of the dead, and early Hindus believed that the souls of the dead returned to the moon to await rebirth. The moon could even symbolize birth and death at the same time. The Tartars of Central Asia called it the Queen of Life and Death.
In mythology the moon is often female, a goddess who may be paired with a sun god. The Incas of South America told of a brother and sister, the moon maiden and the sun man, who were the ancestors of the royal Incas. In the Mayan writing system, a symbol showing the moon goddess seated inside the moon was used before the names of noble women. The Greeks associated the moon with the goddess Artemis*, sister of Apollo. They also called it Hecate, Cynthia, and Selene. The Roman name for the moon was Luna. Native American names for the moon include the Old Woman Who Never Dies and the Eternal One.
Sometimes, however, the moon is male. The Inuit of Greenland picture the moon as a hunter sitting in front of his igloo. Norse* mythology speaks of a moon son and a sun daughter, and Mrs. Sun and Mr. Moon are part of German folklore.
sect religious group
Other legends explain the appearance of the moon, whose mottled surface has suggested various shapes and identities. The "man in the moon" is one common interpretation thought to have originated from the biblical book of Numbers, which describes a man carrying a load of sticks. People have also interpreted the shapes as frogs and toads, and rabbits in the moon occur in many mythologies. In China and Japan the lunar rabbit is said to mix a potion that gives immortality.
The Moon in Myths. A Native American myth says that the sun and moon are a chieftain and his wife and that the stars are their children. The sun loves to catch and eat his children, so they flee from the sky whenever he appears. The moon plays happily with the stars while the sun is sleeping. But each month, she turns her face to one side and darkens it (as the moon wanes) to mourn the children that the sun succeeded in catching.
The Efik Ibibio people of Nigeria in West Africa also say that the sun and the moon are husband and wife. Long ago they lived on the earth. One day their best friend, flood, came to visit them, bringing fish, reptiles, and other relatives. Flood rose so high in their house that they had to perch on the roof. Finally he covered the house entirely, so the sun and moon had to leap into the sky.
According to the Greek myth of Endymion and Selene, the moon (Selene) fell in love with a handsome young king named Endymion and bore him 50 daughters. One version of the story says that Selene placed Endymion in eternal sleep to prevent him from dying and to keep him forever beautiful.
In a myth of the Luyia people of Kenya in East Africa, the sun and moon were brothers. The moon was older, bigger, and brighter, and the jealous sun picked a fight with him. The two wrestled and the moon fell into mud, which dimmed his brightness. God finally made them stop fighting and kept them apart by ordering the sun to shine by day and the mud-spattered moon to shine by night to illuminate the world of witches and thieves.
People once believed that moonlight had a powerful effect on human behavior. Those who acted strangely were said to be "moonstruck," and lunacy, a term for madness, comes from Luna, the Latin name for the moon goddess. The Japanese believed that the moon was a god with powers to foretell the future. Priests would study the moon's reflection in a mirror, believing that if they gazed directly at the moon, it might drive them mad. Superstitions about the moon's evil influence made some people refuse to sleep in a place where moonbeams could touch them. In the 1200s, the English philosopher Roger Bacon wrote, "Many have died from not protecting themselves from the rays of the moon."
lunar relating to the moon
immortality ability to live forever
A myth from the Indonesian island of Java tells how Nawang Wulan, the moon goddess, came to earth to bathe in a lake. A man stole her cloak of swan's feathers so she could no longer fly back up into the sky, and she stayed on earth and married him. Nawang Wulan used her magic powers to feed the household every day with just a single grain of rice. When her husband discovered her secret, she lost her magic power and had to gather and pound rice every day like all other wives. However, she did find her swan-feather cloak and used it to return to the sky. She stayed there at night but spent the daylight hours on earth with her husband and daughter.
See also Hecate; Sun.
Many religious beliefs have been woven around the moon, which has commonly been personified as a goddess. She is Ishtar to the Babylonians, Asthoreth to the Phoenicians, and, to the Greeks, Artemis (Roman Diana), the chaste huntress who cruelly punished those who failed to worship her.
Three main connotations have been ascribed to the moon. It has stood for the feminine principle. Being smaller than the sun and reflecting its light, the moon has been taken to represent female dependence and passivity. In Taoist terms, the moon is thus yin, being receptive, relative to the sun's yang. Amongst the Inca, the moon was the sun's wife, and hence the goddess of women. Its waxing and waning has also served as an analogue for supposed female fickleness.
The moon has also been regarded as controlling menstruation. According to the eighteenth-century physician, Richard Mead, ‘everyone knows how great a share the Moon has in forwarding those evacuations of the weaker sex.’ The very word menstruation means ‘moon change’, while in France it is called ‘le moment de la lune’. In Saibai and Yam, two islands off Australia, it was believed that menstruation was caused by the moon, who came as a man to seduce the pubescent girl.
