To Be Moonstruck

Although astronauts have once and for all cleared up the myth that the moon is made of green cheese, earthlings might never be quite willing to surrender the many notions and beliefs about this heavenly light. Since time immemorial, humankind has held the moon in awe and surrounded it with myth and fearful superstition. 

To our ancestors, the moon revealed not only that death is indissolubly linked to life, but also that death is not final, because it is always followed by a birth. As the sun-god ruled the day, so the moon-goddess ruled the night. Both deities were worshipped and revered as sources of the life force and often linked in mythologies. Therefore, the Egyptian goddess, Isis, was both goddess of the moon and the sun. Similarly, Caotlicus, the Aztec moon-goddess, was the sun-god’s wife. In time, as our ancestors’ hunter-gatherer way of life gave way to agriculture, the fruitfulness of the earth and all her inhabitants became synonymous with the moon-goddess’ fertility. 

As the moon waxed and waned, this heavenly body was seen to swell like a pregnant female, thereby associating it in all mythologies with growth and fertility, birth and regeneration. As a fertility symbol, the moon plays a part in the ancient folklore of people worldwide. This contention is underlined by an old European folk belief that suggests that if a woman drinks at night from a pond holding the moon’s reflection, she will become fertile. In Greenland, young girls dared not stare at the moon lest they become pregnant. Fascinatingly, the exact same belief exists on the other side of the world. According to Australian Aboriginal myth, the moon brought the gift of fertility and was perceived as a fertilising male who conferred the power to reproduce on women, as well as on plants, and animals.

The universal belief that the moon is linked to women’s physiology has prevailed throughout the ages. The Greeks, Indians, Romans, Germanic people, Celts, Egyptians, Arabs, Chinese, and Aboriginal Australians all had creation myths recognising the mysterious and sacred nature of the moon’s cycle in relation to human menstrual blood flow. As the moon was seen to influence the Earth’s waters, so it was thought to affect the liquid in human bodies and the bodies of all living things. From ancient times, people recognised the connection of the moon’s cyclical nature with women’s menstrual cycles – Mensa was the Roman goddess of measurement, numbers, calendars, and record keeping.  

The cycle of human ovulation is said to approximate the lunar month, a fact that is preserved in the term menstruation, signifying ‘monthly’. Many cultures throughout time have referred to a woman’s menses as her ‘moon time’. The Maori of New Zealand call menstruation mata marama, meaning ‘moon sickness’. Because of its connection with female rhythms, life cycles, and the mysteries of nature, the moon was seen as feminine in most mythologies. The moon-goddess soon came to represent all females –the young maiden, the woman, the old crone, and the wise woman.

Traditionally, the moon is also linked with witchcraft, magic, and sorcery; hence in Christian times, all pagan goddesses closely related to the moon became the queens of witches. Witches were thought to perform their magic spells and meet according to the lunar phases. The ancient witches of Thessaly were believed to have the power of drawing the moon down from the sky at their command. It was believed that the Thessalonian witches wished to bring the moon down to Earth to concentrate its beneficial influence on the various plants they used for spells and potions. The symbolic ritual of ‘drawing down the moon’, also called ‘drawing down the goddess’, is still performed in modern times amongst Wiccans, adherents of the modern, peaceful, pagan Wicca movement. 

As an amulet, the crescent or horned moon, symbol of the moon-goddess, was believed to protect powerfully against all malevolent influences, especially the evil eye. Charms, such as the moon-ornaments mentioned in the Old Testament,103 were used to adorn humans and animals. A relic of this tradition is still preserved in the brass accessories, many in the shape of the crescent, adorning horse harnesses.

