A 'history' of the Moon

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14 June 2019
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With the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing upon us, Charlotte Soares waxes lyrical about lunar history

With the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing upon us, Charlotte Soares waxes lyrical about lunar history

Lunar festivals

Every year at a certain time of the lunar cycle, millions of Hindus celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring by lighting bonfires and throwing brightly coloured powdered paints over each other, in order to forgive and forget past wrong doing, and start the new season afresh. Traditional paints are made of herbs that counter spring infections so incorporate healing into the ceremonies. It’s a time of laughter. This exuberant, joyful Holi festival raises the spirits despite the paints being hard to clean off afterwards.

This is not the only festival whose timing is ruled by the moon. Easter is worked out from the time of the full moon that follows the spring equinox of March 21st. The Jewish festival of Passover is usually the week before and is also worked out using a lunar calendar, with new moons marking the beginning of each month. Passover falls on the 14th day of the seventh lunar month at the time of the full moon. The Chinese have a moon festival at full moon in Autumn, where they eat special moon cakes. There are many more examples worldwide.

Lunar calendar

Monday (Lunedi) is  still dedicated to the moon. We may no longer be practising pagans, but we still lead lives based on the moon’s cycle. For millennia time was calculated by lunar months - the word Moon meaning measurer of time, the word month, the length of its cycle. When Britain eventually adopted the Gregorian solar calendar  in 1752, after the Roman Julian solar calendar was out of sync with the time it took the earth to revolve around the sun, Easter was at last able to be fixed to fall on a Sunday - the day honouring the Sun, in this case symbolically the risen Son. The days added to the calendar between old style New Year and the new New Year, were not taken seriously, they didn’t count according to a traditional way of life. They became a time of revelry.

The hours of the day were once only measured by sundials which needed sunlight.

There were a few moon dials needing the light of the full moon, but mostly night time was the time between sunset and sunrise. When there was not much artificial light besides firelight, the rising moon during the night time with its various shapes would be seen to have powers. As clocks were invented and became more sophisticated in the 18th century, moon dials were added showing the phase of the moon and later still a rolling scene with starry background and a moon with a face for the full moon was a common feature of grandfather clocks.

Lunar lore

Many moons ago, the moon was revered as a goddess by our ancestors and even when actual worshipping had declined, she had proven powers that could not be denied. The moon pulls the tides, some dangerously higher than others and gives subtle reflected light to darkness for all sorts of human endeavours. In country lore she tells people when to plant crops at new moon and harvest at the Harvest moon. With a full moon there’s no need to use a candle, or a lantern, later still a torch, so it’s friendly, a benevolent being watching over us, saving money for our ancestors down the centuries. The man in the moon’s cheerful face, as drawn in so many children’s story books, smiles down and seems to follow you as you walk. It is one of the first things you point out to a baby and they then look out for themselves. So much moon lore is passed down by word of mouth from parents and grand parents to the next generation.

In Devon the moon is known as the parish lantern.

“No need to use a night light on a light night like tonight

for a night-light’s a slight light when the moonlight’s white and bright” goes the tongue twister. Just the right night to do a moonlit flit – or a runner – to escape debts.

We may think we are modern, but do you or someone you know make a wish on a new moon, turn silver in your pocket, make sure the moon does not shine on your face at night, (or you will go mad) or cover the mirror so it doesn’t reflect into your room? These are all superstitions that linger as folklore, signs of ancient fears and respect for the moon as a deity.

Lunar inspiration

Alison Uttley wrote how the moon spelt out letters as it changed shape. C with the crescent, D with the half and O with the full face. The same word  Selini is used in Greek for moon and a shilling coin. And doesn’t the very word money have a suggestion of the moon about it, the round piece of silver in your pocket, turned when you saw the actual new moon. Pay is often paid monthly, money received each time the moon has completed a cycle. Somerset Maugham’s novel title ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ conjures up this association, loosely based on the life of the artist Gauguin, a man who does a moonlight flit leaving wife and family, to follow his dream – reaching for the moon, to live and paint in the south seas. Although Maugham once said if you are looking for a sixpence on the ground you miss seeing the moon above.

Alison Uttley writes of moon customs in her semi-autobiographical book ‘The Country Child’, published in 1931 :

“She always bowed to him three times, as her mother taught her. Never did she point a finger at him, for he would resent it.”

 “A moon shadow must never be trodden on.” 

“You must never fell trees by moonlight, or they will rot away and be no good to nobody. And never let the moon shine on your scythe or on a looking-glass.”

“Put out that cloth. Spread it on the grass plot for the moon to bleach.”

The moon has been an inspiration for creative souls of all sorts in art, music and poetry, from nursery rhymes learnt in the cradle:

I see the moon and the moon sees me, 

God bless the moon and God bless me

to romantics like Walter de la Mare whose poem Silver I was obliged to learn at primary school and have never forgotten -

Slowly, silently, now the moon
Walks the night in her silver shoon;
This way, and that, she peers, and sees
Silver fruit upon silver trees;
One by one the casements catch
Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;
Couched in his kennel, like a log,
With paws of silver sleeps the dog;
From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep
Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;
A harvest mouse goes scampering by,
With silver claws, and silver eye;
And moveless fish in the water gleam,
By silver reeds in a silver stream.

