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Passing Time and the Jug

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Published on: Nov. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 2, 2010

In Europe, another belief held sway. People saw a man's face outlined on the moon. Some claimed this was the face of Judas, who had been banished to the moon as punishment.

Meanwhile, the Efe people of Africa told stories crediting the moon with helping create the first man on earth. The Fon tribe called the moon the mother of all people.

These moon tales, and thousands like them, sound far-fetched. Yet we have our own moon lore in Missouri today. Consider these beliefs:

  • Fish are easier to catch in the dark of the moon.
  • You should plant your garden "according to the moon."
  • To see the moon over your shoulder is bad luck.
  • A full moon makes people act strangely, even increasing crime and emergency room visits.

The moon is in our popular culture, too. We all know the song "Blue Moon." The film Moonstruck earned three Oscars. Margaret Wise Brown's classic picture book, Goodnight Moon, still lulls children to sleep. The nineteenth century produced Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" and van Gogh's "The Starry Night," with its jarring crescent moon. Mother Goose's cow vaulted over the moon.

If we broadened our search, we'd find the moon's imprint in all cultures, all times.

The English word "moon" exists in similar form in all Indogermanic languages and comes from the Greek word meaning "measure." This is no surprise: most old cultures measured time with the moon. In fact, our word "month," derived from "moon," originally referred to the moon's 29 day cycle.

The ancient world's calendars were nearly all lunar. The Babylonians kept track of new moons as early as 750 B.C.E., and the Sumerians probably did the same 1,000 years earlier. Many religions originated in cultures that used the lunar calendar. Judaism, for example, follows a lunar calendar even today, though it has been modified to match the solar year's length. And because Christians originally calculated some of their holidays in relation to Jewish holidays, Christianity still preserves its ties to the lunar calendar in the "movable feasts," most notably Easter. This holiday, according to the English Book of Common Prayer, "is always the first Sunday after the Full Moon which happens upon, or next after the Twenty first day of March."

The Islamic faith also retains the lunar calendar. The Koran forbids the introduction of leap days and states that Islamic holidays begin when the new moon is sighted. This means the same holiday can begin at different times in different places-in one village the moon might be hidden by clouds, but on the same night in another village the sky is clear.

American Indians measured time by moons, too. They named each moon. Some of the names have obvious meanings, such as September's Harvest Moon or July's Corn Moon. Other moon names are based on Indian stories.

Unfortunately, the lunar calendar is not an accurate measurer of the seasons. Twelve lunar "months" are 354 days; therefore, over time the lunar calendar drifts through the seasons of the year. But farmers needed to know when to plant their crops. Merchants needed universal time measurements to coordinate business. To help them forecast the Nile's yearly flood the ancient sun-worshipping Egyptians developed one of the earliest solar calendars. Julius Caesar introduced the Egyptian calendar to Europe 2,000 years ago.

The moon's cycle intrigues people. It corresponds remarkably with the length of the average female menstrual cycle and also accurately measures the time between conception and birth-exactly nine lunar cycles. Anyone living near a large body of water recognizes the moon's relationship to the tides. Seeking to explain the moon's mysteries, people have incorporated the moon into their religion and folklore.

One universal occurrence of moon lore is the sighting of a person or creature on the moon. In America we have "the man in the moon." The Masai of Kenya say that the moon was beaten by her husband, the sun, and she publicly displays her black eye and swollen lip to spite him. Siberian tribes see a girl crouching on the moon; the moon rescued the girl from a wolf.

Viewers in Scandinavia see two children on the moon. These children, Hjuki and Bil, were forced to carry water all day by their cruel father. The moon rescued the children. Americans know these children as Jack and Jill.

Many people believe that to wish on a new moon is good luck. Muslim countries revere the crescent moon as a symbol of waxing power, and print the moon upon their flags. Some Americans plant gardens during a new moon. Another bit of American folklore is that a baby born during a new moon will be strong and healthy. An old English proverb reinforces this myth by predicting an unfortunate life for babies born on moonless nights: "No moon, no man."

Several cultures warn against sleeping in moonlight, believing it affects a person's sanity. The word "lunatic" originally referred to people who were thought to have been driven insane by the moon. Even now we believe a full moon makes people act oddly and makes young lovers irrational.