Because the ‘ruler of tides’ symbolises dark, mysterious, and often negative forces, it has been believed throughout the ages that those gazing too long at the full moon risk lunacy. It was firmly believed that the moon could turn people mad; in fact the moon was believed to cast a spell. The word lunatic is derived from the Latin term luna. Lunacy means ‘possessed by the spirit of luna’. An English saying reiterates this belief: ‘When the moon’s in the full, then’s wit in the wane.’ The moon’s control over all body fluids, including those in the brain, was believed to cause moon-madness. People of unstable character were said to be ‘ruled by the moon’. Shakespeare refers to the moon’s power to drive men out of their minds in Othello: ‘It is the very error of the moon; she comes more nearer earth than she was wont, and makes men mad’.104 

Sleeping in the moonlight was regarded as dangerous, and young girls were especially advised never to let the moonlight stream in their window at night, lest they beget monsters if exposed for lengthy periods to moonlight. The moon’s rays were thought to be harmful and cause moon-blindness. The sleeper could also be moonstruck, perceived as harmless idiocy and generally alluded to as being loony. 

Resulting from the conviction that the moon could harm and injure, respectfully greeting this heavenly body at every opportunity was once traditional. In many parts of England, in the early 1990s, children first glimpsing the new moon still customarily invoked the following: ‘I see the moon and the moon sees me. God bless the moon and God bless me’. This couplet was recited aloud to escape bad luck or some dire calamity that the moon could otherwise cause.

Pointing at the moon was considered unlucky, as it offended the ‘man in the moon’. Pointing at any object or person meant concentrating bad luck in that direction by drawing evil spirits’ attention. It was believed that the man in the moon, sent there because he had gathered sticks, that is, firewood, on a Sunday, would not stand for being pointed at and would cause ill luck for the person pointing. Superstitious awe about pointing at the moon can be found throughout Europe, although the reasons for not doing so vary. A German tradition, for example, holds that to point at the moon or the stars in the sky hurt the angels’ eyes.

The three main phases of the moon – the full moon, its waxing, and its waning – were seen to emulate all of life on our planet, that is, birth, maturity, and death in nature – animals and humans. The moon’s waxing and waning was thought to affect not only birth and death, but also all enterprises to a large degree. The moon in its increase, full growth, and wane was regarded as an emblem of rising, flourishing, and declining fortunes, whereas the times between the various phases were considered most ominous. For example, no new venture should be started when there was no moon, and children born during this time were thought to have no chance of success in life. Therefore, to our forefathers, the felling of wood, the thatching of houses, the cutting of turf, and all other activities depended fully on the phases of the moon. The growth of crops, hair, nails, and even corns was attributed directly to the phases of the moon. 

Generally, the new moon was considered a lucky period. In England and Germany, turning over a silver coin in the pocket while bowing to the new moon was customary and believed to ensure good fortune and prosperity throughout this heavenly body’s next cycle. The new moon was considered especially lucky for lovers, and in the past, marriages were ideally arranged on the new moon. The mating urges of large animals seemed to be heightened during the moon’s waxing, and a lunar periodicity was observed in the movement of certain ocean fish. In all ancient communities, peasants sowed ‘by the moon’. Many rustic gardeners today only plant seeds when the moon is growing and increasing in light, and many farmers use only this time to cure their bacon and sow their corn. Some hairdressers still believe hair growth is linked to cutting the hair during the moon’s waxing. Killing livestock, especially pigs, was better done when the moon was on the increase, as the meat was believed to swell, rather than shrink, during cooking. Bacon was thought to be richer and fatter if slaughtering took place during the waxing moon. If sheep were shorn during this time, their wool was believed to grow thicker and longer. 

The waning moon was believed to have an unlucky influence, especially on births and weddings. To cut hair and fingernails during this period was inadvisable, as it was believed that they would not grow again. It was, however, a good time to cut down trees and let blood. The best time for picking herbs and flowers was considered to be when the moon was on the decline.

The moon was also traditionally observed by country folk to predict the weather. For example, if the horns of the new moon pointed upwards, forthcoming weather would be fine; if, however, a haze covered the moon, then rain was imminent. 

When considering this beautiful, heavenly body on a starlit, tranquil night, is it not amazing to consider how much this enigmatical light has influenced life here on Earth – our myths, beliefs and traditions?


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