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QUEEN OF THE NIGHT
Rediscovering the Celtic Moon Goddess
By SHARYNNE MacLEOD NicMHACHA
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2005 Sharynne MacLeod NicMhacha
All rights reserved.
THE MOON THROUGH HISTORY
From Perfect Sphere to Powerful Goddess
Muses, speak to us of the wide-winged Moon ... The light from her immortal head flows downwards from the skies And bathes all of the earth ... Her rays fill the air whenever bright Selene arises from the Sea And puts on her garments which gleam from afar ... At the time of waxing light, her beams shine brightest from the heavens And she is revealed as a sign and an omen to mortals.
—From the Homeric Hymn to Selene, Greek, 7th century B.C.E.
Since the beginning of time, the Moon has been an object of wonder, beauty, power, and guidance to those of us on Earth. Its great brilliance and the regularity of its phases can be viewed around the world, from rainforests to deserts, from tundras to heavily forested mountains. The brightest object in the sky other than the Sun, the Moon's light shines on all places, creatures, and cultures, affecting the tides and other elements of nature, and showering its blessings upon the Earth as it has done for ages.
Some of the most important (and basic) information relating to the observation of the Moon is often obscured by the artificial illumination of streetlights and modern indoor lighting. Most people are aware of the changing shape of the crescent and full Moon and have heard indistinct rumors pertaining to the effect of the full Moon. Beyond this, the phases of the Moon are only observed by the most diligent in our society. All of us have noted and enjoyed the magic of a particularly brilliant moonlit night, and, despite our knowledge of its rocky exterior, we are still struck by its beauty.
What can we learn about the Moon, our only natural satellite? We know that it orbits the Earth once each month. During this time, the angle between the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon changes, creating varying illuminated shapes that we perceive as the cycle of its phases. The light of the Moon is actually the light of the Sun reflected off its own surface. The visible phase of the Moon is a result of the position it has reached in its orbit around the Earth. When the Moon lies exactly between the Earth and the Sun, its phase is "new"; a crescent Moon (with its back to the right and its open points or "horns" to the left) is seen shortly there after. As the Moon moves further along in its orbital path, the size of the crescent increases, and the Moon is said to be "waxing." It reaches its first quarter and "gibbous" positions as it approaches fullness. After the full Moon, it begins to wane, becoming gibbous again and reaching its third quarter. Then a crescent Moon reappears, this time, with its back to the left and horns to the right.
The Moon completes one revolution around the Earth in 27.32 days, a time period known as the sidereal month. The synodic month (the time from one new Moon to the next) is 29.5 days. This is slightly different from the Moon's orbital period or revolution (as measured against the stars), because the Earth itself moves a significant distance in its own orbit around the Sun during that time. This synodic month is sometimes referred to as a lunar month or lunation. In addition, the rising of the Moon varies over time. The Moon moves eastward (against the stellar background) by about thirteen degrees each day, rising later on each successive day. The time difference between one moonrise and the next is usually about fifty minutes (although this time period changes throughout the year). In the Northern Hemisphere, the time difference between moonrises is greatest around March and shortest around September.
The Earth and the Moon both cast long conical shadows out into space. An eclipse of the Sun occurs when the Earth passes through the shadow cone of the Moon. This occurs only when the Moon is new. A lunar eclipse (which may be total or partial) is seen when the Moon passes through the Earth's shadow cone; this occurs only when the Moon is full. Unlike a solar eclipse, a lunar eclipse may be seen from an entire hemisphere of the Earth. Eclipses tend to occur in groups of two or three; a lunar eclipse is always preceded or followed by a solar eclipse. In addition, an eclipse of the Sun or Moon recurs at the same place each 6,585 days (approximately eighteen years, plus ten or eleven days).
The appearance and timing of lunar eclipses was of extreme significance to early humans. Their cyclical pattern was known to the Babylonians and the Chaldeans, and was described by the Greeks as saros. The Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus utilized this time period to predict the eclipse of May 28, 585 B.C.E.
The Moon also affects the tides, causing the ebb and flow of the waters that are the source of life on our planet. It exerts a gravitational pull upon the Earth, which is strongest on the side of the Earth closest to the Moon. This pull causes the Earth to bulge toward the Moon on the side nearest to the Moon and away from it on the opposite side. The effect is much stronger in the ocean than on the Earth's crust; hence, we perceive a marked difference between low and high tides. Since the Earth moves much faster than the Moon in its orbit, these bulges move around the Earth once a day, causing two high tides daily. These natural patterns were utilized by early cultures to assist with fishing, sailing, and crossing tidal land bridges.
