Sister to the Sun god, Sol, the goddess of the Moon, Luna, emerges from the eastern sea and traverses the heavens in her radiant silver chariot drawn by two milk white steeds. To the Greeks she was known as the goddess Selene, and in the words of Homer:
From her immortal head a radiance is shown from heaven and embraces earth; and great is the beauty that ariseth from her shining light. The air, unlit before, glows with the light of her golden crown, and her rays beam clear, whensoever bright Selene having bathed her lovely body in the waters of Ocean, and donned her far-gleaming, shining team, drives on her long-maned horses at full speed... Hail, white-armed goddess, bright Selene, mild, bright-tressed queen!
Since antiquity, the Moon has been associated with romance. The Moon goddess herself had many lovers, both mortal and divine. Her most celebrated affair was with the mortal shepherd Endymion. They were so in love they entreated Zeus (Jupiter) to make it possible for them to be together forever, and Zeus induced a state of eternal slumber on Endymion, in which he would never age. The Moon goddess faithfully visits her lover every night, and over time he sires fifty daughters with her. This tale of love and eternal slumber was so uplifting it was a common depiction on the panels of Roman sarcophagi (pictured above), invoking the deceased to sleep the proverbial sleep of Endymion: "Endymionis somnum dormire".
|There are nights when the wolves are
silent, and only the Moon howls.
|I like to think that the Moon is there,
even if I am not looking at it.
It can be safely said that no heavenly body has stirred the Human spirit more than the Moon. Being only 240,000 miles away (a mere stone's throw in cosmic terms), and over 2,000 miles across (larger than the dwarf planet Pluto), it's no wonder the Moon's pleasing apparition moves the hearts and minds of men.
But that's not all the Moon moves. It moves entire oceans, its gravitational pull causing them to bulge in the centre, creating tides. In truth it moves the entire planet Earth, because although we chauvinistically tend to think of the Moon as a lowly satellite of Earth, the Moon and Earth actually orbit each other, whirling around the Sun in each other's arms, so to speak, in a grand cosmic waltz around the Sun. No other celestial object other than the Sun itself has as much direct, measurable effect on Earth and its inhabitants. Because of its size and proximity, the Moon's gravity has twice the pull of the Sun on Earth's waters. And the effect the Moon has on people is sometimes attributed to the fact that the human body is 60% water.
On Dec. 16, 1990, NASA's Galileo spacecraft, on its way to explore the planet Jupiter, looked back from a distance of 3.9 million miles, and took the extraordinary photo below of the Moon and Earth together. To perceive the true perspective of this two dimensional image, the mind must add the third dimension, because the Moon is not as close to Earth as it appears. The Moon is actually in the foreground, 200,000 miles closer to the camera than Earth, moving from left to right.
On July 20, 1969, the human species first set foot on a celestial body other than Earth, and that body was the Moon. Over the next three years a total of twelve men would walk on the Moon. Some of them would drive dune buggies called Lunar Rovers, as in the photo below of the Apollo 17 Moon landing. One of them would even hit a golf ball on the Moon. The wealth of data they brought back to Earth, including 850 pounds of Moon rocks and soil, will take generations to analyze. It was without doubt, as Neil Armstrong put it, "...a giant leap for mankind", that hasn't been matched since.
The surface of the Moon is covered with impact craters, and large smooth areas which ancient observers named Maria, Latin for seas. Now we understand that at one time they were indeed seas. Not seas of liquid water however, but seas of liquid rock, generated from the intense heat of large asteroid impacts, billions of years ago, when the planets in the solar system were still forming. The most prominent features on the Moon are featured on the map below, "seas" labelled white, and craters labelled yellow.
On June 10, 2011, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter captured a stunning sunrise on the mile high mountains in the center of the Moon's famous Tycho crater (located near the bottom of the above image).
The Moon used to spin a lot more quickly on its axis that it does now. Earth's powerful gravity tugging on the Moon over billions of years has gradually slowed the rotation of the Moon so that from our perspective, it doesn't appear to rotate at all any more, and all we can see is the side that's facing us. In scientific terms, the Moon's rotation now exactly equals its orbital period: 27.3 days. In other words, the time it takes the Moon to turn once on its axis is exactly the same amount of time it takes to complete one orbit around Earth. This results in the same side of the Moon always facing Earth, so that for the entire history of the Human race, we have only been able to see one side of the Moon. The side of the Moon facing away from us was completely unknown, and mysterious, and dubbed the dark side of the Moon.
All of that changed with the politically charged "space race" between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. in the 1960's. America may have been first to land a man on the Moon in 1969, but the Soviet Union was the first to have a spacecraft orbit the Moon 10 years earlier and gave Humanity its first glimpse of the back side of the Moon. There were no major surprises. No bustling alien cities or water filled oceans. Just a preponderance of impact craters and almost a complete lack of the large, smooth "seas" that dominate the side facing Earth. In March, 2011, NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter gave the world its first complete, detailed look at the dark side of the Moon.
