The first time my sister Leslie went to Mexico, she asked a local man: “Do you know where the moon is?” He hesitated, then pointed and said: “Sometimes it’s over there.” But it wasn’t – not that week.
Before she went to Mexico again, Leslie consulted her astrologer sister (me). “I want to see the moon over the sea,” she said. I asked which direction the sea is from Puerto Vallata. West, she told me. So she chose the dates for her holiday as advised, and sure enough there was the moon shining over, then setting into, the sea before bedtime. However, if she’d been going to the east coast of Mexico and wanted to see moonlight on the sea, she would need to have chosen a different week for her holiday!
Can you tell from that which phase of the moon she saw? By the end of this article you will be able to! Although please note that all numbers given about the moon are averages, therefore approximate, because the moon has so many sub-cycles and variations within her main cycle. Also that I am describing the moon as seen in the Northern Hemisphere; readers in the Southern Hemisphere need to reverse ’north’ and ‘south’, ‘left’ and ‘right’, and which side of the moon is illuminated in all her phases.
The answer to the question is: waxing crescent to first quarter. Because that is the only phase of the moon in which you can see the moon in the west in the night sky before midnight. To see the full moon set in the west, you need to be up at dawn. And you will rarely see a third quarter moon set in the west, because it does so in broad daylight, under a noonday sun which dazzles and obscures the faint reflected light of the moon.
Of course it does set in the west: like everything else in the sky, the moon (in all her phases) rises in the east, is highest overhead (‘culminates’) in the south (or the north in the Southern Hemisphere) and sets in the west. This rising, culminating & setting of sun, moon, stars & even satellites is of course due to the earth rotating on its own axis every 24 hours. We turn from west to east, so all celestial bodies appear to move from east to west. Actually it’s us who are doing the moving. Nonetheless, ALL rising happens in the east, overhead is always in the south and setting is always in the west.
Knowledge of the moon’s phases can be used both ways. If you know the current phase of the moon, you can work out whether or not she will be visible and if so where in the sky to look for her. Conversely, if you want to do something with the moon in a specific place, like my sister Leslie, you know when to choose to do it. Witches quickly learn that the full moon is in the south at midnight. So if I want to see the full moonlight on the sea, I drive to the south coast not the north.
If you just want to be able to look up this information as required, you can use the summary at the end. If you want to be able to work it out for yourself (you may not always have the summary to hand!), let’s start at the beginning.
Because the earth rotates on its own axis every 24 hours, all celestial bodies are in the sky (i.e. above the horizon) for about 12 hours (give or take depending on the season of the year) and are below the earth for about 12 hours.
We are used to this with the sun: by definition, it rises at dawn and sets at sunset. During this period the sun is in the sky and its light produces our daylight hours. Whether or not we can actually see the sun or whether it is obscured by clouds is irrelevant - we know it is there in the sky above us. We call this ‘day’. Then after the sun sets and slips below the horizon, it is not visible in the sky from where we are on earth. This causes our hours of darkness and we call this period ‘night’.
Now, like the sun and everything else, the moon is also in the sky above us about half the time and below the earth the other half of the time. (She always follows roughly the same path in the sky as the sun, so she follows the seasonal variations in the sun’s position: rising and setting further north in the summer and further south in the winter.) Clearly there is no point hoping to see the moon in the sky during the hours she is below the earth, any more than we would look hopefully to see the sun in the sky during our hours of ‘night’. So we need to know when those lunar hours below the earth are. It depends on the moon’s phase.
The moon’s position in the sky is as predictable as the sun’s. It is just more complex to predict. We know where the sun will be by looking at the clock – the sun’s position is roughly the same at the same time each day (again allowing for the variations between summer and winter, and also adjusting for artificial Summer Times). So the sun’s position is based on a daily rhythm: the earth rotating on its axis.
The moon’s position, in the sky or otherwise, is based on a more complex monthly rhythm: the moon’s orbit around the earth, which takes 29.53 days from one new moon to the next. This monthly rhythm gives us our lunar phases, which means how the moon appears to grow from new to crescent to half (first quarter) to full, then wanes back down to half (the other half, third quarter) and crescent to new again. Lunar phases are the result of the ever-changing dance of the moon and the earth with the sun, and the changing angles between their positions.
Combine knowing the cycle of lunar phases with looking at the clock and you will always know whether or not you’ll be able to see the moon (clouds permitting, of course - it’s no accident that astronomy & astrology developed in the brilliantly clear sky of what we now call the Near East, not in cloudy Britain!) and if so, where to look and what shape she will be.
The key is that at the same phase, the moon is always the same shape and in the same place in the sky at the same hour of day/night. Just as the sun is always in the east at dawn, in the south at noon and in the west at sunset in her daily cycle, so the moon is always in the same place on the same day of her monthly cycle.