Menstrual seclusion rituals are thus commonly governed by the lunar phases. The Juluo of East Africa believe that menstruation comes with the new moon and that only then can women become pregnant. There have been evolutionary speculations that since the lunar and the menstrual cycles each are of approximately 28 days' duration, menstruation is causally related to the action of the moon on the tides, somehow dating back to the time when we were all sea creatures.
Finally, the moon has been judged to be the cause of madness, the term ‘lunacy’ deriving from the Latin luna, meaning moon. Hippocrates, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch, and the Bible all affirmed its harmful influence. Aretaeus of Cappadocia and Rhazes held that epileptic seizures were governed by the moon, while Hildegard of Bingen deemed that ‘a male born on the seventeenth day of the Moon will be an idiot.’ Shakespeare affords many references to the Moon as the ‘sovereign mistress of true melancholy’:It is the very error of the moon,
She comes more near the earth than she was wont
And makes men mad. (Othello)
As late as 1791, the French psychiatrist Joseph Daquin wrote in his Philosophie de la Folie that ‘it is a well established fact that insanity is a disease of the mind upon which the moon exercises an unquestionable influence.’ His younger contemporary, Jean Esquirol, concluded that the moon affected the insane through its light, which excited some and terrified others. Although such beliefs have waned, many modern studies have investigated the significance of the phases of the moon in relation to suicide, murder, mental hospital admissions, violence, migraine, anxiety, childbirth, and marital breakdown.
The Moon was the subject of widespread folklore in ancient times. While the brightest object in the night sky, it is not so bright that its surface texture is obscured. The patterns on the lunar surface have, like clouds, taken on anthropomorphic characteristics. Some saw the face of a man; others, various animals. The changing phases of the Moon and its seeming disappearance for a day or two each month also led to additional speculations. Modern werewolf lore has the wolf-like side of the person showing itself only during the evenings of the full Moon.
The Moon was associated with various gods and goddesses, though primarily the latter. In Hindu astrology, the Moon was associated with the god Nanna, though the more common associations are with the Greek Artemis, the Roman Luna, or the Moonlight-Giving Mother of the Zuni. It was especially associated with females as they identified the lunar cycle with the menstrual cycle. In the contemporary world, the Moon has assumed a central role in the mythology developed by Neo-Paganism, especially its feminist element.
The most comprehensive system for gathering the many observations about the Moon, attempting to understand its significance and drawing implications for behavior from it, was astrology. The 28-day cycle of the Moon became a convenient way of dividing the solar year into more manageable units we have come to know as months. (Actually the Moon takes only 27.32 days to orbit the earth, but because of the movement around the Sun it takes 29.53 days for it to complete a cycle from full Moon to full Moon.
In astrology the Moon represents the inner emotional side of the self, the subconscious mind and psyche. The Moon's placement in the chart reveals the creative side of the person, where he/she might give birth to new ideas, how his/her nurturing side is expressed, or where great passion is resting. The Moon is paired off with the Sun, related to the overall aspects of one's outer visible life.
Over the years, from folklore and astrology, the Moon was identified with a variety of behavior patterns, most notably mental disorders, or lunacy. The moon has been seen as effecting crime, suicides, accidents, and births, their occurrences believed to rise and fall with the phases of the Moon. It is believed by many still that, for example, the Moon will stimulate pregnant women to give birth, an observation bolstered by the alternating full and empty birth wards nurses have reported at hospitals. These observations have become the subject of research through the twentieth century, though many of these studies have been somewhat buried in various psychological journals.
In the 1980s and 1990s psychologists I. W. Kelly and R. Martens were the focus of several studies testing lunar assumptions beginning with a sweep of the literature in 1986 attempting to discover any evidence for a correlation between lunar phases and birthrates. They discovered that studies had been done in various settings in different countries with large samples, but that no data tied a higher rate of spontaneous births to a particular phase of the Moon. A similar negative correlation has been found between the Moon and an upsurge of behavior associated with mental illness or suicide (including number of suicides, attempts at suicides, or threats of suicide).
Early in 2000, news reports appeared of a German study that showed a statistical correlation between the Moon phases and alcohol consumption. However, on checking, the report appeared to have garbled the original report written by Hans-Joachim Mittmeyer of the University of Türbingen and Norbert Filipp of the Health Institute in Reutlingen. The pair of researchers had done a study of arrests for alcohol in Germany over a lunar cycle without finding any statistically significant variations from day to day.
