Nathan (vovat) wrote,
Nathan
vovat

Lunar Lore


In honor of the discovery of water on the Moon, I thought I'd look into the mythology of Earth's favorite natural satellite. (Yeah, I know it's our ONLY natural satellite.) The best known mythological conception of the Moon is probably that of Greco-Roman lore, in which both the Sun and Moon are gods riding in chariots across the sky. In earlier mythology, these gods are the Titans Helios and Selene, but they are gradually replaced by members of the Olympian pantheon. Apollo came to be associated with the Sun, which means that his twin sister Artemis took over the Moon. There is some speculation that the Moon was represented by a woman because of the connection between the lunar phases and the menstrual cycle, but apparently male lunar deities were actually more common. The interesting thing, however, is that the Sun and Moon were pretty much inevitably opposite genders. In Norse mythology, for instance, Sol (the Sun) and her brother Mani (the Moon) are pursued across the sky by wolves. The Sumerians, however, seem to have considered both heavenly bodies to be male.



Some versions of the myth of Hercules and the Nemean Lion say that the lion, who in this telling was the son of Zeus and Selene rather than Typhon and Echidna, fell from the Moon. That seems to indicate that, at some point in the history of the ancient Greeks, they started thinking of the Moon as a location instead of just a chick in a chariot. What different ancient cultures thought about the size of the Moon, and how many of them thought the Moon actually was a person as opposed to there being a person living IN the Moon, would definitely be an interesting subject of study. I have to admit I don't know a whole lot about it, but the concept of the Man in the Moon suggests that said Man lived there, rather than actually BEING the satellite itself. The Man in the Moon is an example of pareidolia, the phenomenon in which humans see pictures where none were intended. The human mind is particularly fond of faces, and the full moon does resemble a person's face, with Mare Imbrium and Mare Serenitatis as the eyes. Other interpretations, however, saw the image of a person carrying something. Variations on this theme identify the figure as the guy stoned to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath (see Numbers 15:32-36), a sheep or tree thief, Cain carrying a pitchfork, a witch carrying wood, and an old man with a lantern. Many of these associations are to Judeo-Christian culture, but it's said that the Haida of modern-day northwestern Canada and Alaska saw the moon-person as a disobedient boy gathering wood.



In Asian cultures, it seems to have been more common to see a toad or a rabbit in the Moon. I remember being intrigued when, in junior high school, I read a mention in Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings to a Lunar Hare that kept the herbs used to make the elixir of immortality. The association of the Moon with immortality elixir appears to be pretty common. Hindu mythology holds that the life-granting elixir known as soma was stored in the Moon, and the satellite waned because the gods were drinking it. A Chinese myth involves Chang'e, who swallowed the immortality pill meant for her husband, and ended up living on the Moon with a rabbit companion. According to Wikipedia, the command center at Houston referred to Chang'e (as Chang-o) in a conversation with the Apollo 11 astronauts. The rabbit or hare himself was also sometimes said to manufacture elixirs.



Before we leave the Moon for the time being, I'd like to look at one more ancient belief about the Moon, which is that it's made of green cheese. Not surprisingly, the evidence suggests that no one ever actually DID believe this, but rather made fun of other people by claiming that THEY did. It was sort of a quick and easy reference to hoaxes and superstitions in general. So why green cheese? The Moon certainly doesn't LOOK green, after all. That, at least, might well have an easily explained answer. In 1546, John Heywood recorded the proverb, "The moon is made of a greene cheese," but "greene" probably actually meant new and unaged.
Tags: astronomy, bible, monsters, moon, mythology
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