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Deep dive: The mythology of full moons

Contributed by
Jan 31, 2018

When the moon is full, weird things happen. Or so they say. Take a quick browse around centuries of folklore, mythology and faith, and you’ll find myriad tales of the full moon's power. Even as the stories wildly differ, cultures and storytellers are bound by their belief that there's something inherently strange about the full moon. It makes you powerful, it drives people mad, it gives strength to darkness, and it makes certain cursed individuals sprout hair and howl into the night sky. Where the sun gives life and joy, the moon is something altogether more complex. A 1995 study from the University of New Orleans found that as many as 81% of mental health professionals believed in the full moon's power to affect people's minds. You've probably heard a few old wives’ tales about the full moon in your time—no, it won't induce labor if you're pregnant, we promise—but behind the gossip, there are some fascinating stories to be told.

Go back to the earliest periods of civilization and the moon features prominently as a force of malice. During the ancient Greek period, Hippocrates, widely considered the founding father of modern medicine, tied the power of the moon to human madness. He wrote, "One who is seized with terror, fright and madness during the night is being visited by the goddess of the moon." This was something the Romans also invested a lot of faith in. The goddess Luna, was believed to have driven her chariot across the night sky each night, hence the lunar cycles. The influence of Luna was said to inspire madness in non-believers. Her name is where we get the word “lunatic” from. Other Greek and Roman goddesses like Artemis and Selene had ties to the moon and were worshipped as such. They were also prominent goddesses of childbirth, so that connection is partly why you continue to hear legends about full moon-induced labor.

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A sculpture of the Roman goddess Luna.

The moon often works in tandem with the sun in various mythologies. In Norse mythology, Máni, the personification of the moon, is the brother of the son, Sól. When the pair came into being at the beginning of time, they did not know what their purpose was, nor the extent of their powers. The gods convened to decide on the basic matters of creation and decreed that the pair would help create night and day on Earth. To “aid” them in their endeavors, they would be chased through the skies by wolves. In one version of the tale, the pair's father, Mundilfari, named the children after the sun and moon. The gods saw this as unforgivable arrogance, and so placed the siblings on opposing ends of the earth, forever bound to ride the chariots of the sun and moon through the skies. In this tale, it was foretold that the events of Ragnarök—the almighty battle that would end in the deaths of the major gods—would be preceded by the death of Máni at the hands of the wolves who eternally chase him.

In Chinese folklore, for example, the goddess of the moon, Chang'e, was banished to the rock in the sky after stealing immortality elixir from her husband, the archer Hou Yi. He had been rewarded the elixir after shooting down nine suns that were roasting the earth, leaving only one for us to live by. Chang'e is now the namesake for the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program. She was even mentioned in the first moon landing, when the Apollo 11 crew were regaled with the tale of her origins.

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Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's depiction of Chang'e fleeing to the Moon.

Largely, godlike personifications of the moon in various cultures tend to be female. In these cultures, such as Greek and Roman mythology, they symbolize fertility and were often worshipped in the hopes of a good harvest. In the Yoruba religion, the goddess Yemoja was said to have the power to cure infertility and protect women. Moon gods, meanwhile, are often more warrior-based in intent, and bring darkness or battles in their footsteps.

The lunar cycle and eclipses are a huge part of this mythos. The waning of the moon through its cycle—from full to crescent to new and back again—symbolized great battles with monsters who devoured the moon before spitting it back up again. Such cycles were feared but also seen as a necessary part of the circle of life. The phases of the moon dictate the growth and decline of life on earth—animals, plants, the harvest and so on.

Every child has been told about the man on the moon. Look up at its surface in the dark sky and you’ll see that face. It’s become as iconic an image in pop culture as it has in mythology—think of the rocket that lands in the moon's eye in Georges Méliès's Le Voyage dans la Lune. The Norse myths say it is Máni. The Chinese stories claim it is Chang'e. Medieval English ballads talk of the man on the moon as a claret-loving drunkard. What you may not know is that the man has a fluffy companion. Various folktales talk of the rabbit on the moon who lives with the man. The rabbit was said to be the only companion of Chang'e, but there are other stories across Asian and Aztec mythology. Buddhist Jataka tales depict a rabbit who selflessly threw himself into a fire as a sacrifice for Śakra. Touched by the gesture, Śakra retrieved the rabbit and displayed his image on the moon. A version of this story can also be found in Japanese folklore, and some believe it to be an inspiration for the Broodals, the villainous moon rabbits in the 2017 game Super Mario Odyssey!

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In Aztec mythology, Tecciztecatl became the old moon god through an act of sacrifice gone wrong. He and Nanahuatzin vied for the honor to become the new sun, but when it came time to jump into the sacrificial fire, he resisted. Nanahuatzin quickly took his place, then Tecciztecahl followed suit. As there was no need for a second sun, he became the moon. But his brightness could not overshadow his counterpart, so the gods threw a rabbit on his surface. The imprint could be seen from earth, and this prevented him from ever being brighter than the sun.

Of course, we can’t talk about full moon mythology and lunar worship without getting into the furry matter of werewolves. Like moon gods and goddesses, many cultures have werewolf-like stories in their folklore. Ovid told the story of King Lycaon, a leader who served the gods human meat and was turned into a werewolf as punishment, in the Metamorphoses. Virgil also wrote of humans who morphed into wolves, while Scandinavian tales feature men dressed as wolves for battle. Folk tradition for lycanthropy varies over the centuries, but funnily enough lunar influence doesn't feature that much. Some European tales talk of transformations happening under the light of a full moon, but it isn't the frenzy of lost control that modern pop culture depicts it as. The idea that the full moon is the defining trigger of werewolf life really only emerged in the past hundred years or so, helped along by Hollywood. Movies are to werewolves and the full moon what they were to vampires and sunlight: a convenient storytelling device that found its way into popular consciousness.

Today, you can potentially look up into the sky and see the moon in an especially fascinating phase. Some are calling it the super blue-blood moon. A super-moon, a blood moon and a lunar eclipse—truly the celestial trifecta that inspires scientists and folklorists across the globe. Events like this are incredibly rare, so make sure you don’t miss it. Will anything spooky happen? Well, you’ll just have to wait and find out.

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