While much interesting and suggestive data on astrological relationships have been produced over the twentieth century, especially that associated with Michel Gauquelin, the data on the immediate effects of the Moon on behavior as expressed in popular folklore appears to be negative. While there remain areas that have gone unresearched, enough has been done so that the burden of proof has shifted onto the shoulders of those who now make such claims.
Carrol, Robert Todd. "Full Moon and Lunar Effects." Skeptic's Dictionary. http://www.skepdic.com/fullmoon.html. June 11, 2000.
Chudler, Eric. "Moonstruck! Does the Full Moon Influence Behavior." http://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/moon.html. June 11, 2000.
Kelly, I. W., and R. Martens. "Lunar Phases and Birthrate: An Update." Psychological Reports 75 (1996): 507-11.
——, James Rotton, and Roger Culver. "The Moon Was Full and Nothing Happened: A Review of Studies on the Moon and Human Behavior and Human Belief." In J. Nickell, B. Karr, and T. Genoni, eds. The Outer Edge. Amherst, N.Y.: CSICOP, 1996.
The moon may also be personified as a goddess (for example, Diana or Cynthia), and as such symbolizes virginity.
Recorded from Old English (in form mōna) and of Germanic origin, related to month, the word comes from an Indo-European root shared by Latin mensis and Greek mēn ‘month’, and also Latin metiri ‘measure’ (the moon being used to measure time).
believe that the moon is made of green cheese believe an absurdity, an expression recorded from the 16th century. The origin is not clear, but may refer to the mottled appearance of a cheese like sage Derby being held to resemble the variegated surface of the moon.
Moon Festival a Chinese festival held in the middle of the autumn, originally a family gathering after the completion of the harvest.
Moon Hoax a series of articles printed in the New York Sun of August 1835, purporting to reveal the discovery by the astronomer John Herschel of life on the moon, including mountains, forests, winged inhabitants, and beavers walking on two legs. The story, which excited great public interest and substantially increased the circulation of the paper, was revealed the following month as a hoax; the author was the British journalist Richard Adams Locke (1800–71).
over the moon extremely happy; delighted. The expression comes from The Cow jumped over the Moon, a line from a nursery rhyme.
See also blue moon, cry for the moon, glimpses of the moon, man in the moon, no moon, no man.
- Artemis (Rom. Diana ) goddess of the moon. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 36; Brewer Dictionary, 727]
- Astarte (Ashtoreth ) personification of moon in crescent stage. [Phoenician Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 726–727]
- Bast cat-headed goddess representing sun and moon. [Ancient Egyptian Rel.: Parrinder, 42]
- Cynthia goddess of the moon. [Gk. Myth.: Kravitz, 72]
- Endymion name of man in the moon. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 376–377]
- Hecate personification of the moon before rising and after setting. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 726–727]
- Luna ancient Roman goddess personifying the moon. [Rom. Myth.: Zimmerman, 153]
- Nokomis daughter of the Moon and grandmother of Hiawatha. [Am. Lit.: Longfellow The Song of Hiawatha in Magill I, 905]
- Petrus caretaker of Heaven; makes sure moon shines on whole earth. [Ger. Opera: Orff, The Moon, Westerman, 115–116]
- Phoebe moon as sister of sun (Phoebus). [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 726–727]
- Selene the moon as lover of sleeping shepherd Endymion. [Gk. Myth.: Brewer Dictionary, 726–727]
The foll. comps. are of special interest: mooncalf † false conception XVI; born fool XVII; perh. after G. mondkalb; cf. G. mondkind, MLG. maanenkind ‘moon-child’. moonlight XIV; hence moonlighting operation (esp. illicit) by night. XIX. moonlit XIX. moonshine moonlight; appearance without substance, empty talk, etc. XV. moonstone XVII; after L. selēnitēs SELENITE. moonstruck deranged, as if by the influence of the moon (cf. lunatic). XVII.
moon worship: Although the moon has not had great prominence in the history of religion, the worship of it has been known since earliest recorded time—in the oldest literatures of Egypt, Babylonia, India, and China—and still exists today in various parts of the world, particularly among certain African and Native American groups. Moon worship is founded on the belief that the phases of the moon and the growth and decline of plant, animal, and human life are related. In some societies food was laid out at night to absorb the rays of the moon, which were thought to have power to cure disease and prolong life. Among the Baganda of central Africa it was customary for a mother to bathe her newborn child by the light of the first full moon. The moon was frequently equated with wisdom and justice, as in the worship of the Egyptian god Thoth and the Mesopotamian god Sin. In general, however, the moon has been the basis for many amorous legends and some superstitions (madmen were once considered to be moonstruck, hence the term lunatic) and is particularly important in the practice of astrology.