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Myths, months, and the moon

By Sharon J. Huntington / September 17, 2002

For as long as people have been looking at the sky, they have been admiring and wondering at the moon. What is it? Why does it appear at different times each night? Why does it change shape?

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Early peoples told stories to explain these changes. The Mayans of Central America had a legend that the moon is an old man lying sideways in the sky. As he turns to face Earth, more of his big belly becomes visible each night until it is full and round. Then a jaguar jumps into the sky and begins taking bites of his belly each night until he disappears for three nights to eat and regain strength.

An old Norse myth (from the Scandinavians) tells about Hijuki and Bil, who walk to a well to get water when the moon god Mani causes them to fall down the hill. This is why the moon wanes (gets smaller) and waxes (gets larger). Our nursery rhyme about Jack and Jill comes from this story.

Many cultures believed that the moon was a god or goddess or that a god or goddess lived there. The Bushmen of southern Africa tell the story of a sun goddess and moon god. When the sun goddess is angry with the moon god, she pierces him with her rays until his face gradually disappears. Then a new moon grows.

A seasonal clock in the sky

Most early cultures had stories about the moon and its changes. But even before they could truly understand what causes the moon's phases, people learned how to use the phases as a calendar. They observed that the sun and moon had regular cycles. These cycles could help them follow the seasons.

It was important for farming communities to know the best time to plant their crops. Hunters needed to know when animals would be taking shelter for the winter. People noted that the moon would go through about 12 full cycles in a year. Native American tribes, American colonists, and others gave names to each full moon throughout the year. June's full moon was called the Strawberry Moon, for example, because strawberries ripen in June.

You may be familiar with one of these names, the Harvest Moon. It appears in September or October. Many peoples called it the Harvest Moon because it signaled the time to gather crops and store them for the winter. This year's Harvest Moon will appear the night of Sept. 21.

The Harvest Moon will also appear on 15 Tishrei 5763, ren-wu ji-you ren-chen, and 14 Rajab 1423. Not that the Harvest Moon will appear four times in one year. It's just that different people use different calendars.

One quarter of the people on Earth use the Chinese calendar, which was invented 4,700 years ago by China's Emperor Huangdi. Nearly all calendars determine the year by the position of the sun in the sky, called a solar year. The Chinese calendar is based on 60-year cycles. The year we know as 2002 is the 19th year (ren-wu) in the 78th cycle. Within each 60-year cycle is a 12-year cycle that assigns each year the name of an animal. This is the Year of the Horse. Each month of a Chinese year begins at new moon and has 29 or 30 days. The year starts at the second new moon after the beginning of winter. (That will be Feb. 1, 2003, on our calendar.)

The Jewish calendar begins counting years from a time calculated to be the date of the creation of the Earth. This is the year 5763. Each month begins when the first sliver of moon is visible.

A month's beginning varies