Thus a waxing crescent moon (a couple of days past new) can always and only be seen setting in the west soon after sunset. A full moon is visible all night, rising in the east at sunset, overhead in the south at midnight and setting in the west at dawn. A third quarter moon rises in the east at midnight and can be seen only until about dawn, at which time she is overhead; after that she continues her movement through the sky but can only be seen, if at all, pale and faint in the daytime sky until noon. A waning crescent moon can only be seen in the hours before sunrise, rising ahead of the sun in the east; after that the sun’s light is too bright for us to see the moon, although of course she still continues above us through the daytime sky and sets only hours before the sun. And for 3-4 days the old-to-new moon is too close to the sun to be visible at all, unless she happens to be right in front of the sun and thus causes a solar eclipse for 2-4 minutes.
The converse is also true and I am surprised how many otherwise well-informed authors and artists, even pagan ones, evidently do not understand the moon’s cycles. On earth at any rate, you can never see a crescent moon overhead in a night sky, nor a waxing new crescent moon rising in the east nor a waning crescent moon setting in the west. You will never see a full moon setting into a sunset, nor in the sky at the same time as the sun, except briefly when one is rising in the east and the other is setting opposite it in the west. You will never see the moon, at any phase or of any shape, in the north (nor the sun!). And you will never see the old or new moon at all. Any photograph which purports to show any of these things you can be sure is a fake.
Let’s fill in this very condensed outline by gently following the moon’s monthly journey through her phases and our skies. Following the diagram as you read might help.
At new moon, by definition, the moon is in the same direction in the sky as the sun, as seen from earth (and usually a bit above or below it). They are together, conjunct. So, with the sun, the new moon rises at sunrise in the east, is overhead in the south at noon, sets at sunset in the west, and is then below the earth and thus invisible all night. So far, so good. But unlike the sun, we can never see the new moon, because she is too close to the sun and the sun’s light hides her. So the new moon is always invisible to us, even though we know exactly where and when to look for her: the same place as the sun.
The only exception is when we see the moon’s dark disc pass across the face of the sun in a solar eclipse. This only happens at new moon and when the moon is exactly aligned with the sun, not above or below it. Solar eclipses occur about every six months but it is rare to see them because they are only visible for a couple of minutes from some places on earth, and only visible at all if it is daytime and the sun is in the sky at that time in those places!
We cannot see the moon until a couple of days after new moon, when the waxing moon has fallen far enough behind the sun for us to catch our first glimpse of her: the thinnest possible fingernail paring sliver of a waxing crescent moon, with her ‘horns’ pointing towards the left, setting in the west following the sun’s path down after sunset.
I believe these 3 days (in practice, usually 4) in which the old and then new moon is invisible explain the magical 3-day period which appears in many religions across the earth and through time. For example, Inanna’s corpse hung rotting from a peg in the underworld for 3 days and 3 nights before she was rescued and revived, a few millennia before Jesus also rose again from the dead on the third day. Victor Anderson, a priest in the Feri tradition of witchcraft, teaches that the soul remains close to the body (or the person’s home) for 3 days after death, so the recently dead should not be left alone for this time. After 3 days the soul moves on.
Three days seems to be a magical time for waiting, for retreat – corresponding to the 3 days in which we can’t ever see the moon but wait for her to reappear. I’ve found it a useful practice in my own life to withdraw for 3 days to process any major transition; for example, I took 3 days after my father’s death to just ‘be’ before I started to tackle all the practical and administrative tasks which awaited me. And I would prefer my body to not be disturbed for 3 days after I die, although I understand I am unlikely to get that!
So our waxing crescent moon (waxing means increasing or getting bigger) keeps growing a little bit fatter each day, as each day she falls about another 12 degrees of longitude/50 minutes of time further behind the sun. She can thus be seen for about 50 minutes longer in the sky each night before she sets in the west, later and later into the evenings. By about 5 days after the new moon she is big and bright enough to be seen reflected in water. She now doesn’t set until mid-evening, thus lighting the first part of the evening, and she doesn’t rise until mid-morning, still small enough that it is rare to glimpse her in the morning sky.
Seven (+) days after new moon, the moon has grown to show us the right half of herself: first quarter. She is now at right-angles to the sun (90 degrees) and following the sun’s path about 6 hours behind. So she rises at noon (6 hours after the sun) and may then be seen as a faint shape in the eastern-to-southern sky through the afternoon. By sunset the first quarter moon is overhead and bright enough to be casting brilliant light on any waters to the south. At midnight she sets in the west, as always about 12 hours after she rose, having cast bright moonlight for some hours on any seas in the west. This is the phase of the moon Leslie saw over the Pacific west coast of Mexico. The first quarter moon is visible as soon as the sunset sky darkens enough for us to see her and until she sets at midnight i.e. for the first half of the night.
