Companion In The Sky

For as long as there have been humans to write, sing, and tell tales, so too has there been the moon, rising and setting, waxing and waning. This glowing orb, hanging in the night sky, has often captured the imagination of poets, novelists, songwriters, and artists, inspiring odes in all forms. Like many before us, we take an opportunity to consider the moon: her beauty, her symbolism, and her eternal presence.

An element of the moon that never ceases to evoke my wonder is its rhythm and pattern, that never-failing schedule that is so predictable yet somehow always catches me by surprise. When the moon is nearly full, there are times of the year when it rises during my evening walk home from work. Usually, my commute takes me through the park just blocks from home, and when it is late enough, I’ll be the only one there, excepting the occasional nocturnal rabbit and the sleeping birds. Suddenly, I’ll realize that patches of the darkened sky overhead are clear and speckled with twinkling stars, particularly on frigid nights; by some unknown pull, I’ll turn around to look behind me for the moon. While on some evenings, I’m disappointed—perhaps the moon is in a different phase, having risen much earlier, and in a different location, maybe hidden by the buildings around me—more often than not, I realize with delight that it has been right behind me during the entire walk home, its glowing presence gently bathing my surroundings in light. At that moment, the moon is a familiar presence, like an old friend joining me for the last few steps of my journey home. I’ll stop, turn back for a few steps, and greet the moon with a smile. Sometimes, I’ll take out my camera and try to capture a photograph, but like some of my shyest friends, the moon will protest and all I get is a blur that doesn’t do justice to the moon’s beautiful, luminous face.

Anyone who has taken a science course in school will be familiar with the phases of the moon. A full moon occurs when the earth is between the moon and the sun, such that the surface of the moon facing us on earth is fully reflecting the light from the sun; therefore, it appears to be perfectly round. As the moon makes it way eastward around the earth, the side of the moon that is illuminated by the sun is no longer directly facing its audience on earth, and so part of the moon appears to go dark. When the moon is directly between the earth and the sun, the side of the moon that faces us is completely in shadow because the sunlight is reflecting off of the opposite side of the moon, and so the moon appears to disappear. The next few nights, as the moon continues on its path around the earth, we begin to see a crescent of light as we catch a glimpse of the surface reflecting the sun, and that is the new moon. The moon waxes, growing as it progresses from its crescent phases to its gibbous phases, until we see the full moon again, and then it will wane once more.1

This lunar pattern, with a period of twenty-nine and a half days, establishes the rhythm of the lunar year, which is the basis for the Jewish religious calendar, the Muslim calendar, and the lunar calendars consulted in many Asian cultures.2 Unlike the solar year, which is based on the seasons, the lunar year is populated by synodic months, which correspond to the cycle of the phases of the moon. Accordingly, members of these cultures often commemorate and celebrate certain holidays with the moon. Ramadan, on the Islamic calendar, falls on the ninth month of the lunar year and begins and ends with the new moon.3 The Mid-Autumn Festival, known as Zhongqiu Jie in China, Chuseok in North and South Korea, and Tsukimi in Japan, lands on the fifteenth day of the eighth month when the moon is full.4 Diwali, or The Festival of Lights, celebrates the New Year on the Hindu calendar, and is timed with the darkest night of the lunar year.5

Of course, many of these lunar celebrations pre-date our current-day understanding of the solar system and its inner workings. Although Greek and Islamic astronomers were observing the patterns of the moon and the stars many centuries ago, quite a few of our ancestors came up with other, sometimes more fantastical, explanations for the phases of the moon. As J.W. Slaughter recounts in The Moon In Childhood and Folklore:

“Among the Greenlanders, the sun and moon were once human beings, sister and brother, named Malina and Anninga. The latter while playing in the dark, seized his sister by the shoulders, a sign of courtship. In order to recognize him, she smeared soot on his face which accounts for the spots. When she discovered who it was, she fled to the sky, becoming the sun, closely followed by Anninga, who became the moon. The chase at times makes him very hungry and thin, when he gives it up for a few days to hunt seals. This fattens him, and he becomes the full moon again.”6

In Japanese folklore, according to the tale, “The Moon-Lady’s Song”, the moon is inhabited by celestial beings. The light that we see is a result of their rituals and activities:

“She sang of the mighty Palace of the Moon, where thirty monarchs ruled, fifteen in robes of white when that shining orb was full, and fifteen robed in black when the Moon was waning.”7

According to the Chinese tale, “How the Moon Became Beautiful,” the moon did not always appear as it does now. Underappreciated and gloomy-looking, the moon was sad that no one would praise him for his beauty. At the suggestion of the stars and flowers, who had no shortage of mortal admirers, he sought out the beautiful earth maiden, Tseh-N’io. At first sight, he fell in love. He asked her to live with him, and she became the moon’s bride, and their bliss transformed his appearance:

“The face of the Moon is very beautiful now. It is happy and bright and gives a soft, gentle light to all the world. And there are those who say that the Moon is now like Tseh-N’io, who was once the most beautiful of all earth maidens.”8

The moon is one of just a few objects that unites across cultures, geography, and time. From the perspective of a small human so far, far away on the earth, the moon has never changed. It is one of the few things that we can look at knowing that it is virtually unchanged since our great-great-grandparents gazed up at the night sky. By the same token, we are confident that we will see the moon again next month, next year, and so will future generations. In times of loneliness, when we miss a loved one, we can be consoled by the knowledge that the moon our eyes rests upon is the same one that he or she will see when night reaches them hundreds of miles away. The moon is a guiding light, one that never burns out and never needs to be replaced—what more could one ask for?

1 What Are The Phases of The Moon? The StarChild Team, NASA.

2 Lunar Calendar. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

3 Ramadan. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

4 Mid-Autumn Festival. Wikipedia.

5 Diwali. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica.

6 Slaughter J.W. The Moon In Childhood and Folklore. The American Journal of Psychology. 13(2), 294-318.

7 Davis, F. Hadland. The Moon-Lady’s Song. Myths and Legends of Japan. G. G. Harrap & Co., London, 1912.

8 Davis M.H. & Chow-Leung. How the Moon Became Beautiful. Chinese Fables and Folk Stories. American Book Company, 1908.

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