Ancient people observed the changes in the Moon's appearance and noticed their regular pattern, a comforting cycle in a world filled with uncertainty and change. Eventually, they realized that plants grew and could be gathered according to the Moon's phases and that the timing or performance of other activities could be regulated or enhanced by these cycles as well. Because of its brilliance, its ability to transform itself, its perceived beneficence and assistance with important earthly considerations, concepts of great spiritual significance became associated with the Moon and its remarkable transformations. Hence, the Moon was often regarded as the abode of a deity or thought of as a deity in and of itself.
The sacred cycles and patterns of the moon's orbit were utilized by the Celts in measuring time and determining when important events and rituals took place. The new moon was particularly important in terms of celebrating religious occasions. The druids, who were guardians of sacred lore, were said to have studied the movement of the stars and the heavens. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that they were aware of the approach of lunar eclipses and other celestial phenomenon. And, as we shall see, the moon was believed to be the home, or personification, of a great goddess.
The Perfect Face of the Moon
Various theories pertaining to the nature of the Moon and its relationship with the Earth have existed throughout the ages. The natural features of its surface have been variously interpreted as a human face, an animal, or other images, lending credence to perceptions of the Moon's sacred nature.
Eventually, observers realized that the Moon moved around the Earth, a discovery that had a profound effect on the earliest lunar theories. In 270 B.C.E. Aristarchus of Samos made a remarkably accurate estimate of the Moon's distance from Earth. Aspects of his work also suggest that he believed the Earth moved around the Sun (anticipating Copernicus by 1,900 years). In the 4th century B.C.E., Aristotle maintained that the heavens (beginning with the Moon) were the realm of perfection, while the sublunary region was a realm of change and corruption. The problem was, that if the Moon existed in a realm of perfection, it must be a perfect (i.e., perfectly smooth) sphere. How, then, to explain the obvious markings and patterns on the Moon's face? To solve this dilemna, Aristotle mused that the Moon may have suffered some contamination from the lower realm. His theory remained popular for many centuries, and later medieval theorists tried to explain the lunar markings in Aristotelian terms, suggesting that the Moon was a mirror that reflected the Earth's markings, or that vapors existed between the Sun and Moon. Eventually, a standard explanation evolved that claimed there were variations of "density" in the lunar orb. This theory preserved the perfection of the Moon and, therefore, of the heavens themselves.
Around 80 C.E., Plutarch wrote an essay entitled On the Face of the Orb of the Moon, in which he theorized that the Moon must be "earthy," with mountains and ravines. In spite of this theory (and due to continued doubt and speculation as to the nature of the markings), most people continued to represent the Moon without its markings. In medieval and Renaissance art, the Moon was often depicted as a crescent, both to clarify its identity and to avoid issues about the nature of its surface. Not surprisingly, Leonardo da Vinci was one of the few who did make an attempt to realistically portray the Moon's surface and appearance.
The invention of the telescope allowed a more accurate perception and representation of the lunar surface. Galileo's observations led him to the conclusion that the changing dark lines on the Moon were shadows, which illustrated that the Moon had both mountains and valleys. Sadly for the followers of Aristotle, this meant that the Moon was not a smooth sphere and, therefore, not perfect as their system claimed. Other observers produced more accurate depictions of the Moon, its phases, and its markings. Eventually, the science of selenography (named after Selene, the Greek goddess of the Moon) developed, demonstrating to astronomers how to properly represent heavenly bodies.
Ancient Highlands and Lunar Crystals
Modern science has led to discoveries unimaginable to these lunar pioneers. We have made great progress in lunar research, culminating in the physical exploration of the Moon itself. From these journeys, we know that most of the Moon's surface is covered with a mixture of fine dust and rocky debris produced by meteor impacts. We now know that the Moon has no atmosphere and no magnetic field, and is exposed directly to solar winds. Over the 4 billion years of its existence, hydrogen ions from these winds have become embedded in the surface materials. We also know that the Moon's crust is about 68 km thick (42.2 miles) and covers a partially molten mantle and probably a small core.
Modern instrumentation shows that the Moon is ornamented with a variety of topographical features, including terraced craters (with sunken floors and protruding central peaks), concentric craters (nested, concentric multiple rings), ghost craters (whose walls are barely traceable), ray craters (surrounded by markings of bright rays that may extend for great distances), rills (whose crater floors are marked with complicated systems of narrow furrows), lunar bays (with only partial crater walls), crater chains, and isolated mountain peaks (either domelike or of irregular shape).
The lunar surface consists of two main types of terrain—the ancient highlands, which are heavily cratered, and the much younger and smoother maria or grey plains, sometimes referred to as the Moon's "seas." The maria, huge impact craters that were later flooded by molten lava, make up about 16 percent of the Moon's exterior. Many of the rocks found in the maria are dark, fine-grained igneous rocks known as basalts that are composed mainly of plagioclase feldspar and pyroxene, a calcium-magnesium-iron silicate that forms yellowish-brown crystals. These may be found with or without olivine, a magnesium-iron silicate with pale green crystals. The rocks of the highlands are predominantly plagioclase-rich rocks and crystals. In addition, the Moon's surface contains tiny rock fragments held in a matrix of glass. Naturally formed glass beads of various colors have also been found, including orange glass (formed by an impact into a lava lake) and emerald-green glass (found during the Apollo 15 mission).
