What has the moon done for you lately? Have you sailed on the tide? Perhaps you've been a bit loony? Did you feel lycanthropic? Did your moonlighting pay for your moonshine? Did you recite "Jack and Jill"? All these phrases refer to the moon, our natural satellite and, by far, the most noticeable object in the night sky. Its changing shape and brightness have long fascinated watchers. Consequently moon lore, beliefs, and stories regarding the meaning of the moon have greatly enriched our culture.
The first meaning of the moon for humans was its use as a natural timekeeper: A Native American word for "moon" and our word month, both measures of time, attest to that. Indeed, modern linguists have found, in the prehistoric language Proto-Indo-European, a root word they write as mē. No one knows for sure how it was pronounced, but from it sprang our words moon, measure, menstruation, meter, and even meal (a measured, appointed time of day).
Just as the 29.5-day-long cycle from new moon to new moon gave us the month, the seven- or eight-day intervals from new moon to first quarter, first quarter to full moon, and so on, gave us the week. Before clocks became common, people often carried moon dials, to tell the time at night, as well as sundials for the day.
Language of the Moon
Consider some of the descendants of the Anglo-Saxon word mōna ("moon"), with their definitions: mooning—wandering aimlessly or exhibiting infatuation; mooncalf—a fool from birth (from the supposed evil influence of the moon on unborn children); moonfaced—round-faced; moonlight—to hold a second job, by the light of the moon; moonscape—a harsh, desolate region; moonshine—nonsense, or booze (not because illegal stills are operated at night, but from an older time, when brandy was smuggled at night into England from France); moonstruck—crazed; moony—dreamy or absentminded.
Then there are words from the Latin root, luna—lunatic; lunette—both an architectural feature and an old name for a small telescope; loony, also spelled luny, and lunate—crescent-shaped. Selene, the Greek name, gave us a name for an element, selenium, and a clear mineral, selenite.
The Anglo-Saxon and Latin roots show the very old beliefs in the effect of the moon on people. If the moon can affect the tides, so the argument goes, surely it can affect people and change their nature. This is a great oversimplification, for the tides reflect more than just a pulling by the moon. They are caused by the variation in the pull of the moon on distant parts of the earth. Certainly the difference between the pull of the moon on your head and that on your feet is very slight.
Moon Influenced Behavior
And yet there are behavioral correlations between people and the moon. The female menstrual cycle is probably the most obvious. Police departments will often tell you that crime rates are higher at times of full moon. Some psychiatrists suspect that more people behave abnormally during the new and the full moon. As far as I know, no one has yet done a good statistical survey to document these effects.
One old belief held that moonlight could harm an unborn child. Even to sleep in the light of the moon was thought to cause lunacy. The most dramatic purported lunar effect is lycanthropy, in which people turn into wolf like creatures (from lykos, "wolf," and anthropos, "man"). As every horror-film watcher knows, only a silver bullet can kill a werewolf. Silver has long been sacred to the moon for its similar luster, just as gold has been sacred to the sun.
We should not forget the phrase "once in a blue moon." It turns out that with just enough impurities in the air to scatter light properly the moon (and the sun) really can appear blue. So the phrase, taken to mean "rarely" has a basis in fact.
More often than once in a blue moon, farmers used to consult their almanacs to find out when to plant, when to harvest, and when to do other farm chores. Some may hold to these beliefs today. After all, it is well known that if you dig a posthole during the wrong phase of the moon, you won't have enough dirt when you go to fill it up.
According to the Pennsylvania Dutch, you should marry in the light of the moon, the time between the new moon and the full. The light of the moon is also a good time to press cider, but if you want wine, do it in the dark of the moon. Trim your corns in the waning of the moon to keep them from growing too fast. If you're short of cash, don't let the moonlight shine into your purse, or you won't get any more money for the rest of the month.
Crops that grow above ground should be planted between the new and the full moon, underground crops between the full moon and the last quarter. No crops should be planted in the last week of the cycle. To aid the memory, such instructions were often committed to poetry:
"Go plant the bean when the moon is light,
And you will find that this is right;
Plant the potato when the moon is dark,
And to this line you always hark.
But if you vary from this rule,
You will find you are a fool."
Another belief was that when the moon's horns pointed upward, it exerted an upward force. Thus it would hold back water, and rain wouldn't fall. When the horns pointed downward, the water would fall out and it would rain.
Man... and Rabbit... on the Moon
Everyone knows there is a man in the moon, though sometimes it is called the lady in the moon. The man was supposedly banished to the moon from Earth as punishment for gathering wood on the Sabbath.
There is also a rabbit in the moon, and a tree in the moon. Storytellers from Canadian Indians to Joel Chandler Harris have chronicled the rabbit's adventures.
The ways people have devised of getting to the moon have been imaginative almost to the point of lunacy. One intrepid explorer thought of having his ship pulled by migrating geese. Jules Verne had his men shot from a cannon in Florida, across the state from where the Apollo rockets were actually launched a century later. One inventor had a steam-powered rocket. And Cyrano de Bergerac, cap, nose, and all, tried to reach the moon by the clever expedient of tying bottles of dew to his belt. As everyone knows, when morning comes, dew rises into space.
A bit of lunacy took over the readers of the New York Sun in August 1835, when they read that the astronomer John Herschel had discovered people (with wings yet), animals, and forests on the moon. The hoax, designed to improve the paper's ailing circulation, actually did the trick!
Moon in Literature
The moon has been much praised in poetry, one favorite nursery rhyme that doesn't even mention the moon is really a moon poem:
"Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown,
And Jill came tumbling after."
The story of Jack and Jill mimics the actual phases of the moon. If you look at the face of the moon, you can find Jack, Jill, and the pail. As the moon becomes a waxing crescent, the pail appears first, the dark "sea" known as Mare Crisium. Then Jack appears and is completely "up the hill" by first quarter. His head is Mare Serenitatis, his body Mare Tranquilitatis, and his legs are Mare Foecunditatis and Mare Nectaris.
Jill, somewhat less well outlined, appears as the moon moves around to full: Mare Imbrium is her head, and Mare Nubium and Mare Humorum are her feet. Then, after full moon, Jack "falls down" and disappears by last quarter Jill comes tumbling after
Many writers have used the moon as a device without any knowledge of its behavior. In H. Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, an impossible solar eclipse occurs less than a week from full moon, and there seems to be more than one full moon in a four-week span. The eclipse saved the story's protagonists but didn't save Haggard from the wrath of astronomers when the book first appeared.
Other impossibilities abound in cartoons. Look carefully and you will find many contradictions between the time of day and the location and phase of the moon. This doubtless arises from the deplorable ignorance of the sky most people display today. We know less about the sky than did our ancestors of a century ago. Not a month goes by without a caller who asks anxiously "I saw the moon out in the daytime. Is something wrong?"
Another common misconception is that the far side of the moon and the dark side are the same. Even comet-born Mark Twain didn't know that this is true only once a month. Coleridge wrote of "one bright star within the nether tip," an impossibility since the moon is not transparent. But "the new moon... with the auld moon in her arm" is quite possible. The new moon here is the crescent, and the old moon is the dark portion of the lunar disk, faintly illuminated by sunlight reflected from Earth.
This reminds us that moonshine, too, is just sunshine. Once removed, which recalls the story of a student who was asked which was more important, the mighty sun or the lowly moon.
"Of course the moon is more important," came the reply. "The sun is out in the daytime, when it is already light, but the moon is out at night, when it is dark and we need the light.”