These days if you hear people talk about the moon figuratively, it’s usually in connection with romance. However the moon has a long history of being associated with legends, myths and magic, gods and goddesses. Here are some of those stories and ideas.
As far back as the Bronze Age, a lunar map appears on the walls of a tomb in Ireland. The general consensus is that its purpose was to help departing souls navigate through the afterlife. So it already had mystical meaning to our ancestors.
The moon that we see with the naked eye has long been considered to depict faces, or creatures. This concept is known as Lunar Pareidolia, apparently. A popular concept for western cultures is the ‘man in the moon’ as in the Northern hemisphere the moon could be seen as having a face. There are references to this as far back as Roman times, but it could go back earlier. There are also various stories surrounding who the man is, such as being sent to the moon for a crime (working on the Sabbath, stealing etc). Germans in the past who lived along the coast, having recognized that the moon was associated with tides, believed the man in the moon to be a giant who created high tides by pouring water on the earth. Alaskan Inuit legend depicted him as a keeper of souls, and shamans claimed to be able to ascend to the moon and talk to him.
There are other interpretations for what can be seen in the face of the moon. Many Asian cultures believe there is a moon hare, or rabbit, and many celebrate the moon rabbit in their Autumn festivals. Some Asian cultures see the rabbit as grinding with a mortar and pestle, though what he is making can vary, from magic elixirs to rice cakes. In Pre-Columban Meso America also, a rabbit is associated with the moon. There are varying stories associated with the moon rabbit. In Japan, for example, a fox, monkey and rabbit try to help a poor man by giving him food. The monkey gathers nuts and the fox steals milk, but the rabbit has nothing to give. So he offers himself as a meal, throwing himself on the fire. The beggar, however, is a god in disguise. Impressed with the rabbit’s bravery, he saves the rabbit and etches a figure of him on the moon so everyone will remember him. The Aztec story is quite similar. The god Quetzalcoatl is travelling and becomes hungry, so a rabbit offers to be the god’s meal. Quetzalcoatl lifts the rabbit up to the moon and back down, leaving an image of him etched in the moon for all time. The Cree of northern US and Canada tell a story of a rabbit who wishes to ride the moon. A crane offers to take him there. The crane’s legs become stretched out by the rabbit holding on to them on the journey, and that is why cranes have long legs. The rabbit gets his wish, and he is still there, riding the moon. In Han dynasty China they referred to the moon hare, and poets of the era would refer to the ‘Jade Hare’ or the ‘Gold Hare’ as a simile for the moon.
Ancient cultures had gods and goddesses of every aspect of life, and the moon was no different. In ancient Egypt the god Khonsu represented the new moon. ‘Khonsu’ means traveller or pathfinder. He was depicted with a headdress that incorporated the moon, and he accompanied spirits after death, fighting off demons. Thoth was the god of the full moon, and represented wisdom. He was also involved with the Egyptian afterlife. In Siberia in the past, the marks of the moon were seen as scars left by Alkhla, a monster with black wings that personified the night sky. Alkhla eats the moon slowly until it disappears, then vomits it back bit by bit until it is whole again (not the most charming image.)
In New Zealand Maori beliefs Marama is the god of the moon. He is called ‘husband of all women’ due to the association between the moon and women’s monthly cycle. In China Chang’e was an immortal who was turned into a mortal as a punishment. Desperate to return to the gods, she drank a magic elixir. But she drank too much and floated to the moon, and has been there ever since. China’s moon rabbit or moon hare is seen mixing her magic elixir with his mortar and pestle.
In Greenland Inuit legend, Anninga, the moon god, chases the sun. He starves as he runs, becoming smaller and smaller. Then he disappears to hunt, before returning and slowly becoming larger again. Other gods and goddesses included the Roman goddess Luna, the Greek goddess Selene or Luna, and also Artemis, the Mayan goddess Ix Chel (who had two faces – young to represent fertility, and old to represent destruction), the Dahomey (African) tribe goddess Mawu (a creator goddess), and the Japanese god Tsuki Yomi.
There’s been a notion over many centuries that the moon, especially the full moon, causes mental health issues. In the sixteenth century Paracelsus, a Swiss physician and alchemist, referred to ‘mania’ and claimed that the patients’ symptoms would change depending on the phases of the moon. In the eighteenth century Lord Blackstone defined the meaning of the term ‘lunatic’ as someone who had lucid and non-lucid intervals depending on the phases of the moon. This was followed up in the nineteenth century by the German psychologist Ewald Hering claiming increased mania during the full moon. Alarmingly, at the Bethlehem or Bedlam hospital in London in the eighteenth century patients would be chained up and flogged at certain phases of the moon, supposedly to prevent them being violent. This was only stopped in 1808.
In the present day there have been many studies on the supposed effect of the full moon on mental illness, and the conclusions nearly always find that there is no change between the full moon and any other time, thus scotching yet another moon myth.
This is a very basic introduction to myths and legends concerning the moon, and I am sure there are many more. I hope you find this informative. If you want to share any more stories I have missed, please comment.