To appreciate the full magic of the Moon we must first learn to see it as a full bodied, three dimensional world, with mountain ranges, vast, pockmarked plains, and ancient volcanic seas, instead of a simple, two dimensional disk. Looking at the Moon through binoculars helps. A telescope is even better. And we have to remember how the Moon appears to change from a crescent to full, and back again. How the Moon does not generate any light of its own, and only reflects the light of the Sun, and since the sunlight only comes from one direction, it can only light up one side of the Moon at a time. If the sunlit side of the Moon is facing away from us, we see no moon at all. This happens every time the Moon is between Earth and the Sun, and is called the New Moon.
As the Moon moves off to the side it slowly turns its sunlight side toward us, and we first see a bright sliver of Moon in the sky. This is the Crescent Moon. When the Moon is at right angles to the Sun, we see half of its sunlit side, called a Quarter Moon. Finally, approximately fourteen days after first becoming visible as a crescent, the Moon is directly opposite the Sun in our sky and we can see its entire sunlit face. This is a Full Moon.
The Moon takes 28 days to complete one cycle from new to full, and back to new again. This means we experience approximately one full Moon every month. Since antiquity, all full Moons have had special names, depending on the month in which they occur. These names have varied with different times and cultures. Below is a list of the full Moon names most commonly used today.
|Month||English Names||Native American Names||Other Names Used|
|January||Old Moon||Wolf Moon||Ice Moon, Moon After Yule|
|February||Wolf Moon||Snow Moon||Hunger Moon, Storm Moon|
|March||Lenten||Worm||Sugar Moon, Sap Moon, Chaste Moon|
|April||Egg Moon||Pink Moon||Fish Moon, Seed Moon, Waking Moon|
|May||Milk Moon||Flower Moon||Corn Moon, Hare's Moon|
|June||Flower Moon||Strawberry Moon||Rose Moon, Hot Moon, Planting Moon|
|July||Hay Moon||Buck Moon||Thunder Moon, Mead Moon|
|August||Grain Moon||Sturgeon Moon||Red Moon, Lightning Moon, Dog Moon|
|September||Fruit Moon||Harvest Moon||Corn Moon, Barley Moon|
|October||Harvest Moon||Hunter's Moon||Travel Moon, Blood Moon|
|November||Hunter's Moon||Beaver Moon||Frost Moon, Snow Moon|
|December||Oak Moon||Cold Moon||Frost Moon, Long Night's Moon, Moon Before Yule|
When the Moon becomes full twice in the same month, the second full Moon is known as a Blue Moon, and they are a rare phenomenon. Since the Moon becomes full every 28 days, it is not often that it becomes full twice in the same month, normally doing so only once every two or three years. The original definition of a Blue Moon was much more complicated, referring to the third full Moon in one season, with the four seasons defined as beginning and ending with the two equinoxes and the two solstices, not the calendar months. Over time, this confusing definition became simplified to describe a Blue Moon as the second full Moon in a calendar month.
The full Moon closest to the Fall Equinox (approximately September 22) is called the Harvest Moon. Before the days of electric lights, the Harvest Moon played an important role in the lives of farmers. In order for the Sun to light up the full face of the Moon, the Moon must be directly opposite the Sun in the sky, rising in the east just as the Sun sets in the west. The full Moon rising late in September, just as farmers were harvesting their crops, provided them with light through the night, so they could keep working, and bring their produce in from the fields before it spoiled - in ancient times literally a matter of life or death. This highly anticipated full Moon became known as the Harvest Moon. With so much vigourous harvesting going on, the air often became filled with dust, giving the Harvest Moon a rich golden hue.
Discerning shapes and figures from the face of the full Moon is a favourite pastime. As seen in the photo above, the Moon can sometimes look like a person's face, with the various areas of dark maria composing a pair of large eyes, a long nose, and a wide open mouth. A face Tom Robbins described as "a clown's head dipped in honey". Some people see the shape of a rabbit. Others see a lady reading a book, or a beetle. From the southern hemisphere, where the Moon's face is inverted, some people see the image of St. George fighting a dragon.
Every once in a while, the Sun, Earth and Moon are lined up in such a way that the Moon passes through Earth's shadow. This is called a lunar eclipse. Mexican Skies captured this phenomena on film in 2010, and 2008. For a listing of future lunar eclipses visit NASA's Lunar Eclipse site.
In addition to the true scientific wonders of the Moon and its relationship to Earth, it's hard not to marvel at the seemingly magical forces that keep this massive globe so precariously suspended in our sky, and how such a lifeless ball of rock can have so much soul.
The Moon was the first planetary body other than Earth that Humans set foot on, and it was an unprecedented technological achievement. The Moon, however, is only 200,000 miles away and relatively close in astronomical terms. The next planet we set foot on will be much more of a "giant leap", as it lies over 36 million miles away. As Earth becomes more crowded and poisoned, we will sooner or later have no choice but to make that long, nine month leap, out to the next planet from the Sun, and try to make a home there, on the small red world of Mars...