Rocks collected from the surface of the Moon have been shown to be between 3 and 4.6 billion years old. By comparison, the oldest rocks found on Earth are rarely more than 3 billion years old. The dating of these rocks has helped focus speculations about the age and origin of the Moon. One popular theory holds that the Earth collided with a very large object (as large or larger than Mars), and that the Moon formed from materials ejected from this collision. Interestingly, the mass of the Moon is not much larger than the minimum necessary for a solid body to assume spherical form. Its formation and existence (and perhaps our own as well) may be a fortuitous event—perhaps one that was divinely guided or inspired.
She Who Measures Time
The modern English word "moon" is derived from Old English mona, which comes from the Indo-European root-word mé, from which we also get the words "month" and "measure." This reflects the ancient tradition of measuring time according to the revolutions of the Moon. Fairly early in the current era, however, the Moon became associated with another unit of time measurement—the days of the seven-day week.
This lunar association appears in the English "Monday," as well as in a number of Germanic languages: German Montag, Dutch Maandag, and Danish Mandag, for example. It also occurs in various Romance languages, in which the word for "moon" derives from Latin luna: French lundi, Italian lunedi, Spanish lunes, and Romanian luni. The other days of the week were named after additional planets—Saturn (Saturday) and the Sun (Sunday)—and a variety of deities in Roman or Germanic form (see Table 1).
The full Moon, long associated with supernatural power and magical occurrences in many traditions, was considered a welcome friend and guide in the night. Its appearance was connected with various practical and earthly considerations, and the appearance of the seasonal Moons helped farmers know when to plant or harvest crops, or when to perform other activities in harmony with the phases of the Moon. Table 2 gives one version of the traditional names for these lunar phases.
The full Moon that occurs closest to the time of the Autumnal Equinox (September 21) is called the Harvest Moon and rises just after sunset. Its brightness is legendary, lighting up the fields and enabling work to continue late into the night. The next full Moon, which also rises early in the evening, is known as the Hunter's Moon. In the Southern Hemisphere, of course, there is a six-month shift in these dates.
Most of our modern calendar months have thirty or thirty-one days, making it possible for two full Moons to occur in one month (except February). If two full Moons do occur in one month, the second of these is referred to as a Blue Moon—hence, the saying that describes something that occurs only very infrequently as happening "once in a Blue Moon." Actually, Blue Moons can occur more frequently than the saying indicates—once every two and a half years, or seven times every nineteen years.
The measurement of time, the celebration of the seasons, and the sacred cycles and passages of people's lives have been associated with the divine in many cultures since earliest times. This was certainly true even before the advent of recorded history, which represents only a small fraction of the time we have been watching the Moon's passages and marveling at her mysteries.
Meditations and Exercises
Following is a list of simple practices to put you more closely in touch with the cycles and phases of the Moon and allow you to tap into its powers.
1) Keep a journal in which you mark and record the passing of time in lunar months. Notice if you are able to perceive any natural energies, patterns, or rhythms that appear in or correspond to this system. Watch for subtle changes in the plant world, in bodies of water, in the activities of animals (or people), and in your own life.
2) Think about the traditional names of the full Moons (Wolf Moon, Snow Moon, Harvest Moon, etc.). Are these names appropriate or meaningful for you? What images, associations, or energies are associated with each? You may want to create your own annual system of full-Moon names and lore.
3) Spend time at the ocean during both low and high tide. Meditate and see what images arise. Also notice if the Moon's energy is stronger or different during each tidal phase. Make an offering to the Moon at the ocean's edge—perhaps a crystal or a silver or blue stone—and consider spending some time cleaning up the beach in her honor.
4) Think about the pattern formed by the Moon's transit through its various shapes: crescent, first quarter, gibbous, full, gibbous, third quarter, crescent, and void Moon (including the alternation of the Moon's horns from side to side). What images or energy patterns are evident? How do these relate to the universe, creation, the cycles of nature, or the energies in your own life?
5) During the next lunar month, use a sketchbook to draw or record the shape of the Moon's changing phases. Also record the markings of the full Moon, and see if these differ from month to month. Look at photographs of the Moon's surface. Notice the wonderful variety of features and shapes, and see if any of these particularly appeal to you. Using either a photograph or your own drawings, meditate on these features. What do they say about the age and history of the Moon?
Excerpted from QUEEN OF THE NIGHT by SHARYNNE MacLEOD NicMHACHA. Copyright © 2005 Sharynne MacLeod NicMhacha. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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