What does science say about moon lore? Some cultures have long interpreted the tilt of the crescent moon as a predictor of rain or believed in sayings such as, "Clear moon, frost soon." Another belief is that if you see a halo around the moon, rain is on the way. Science now tells us that a "ring around the moon" is the result of ice crystals in the upper atmosphere, and the presence of such crystals often precedes a weather system-a good chance that rain is indeed on the way.

In New Zealand, statistics show that more rain falls at full moon than new moon. Likewise, U.S. scientists analyzed weather data here and discovered that rainfall was above average a few days after a new or full moon.

Sportsmen in Missouri are familiar with the "Solunar Tables," which allege that the positions of the sun and moon affect all living creatures and can predict when fish and wildlife are most active. Interestingly, the Solunar Theory agrees with the old saying that fish bite more during the dark of the moon.

"I know many anglers who swear by the Solunar Tables," says Kevin Richards, an angler, as well as fisheries section chief with the Conservation Department, "but others say there's no relation between the Tables and fishing success. . . . I don't think it's clear cut." Scientists view the Solunar Theory with skepticism.

Jim Pearson, who hunts and fishes in southwestern Missouri, does consult Solunar Tables and agrees that, in general, fishing is better during the dark of the moon. He also has noticed that deer hunting tends to improve during the moon's dark phase, though his common-sense theory is not related to the Solunar Theory: "When there's no moonlight, deer can't feed well because they can't see." So the deer venture out to forage in the daylight.

Scientists believe the moon was created millions of years ago when an object the size of Mars crashed into earth, spraying debris into orbit. Eventually, this debris collected to form the moon.

The gravitational relationship between earth and the moon may be more important than it appears. For example, scientists think tidal basins helped water-based life adapt to land. And the moon's gravity helped move the continents apart long ago, separating emerging gene pools and speeding up evolution. Our molten core, perhaps partially fueled by the friction resulting from the moon's pull, is cited as the reason earth has a strong magnetic field. Without such a barrier, cosmic radiation would make life impossible here.

Earth's rate of rotation is also the result of the relationship between it and the moon, and this rate of rotation determines global wind patterns, which establish global weather patterns. The moon, therefore, helps maintain earth's temperate climate.

Is the moon possibly responsible for the emergence of life onto land, the speedy progress of evolution, the magnetic field that deflects harmful radiation and our temperate climate? Remarkably, these theories resonate with the mythologies from around the world: the moon is the mother of humankind, keeper of rain, symbol of fertility, symbol of the cycles of life and death.

Perhaps for all these long centuries, humankind's imagination, intuition and respect for natural cycles taught us as much as science can tell us today. Recall that old proverb: No moon, no man. What a lucky planet we are to have a companion such as the moon.

Lunar Facts

In 1991 a professor at Iowa State University proposed we destroy the moon, postulating that the resulting debris would correct the tilt of earth's axis and create perpetual spring worldwide. His idea didn't take off.

Our mind fools us into thinking the moon looks larger when it's near the horizon than when it's higher in the sky. But the diameter of the moon as viewed from earth can fluctuate from month to month as much as 14 percent because of its elliptical orbit.

Consider yourself lucky if you view a "moonbow," which is the same thing as a rainbow, but the result of moonlight instead of sunlight. Moonbows are fainter than rainbows.

In this era of high-tech communications, even the moon lends a helping hand as a passive radio signal deflector. High powered radio waves are aimed at the moon, which bounces them back to earth. Even amateur ham radio operators use this "Earth-Moon-Earth" technique.

Many marine animals take cues from the moon. Oysters in Holland, for example, time their mating by the moon. European eels wait for the waning moon to begin their spawning migration. And the palolo worm, which lives in coral reefs, always mates in October or November when the moon enters its last quarter. Even in captivity, out of sight of the sky, these worms time their mating precisely in accordance to the moon.

Lunar eclipses helped convince Greek scholars that the earth was round. They saw that as earth's shadow covered the moon, it had a rounded edge, indicating that the earth must be spherical. They accepted this theory as early as the fifth century B.C.E.

A blue moon has nothing to do with color: it is a full moon that appears in a month that has already had a full moon. Because the lunar cycle is 29.5 days, this double-mooned-month only occurs about every three years.

What month will never have a blue moon? February.

Official last words spoken on the moon, December 1972: "We leave the moon as we came, and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed from the crew of Apollo 17."

Most of the year, the moon rises about 50 minutes later each night. September's so-called Harvest Moon is unique in that it rises only 20 minutes later each subsequent evening. In the days before electricity, this early rising moon essentially extended the working day during the busy harvest season.

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