Exploring Ancient Lunar Myths and Legends as Supermoon set to Dazzle Tonight
The moon has been an object of worship, veneration, and intrigue among ancient civilizations for thousands of years. Now, it is set to capture our admiration once again as the biggest and brightest full moon of the year will dazzle in tonight’s sky.
While technically not a ‘Supermoon’, which is defined as a full moon which occurs when the moon is within 90% of its closest approach to Earth in a given orbit, tonight’s full moon is being called an ‘almost Supermoon’ as it falls within the top 10 percent of the closest full moons. It will reach its fullest phase at 2.10 p.m. EDT today, and will appear 7.2% larger and 16.9% brighter than regular full moons.
The moon has been shrouded in myths and legends for thousands of years, many of which still persist to this day, and Supermoons even more so. For example, there are many who believe that full moons can drive a person mad, cause natural disasters, and increase crime rates. These beliefs have their roots in ancient religions and superstitions. Indeed, the words “lunacy” and “lunatic” come from the Roman goddess of the moon, Luna, who was said to ride her silver chariot across the dark sky each night.
Luna riding across the night sky in her chariot, Archaeological Museum in Milan (c. 2nd–5th centuries AD). Image source: Wikipedia
Ancient healers and health professionals believed in a strong connection between mania and the moon. For instance, ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460 – c. 370 BC) wrote that “one who is seized with terror, fright and madness during the night he is being visited by the goddess of the moon.” Roman philosopher and historian, Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 AD), maintained that full moons had a particularly influence upon our brains, being the ‘moistest’ organ, and that this resulted in more crime and violence. In medieval England, people on trial for murder could campaign for a lighter sentence on the grounds of lunacy if the crime occurred during a full moon; meanwhile, psychiatric patients at London’s notorious mental institution, Bethlehem Hospital, were shackled to their beds as a preventive measure during certain lunar phases.
The moon controls fertility
Perhaps because the menstrual and lunar cycles are similar in length, many early civilizations believed that the moon controlled women’s menstruation and could determine when women could become pregnant. Ancient Assyrian astrological texts give advice regarding when women are most fertile, according to the different phases of the moon, and moon deities, such as the Chinese goddess Chang’e, and the Incan Quilla, were believed to control fertility and reproduction.
An image depicting the phases of the moon, used to predict periods of fertility. Image source .
In ancient cultures, the moon's waxing and waning have also made it a symbol of both birth/creation and death/destruction. For example, the Polynesian islanders of the Pacific Ocean saw the moon as a symbol of creation, represented by the creator goddess named Hina, while for the Aztecs of Mexico the moon was Mictecacuiatl, a destructive force which travelled through the night sky hunting out its victims. The Maori people of New Zealand also referred to the moon as the "man eater." For the Tartars of Central Asia, the moon, known as the Queen of Life and Death, was dualistic, representing both the forces of creation and destruction.
Perhaps the greatest myth involving the full moon is the ever-popular werewolf, a mythological or folkloric human with the ability to shapeshift into a wolf or wolf-like creature during a full moon. The origin of the werewolf legend can be traced back to Germanic paganism and Proto-Indo-European mythology, where lycanthropy (the transformation of man to wolf) is reconstructed as an aspect of the initiation of the warrior class. But the link between moon and wolf is not only associated with lycanthropy. The Greek goddess of the moon was said to keep the company of wolves, while the North American Seneca tribes believing wolves sang the moon into existence.
Depiction of a man wearing a wolf-skin (460 BC). Image source: Wikipedia
It is clear that the glowing silver sphere seen in the night sky has captured the imagination of humans for as long as man has walked the earth and gazed up at the cosmos, and tonight we can appreciate it in all its dazzling beauty.
Featured image: A Supermoon rises over the Tien Shan mountains. Credit: Shamil Zhumatov
Is Sunday's Supermoon Full Moon Really That Super? By Joe Rao, Space.Com http://www.space.com/26782-is-sunday-s-supermoon-full-moon-really-that-super.html
The ever persistent myths about the super moon – Edmonton Journal http://www.edmontonjournal.com/ever+persistent+myths+about+super+moon+with+video/10102910/story.html
7 Unusual Myths and Theories about the Moon – History.Com http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/7-unusual-myths-and-theories-about-the-moon
Moon - Myths Encyclopaedia - http://www.mythencyclopedia.com/Mi-Ni/Moon.html