The moon, the largest and brightest object in the night sky, has long inspired curiosity and wonder. It appears at night, the time of sleep and dreaming that sometimes seems to approach the borders of death and the afterlife. Radiating an air of mystery and magic, the moon is also associated with love and often serves as a symbol of unattainable beauty.
Unlike the sun, the moon does not present the same face every day. It waxes, or grows larger, until it becomes a glowing silver-white disk. Then night by night it wanes, or shrinks, to a curved sliver until it vanishes altogether. A few days later a slender new moon appears and begins to grow again in an endless cycle that
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
repeats each month. In ancient times, people used these phases of the moon to measure time.
Themes and Beliefs. The moon's waxing and waning have made it a symbol of time, change, and repetitive cycles around the world. One such cycle is the constant alternation of birth and death, creation and destruction. People have linked the moon with both birth and death.
The Polynesian islanders of the Pacific Ocean said that the moon was a creator goddess named Hina and that women called wahines were her representatives on earth. In ancient Persia*, the moon was Metra, the world mother.
For some people the moon had a destructive aspect. The Aztecs of Mexico called it Mictecacuiatl and believed that it traveled through the night skies hunting out victims to consume. The Maori people of New Zealand referred to the moon as "man eater." Africans and Semitic* peoples of the ancient Near East also feared this terrifying aspect of the moon.
In certain cultures, the moon had a gentler association with death. Some ancient Greek sects thought that the moon was the home of the dead, and early Hindus believed that the souls of the dead returned to the moon to await rebirth. The moon could even symbolize birth and death at the same time. The Tartars of Central Asia called it the Queen of Life and Death.
In mythology the moon is often female, a goddess who may be paired with a sun god. The Incas of South America told of a brother and sister, the moon maiden and the sun man, who were the ancestors of the royal Incas. In the Mayan writing system, a symbol showing the moon goddess seated inside the moon was used before the names of noble women. The Greeks associated the moon with the goddess Artemis*, sister of Apollo. They also called it Hecate, Cynthia, and Selene. The Roman name for the moon was Luna. Native American names for the moon include the Old Woman Who Never Dies and the Eternal One.
Sometimes, however, the moon is male. The Inuit of Greenland picture the moon as a hunter sitting in front of his igloo. Norse* mythology speaks of a moon son and a sun daughter, and Mrs. Sun and Mr. Moon are part of German folklore.
sect religious group
Other legends explain the appearance of the moon, whose mottled surface has suggested various shapes and identities. The "man in the moon" is one common interpretation thought to have originated from the biblical book of Numbers, which describes a man carrying a load of sticks. People have also interpreted the shapes as frogs and toads, and rabbits
The Moon in Myths. A Native American myth says that the sun and moon are a chieftain and his wife and that the stars are their children. The sun loves to catch and eat his children, so they flee from the sky whenever he appears. The moon plays happily with the stars while the sun is sleeping. But each month, she turns her face to one side and darkens it (as the moon wanes) to mourn the children that the sun succeeded in catching.
The Efik Ibibio people of Nigeria in West Africa also say that the sun and the moon are husband and wife. Long ago they lived on the earth. One day their best friend, flood, came to visit them, bringing fish, reptiles, and other relatives. Flood rose so high in their house that they had to perch on the roof. Finally he covered the house entirely, so the sun and moon had to leap into the sky.
According to the Greek myth of Endymion and Selene, the moon (Selene) fell in love with a handsome young king named Endymion and bore him 50 daughters. One version of the story says that Selene placed Endymion in eternal sleep to prevent him from dying and to keep him forever beautiful.
In a myth of the Luyia people of Kenya in East Africa, the sun and moon were brothers. The moon was older, bigger, and brighter, and the jealous sun picked a fight with him. The two wrestled and the moon fell into mud, which dimmed his brightness. God finally made them stop fighting and kept them apart by ordering the sun to shine by day and the mud-spattered moon to shine by night to illuminate the world of witches and thieves.
People once believed that moonlight had a powerful effect on human behavior. Those who acted strangely were said to be "moonstruck," and lunacy, a term for madness, comes from Luna, the Latin name for the moon goddess. The Japanese believed that the moon was a god with powers to foretell the future. Priests would study the moon's reflection in a mirror, believing that if they gazed directly at the moon, it might drive them mad. Superstitions about the moon's evil influence made some people refuse to sleep in a place where moonbeams could touch them. In the 1200s, the English philosopher Roger Bacon wrote, "Many have died from not protecting themselves from the rays of the moon."
lunar relating to the moon
immortality ability to live forever
A myth from the Indonesian island of Java tells how Nawang Wulan, the moon goddess, came to earth to bathe in a lake. A man stole her cloak of swan's feathers so she could no longer fly back up into the sky, and she stayed on earth and married him. Nawang Wulan used her magic powers to feed the household every day with just a single grain of rice. When her husband discovered her secret, she lost her magic power and had to gather and pound rice every day like all other wives. However, she did find her swan-feather cloak and used it to return to the sky. She stayed there at night but spent the daylight hours on earth with her husband and daughter.