The ever-changing face of the Moon has provided an enigma which humankind has spent millennia trying to solve. In 1962 a carved bone, around 35,000 years old, was found to be engraved with the phases of the Moon; and the riddle continued into the twentieth century where the race to the Moon came to epitomise pioneering development in science and technology.
Modern astronomers know, as ancient cultures have always believed, that life is dependent on the Moon. The Moon is approximately a hundredth the mass of the Earth: exceptionally large when compared to the relative sizes of the satellites of other planets. By comparison, the largest moons of Jupiter – over 300 times the size of Earth – are only slightly bigger than our Moon. The impact of the Moon's very tangible gravitational pull stabilises the Earth's orbit, creating a constancy in environment and climate that has enabled complex life to develop. Without the Moon, likely we would not be here. And its influence in other ways – the tides being the most obvious – are also vital for many aspects of life.
The Moon's 29.5 day cycle through its phases is mirrored by the feminine fertility cycle; and as such it is now typically considered a feminine entity, although some cultures have assigned it a masculine identity. The other celestial bodies known in antiquity were predominantly considered to be masculine.
The phases have always been associated with the three aspects of the Triple Goddess. In Greek culture, for example, Artemis – the virgin huntress with her sickle-shaped bow – represents the waxing crescent or maiden phase. Selene represents the full or pregnant moon; the mother. And Hecate, Goddess of the shadows, represents the waning or dark moon; the crone.
The Many Names of the Moon
The obvious regularity of the lunar cycle provided the basis for the first calendars. This is particularly apparent in language. The word 'month' derives from 'moon.' Mensis is the Latin for 'month,' from which derives mensura, meaning 'measurement.'
The full moon of each month traditionally has its own name and qualities – something found in European, Middle Eastern, American Indian and Chinese cultures to name a few. The names have varied from place to place and over time, so no definitive list can be produced, but the following names are the most commonly known today.
The Wolf Moon falls in January. Thought to be named because scarcity of food drove hungry wolves close to settlements to scavenge. And the cooperative structure of the wolf pack can provide a valuable lesson for those struggling to survive the winter hardships.
The Ice Moon falls in February, sometimes called the Chaste Moon. The coldest month of the year, when life is dormant and the land is returned to its virgin state. Autumn – the time of the crone – is long passed and ahead lies spring; the time of the maiden. February begins with the festival of Imbolc, associated with Brigid, the Celtic Maiden Goddess, which today is celebrated as Candlemas or St Bridget's Day.
The Seed Moon falls in March, sometimes known as the Plough Moon or Lenten Moon. The first signs of life are appearing, and people turn their thoughts to preparation for the coming year's harvest.
The Hare Moon falls in April. This is the month of Easter, the Christian festival of resurrection which absorbed many aspects of a much older tradition with the same symbolic meaning. The earlier festival of spring and rebirth – the awakening of the Goddess from her winter sleep – was linked in Europe to the Goddess Eoestre, from whom the word 'Easter' derived.
Hares are particularly active around this time: the saying 'mad as a March hare' describes the females trying to fend off the unwanted attentions of amorous males. The hare is one of the totem animals of the Goddess, and this is the origin of today's Easter Bunny.
In May falls the Flower Moon or Mother's Moon. May begins with the fertility festival of Beltaine. This represents the Great Marriage, marking the transition from Maiden to Mother, both for the Earth and for many women celebrating this fertility festival. Life begins to flourish in earnest: animals give birth, plants begin to flower and the natural world is alive with the hum of life.
The Mead Moon falls in June. Mead is made from fermented honey, which is produced prolifically this month. The traditional rhyme about swarming bees sums this up:
A swarm in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm in June is worth a silver spoon;
But a swarm in July is not worth a fly.
In July falls the Wort Moon, sometimes called the Hay Moon. Wort is an ancient name for 'plant', surviving in names such as liverwort and St John's Wort. These often have uses in traditional medicine. This is the month to gather and store plants for medicinal use: many are at their most potent just before the seeds begin to set.
In August falls the Barley Moon or Grain Moon. August begins with Lughnasadh, the festival of harvest. The Earth now turns towards the future: to the production of seeds for the next generation. The plant dies so its seeds can ripen, in order that the plant can live on.
A single grain of barley was sometimes used in esoteric traditions to convey all the hidden mysteries of life. This wisdom can still be heard in the folk-song of John Barleycorn. Without life, there is no death; and without death, there is no life. This is epitomised perfectly during this month of both agricultural and natural harvest.
In September falls the Harvest Moon, the most well-known of all the moons. Falling near the autumn equinox, a peculiarity of its orbit means that the moon rises very close to sunset, rather than the usual hour later. The near-continuous light in the evening was very helpful for those toiling to bring the harvest home, and it was named for this reason.
In October falls the Hunter's Moon. The hunting season begins in late autumn. Hunter-gatherer societies who were attune with the land considered it taboo to hunt either pregnant or nursing animals – essential as they were for the future of both hunted and hunter – but in the cold months, when the young were matured and the old were weakening, people could begin to hunt. This had a two-way benefit: the hunters acquired valuable food for the winter; and those old and sickly animals who would likely not survive the winter were removed, leaving better prospects for the younger, stronger animals. A wonderful way of working with, rather than against, nature.
In November falls the Snow Moon or Mourning Moon. November begins with Samhain, the festival of darkness. Here, the Goddess shows her third face, that of the Crone, or of death. November mourns the passing of summer and of life, the coming of hardship. A hardship that many – both humans and animals – would not survive.
In December falls the Oak Moon. At the winter solstice, the time of the year's rebirth, the Oak King, the king of the new year, replaces the Holly King, the king of the old year. We still use holly and mistletoe – a parasitic plant commonly found growing on oak trees – to decorate our homes at this time of year.
And finally we have the Blue Moon. Now synonymous with an exceptionally rare event, this is the occasional thirteenth full moon of the year, occurring because the lunar month is slightly shorter than the calender month. Sometimes defined as the second full moon in a month, the Blue Moon is more accurately the third out of four in a given quarter. The last Blue Moon was on the 20th August 2013, and the next will be on the 21st May 2016.
The story of the Moon symbolises life, religion and spirituality. It has been marvelled at by mystics and scientists alike. It tells the story of our lives within the turn of its phases. It tells us of our distant past, and also, with the possibility of occupied bases still very plausible, it may well tell us the story of our future.