About 11 days after the new moon, half-way between first quarter and full moon, the moon is now waxing gibbous. This is a shape like a circle with a crescent or sliver cut off one corner; ‘gibbous’ means ‘more than half but not all’, and comes from the Latin word for ‘hump’. She rises in the east in mid-afternoon, where she may be palely visible in the daytime sky. She becomes clearly visible at dusk, is at her highest in the sky in mid-evening and sets in the early hours of the morning.
By full moon, nearly 15 days after the new moon, the full moon has fallen so far behind the sun as to be exactly opposite it in the sky. This is the magical time when, from a high place, you may be able to watch the sun set in the west at the same time as you see the full moon rise in the east (or, more rarely for night owls, the full moon set in the west as the sun rises in the east). Because she rises at sunset and sets at sunrise, the full moon is visible all night long, which is the most hours she is ever visible at night, as well as being at her brightest. From this night onwards she begins to wane, gradually getting smaller.
This is the earliest phase of the moon Leslie could have chosen to see moonlight on the sea if she had been holidaying on the east coast of Mexico. Between full moon and third quarter she would have seen the moon rise over the sea between dusk and midnight.
Full moon is also the only time when it possible for the moon to be eclipsed, caused by the shadow of the earth falling across her for several hours. This happens about every six months, but of course we will only see it if it occurs at a time when the full moon is in the sky above us i.e. it would otherwise have been visible at the time, not below the earth.
3-4 days after the full moon, the moon has lost some of her fullness on her right-hand side and is now waning gibbous – a mirror image of waxing gibbous. The waning gibbous moon does not rise until mid-evening, so the first hours after sunset are now not moonlit. She is at her highest overhead in the early hours, and remains visible until dawn. She may then possibly be seen as a pale shape in the western daytime sky until she sets at mid-morning.
Each day she continues to rise about 50 minutes later, until about 4 days later she is once again at right-angles to the sun, but this time rising and setting 90 degrees/6 hours ahead of the sun. This is our third quarter moon, 22 days after the new moon, and her left half is visible to us on earth, but not until she rises at midnight. So the first half of our nights are dark now. She shines through the second half of the night, then faintly in the daytime sky until she sets at noon.
In another 3-4 days she has decreased to become a waning crescent moon, a crescent with her ‘horns’ pointing towards the right, thinning daily. We only see her for a few hours in the night sky, in the hours before dawn, in the east where she rises before the sun. So unless you are awake in those last hours before dawn, you will not see this phase of the moon, and by now she is too thin to cast much light. She doesn’t actually set until mid-afternoon but she is slim enough that you are unlikely to catch sight of her during the day.
Another couple of days of shrinking and she then becomes the old moon, rising just before the sun and too close to be visible in the sun’s bright light. In the 1-2 days in which she is invisible, the old moon catches up with the sun. When they are together again in the sky is the moment of new moon: the invisible new moon rises, culminates and sets with the sun again, and another lunar cycle has begun.
So do you know where the moon is now? Sometimes knowing is of significant practical use, for example whether your walk or run will be moonlit or whether you’ll need a torch to see your way and avoid falling into hedges and ditches. Sometimes knowing can bring more pleasure into your life, like Leslie seeing the moonlight on the sea in Mexico.
And beyond either of those, knowing where the moon is makes our lives on earth more conscious, connected and participating. Then we move with greater awareness through the rhythm of all the greater and lesser cycles of living on our green – and sometimes moonlit – planet.
As Patricia Monaghan writes in The Goddess Companion: ‘Our bodies are saltwater like the sea, and like the sea we are pulled by that great presence in our earthly sky, whom the ancients called the Queen of Night. Living with nature’s cycles attunes us to our connection with the universe and its mistress. Attending to the cycles of the moon structures our lives into a natural ebb and flow, allowing us to grow aware of our need to have both.’
Sheila Rose Bright
I wrote this article before Patricia died, not even knowing she was ill. I was about to email her to let her know how often I have quoted her over the decades, especially from The Goddess Companion, which lives battered and water-stained in my bathroom and still continues to give me insight and inspiration.
Patricia was one of the great elders and grandmothers of our Goddess movement, with her own unique combination of extensive and impeccable scholarship and deep heart spiritual wisdom. Thank you Patricia for all you gave us – and me. I am forever indebted to you for your rich contribution to my spiritual life and growth.
Summary Moon Chart by Sheila Rose Bright
(click on image to view/download a larger version)