This ever changing but constant celestial being, inspired the title of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ sonata, Schubert’s ‘To the Moon’, Debussy’s ‘Clair de Lune’, and too many songs to number but ‘Moon River’, ‘Fly me to the Moon’, and ‘Mr Moonlight’ spring to mind. In the days before television, someone would play the piano, others would sing. The cinema brought new classics – ‘On Moonlight Bay’ and ‘By the light of the silvery moon’, ‘Paper Moon’, ‘Moonstruck’ and who can forget George Bailey (James Stewart) singing to his sweetheart in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ and telling her:

“Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Mary.”

George Melies ‘A Trip to the Moon’ has striking imagery with a rocket hitting the Man in the moon in the eye, which was revisited in the Spielberg film ‘Hugo’.

Lunar cycle

The moon, measurer of time, changes its shape from wire thin new crescent, sickle, to half and gibbous and glorious full circle. When the sun is behind the moon it is virtually invisible, a night of no moon. Super Moons occur when the moon is very close to the earth and appears huge as it rises. Sometimes there is a rainbow or halo round it, or it shimmers behind a thin cloud like a face peering through a net curtain. Country ancestors would have said mists in the new moon, rain in the old, mists in the old moon, rain in the new. Sailors call the long straight reflection of the moon over the sea the loom of the moon, a lovely expression. The arabic word for a much prized white horse is moon coloured.

‘Once in a blue moon…’

In the year 1866, the month of February had no full moon. This rare occurrence is sometimes referred to as a black moon, but it can also refer to no new moon in a month. The months January and March 1866 either side had two full moons each. The lunar cycle of 29.53 days gives us this blue moon, which is what we mean when we say something only happens once in a blue moon. The extra full moon in a month only occurs every three years, also called a secret moon, finder’s moon or spinner’s moon. Is it lucky to be born at the time of a blue moon? Maybe. But in the TV series ‘Poldark’, it was considered a very bad omen to be born at the time of a total eclipse of the moon, which was here called a black moon. (Not sure if this is based on actual tradition but it made for high drama.)

There’s the spooky blood moon, the rusty colour seen during a total lunar eclipse, ominous, full of foreboding. This mysterious aspect of the moon gives us other words,  lunatic, loony (from French for moon, la luneregardez la lune!), mooncalf, moonling both meaning someone foolish, even the word monster has its roots in the moon. Moon men were thieves working by night, up to no good. Moonshine was smuggled or illicit alcohol, made or sold under cover of darkness. Moon-rakers were smugglers. And what is it about that rude action called “mooning’ that associates it with the moon, when it’s the ultimate sign of contempt?

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,

Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,

Clement Clarke Moore, A Visit from St Nicholas

Some cultures call each full moon by a different name e.g.., Wolf Moon, Oak Moon, Flower moon, Harvest Moon, Huntsman’s Moon and Snow Moon.

I only grew up with two such sobriquets, Harvest moon and Hunter’s Moon but my parents taught me the more recent nickname of Bombers Moon, a full moon bright enough to fly by and see targets, mixed blessings for the bomber and civilians. Pedestrians were grateful for moonlight when all the lights went out across the country in 1939, no street lamps, bike lamps or car headlights and blackout, but it was also a dangerous time, meaning raids were likely. The advertisement for Clincher tyres published in 1919 shows this was similar during the first world war when there was a fear of zeppelins.

The men on the moon

When the moon is still visible during the day, it seems it has no right to be there, it’s smaller and less magical. And when in 1969 astronauts put their big weighted boots in the moon dust and it was no longer pristine, it was a little melancholy to think of flags being planted on it. As if the moon could be owned, or claimed by any one country! Although you can’t argue with the amazing achievement of getting there safely and how mind boggling it was being able to watch it from earth as it happened. What kind of magic or trickery was that our ancestors would have wondered, quaking with incredulity. We were watching the start of something world changing, man escaping the bounds of earth. The giant leap for mankind with the man in the moon being Armstrong.

Moon memories

My grandfather rushed across a field to see the first motor car of his life drive past. His life spanned riding a horse, to the advent of bicycles, to cars, to planes, V2 rockets and the first man on the moon. Here our memories coincide.  I rushed across college campus to the crammed TV room, to watch a grainy black and white tv set with Neil Armstrong stepping on to the moon.

Now 50 years later there are always people orbiting the earth on the International Space Station and the globe is surrounded by countyless satelites. Space travel is taken for granted and astronauts are no longer household names any more than a pilot’s name would be famous now although they were once heroes and heroines at the dawn of flight. Much of the mystery and awe of human achievement dissipates once it has been done many times before. In 1957 my father took us children out into the garden and pointed out Sputnik going overhead. Remember this he said. I thank him for that. Maybe it was announced on the radio as they did on TV when Skylab went over years later and I rushed outdoors to see it. Then the internet arrived and through this was able to know when the International Space Station was going over and made the effort to get up early and watch it as it passed, imagining the people inside having ordinary conversations and floating weightlessly about and looking down as I looked up.

Looking up at the night sky in that last 60s summer, was the first time thinking that way, the sky was never the same after that.

Now fifty years on from the moon landings we may yet see other marvels in our lifetimes, men and women setting off to colonise Mars on a one way mission, all our history contained on machines for future generations.

What does the Man in the Moon think of us as he stares back at our wonderfully varied planet. He smiles down, inscrutable as the Mona Lisa. Shoot for the Moon, Les Brown wrote. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars.

There were three jovial huntsmen

 

And all the night they hunted,

And nothing could they find

But the moon a-gliding,

A-gliding with the wind.

 

One said it was the moon;

The other he said nay;

The third said it was a cheese,

And half o't cut away.