At the time of writing, the moon is almost full. It is in fact now waning. Mythology and folklore have long looked to the moon for inspiration, and to explain life on earth. We know it controls our ocean’s tides. But what does its cycle mean for we who live in its light?
A highlight at the inaugural Moon Festival in London is Maverick Women and the Moon, curated by Irenosen Okojie. Five speakers spoke (and sang) about the moon from multidisciplinary perspectives. Highlights of this highlight were for me the talks from Angela Chan and Margaret Atwood, and the operatic performance by Janet Fischer.
Today is 20th July—the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Though the moon landing was iconic, it was not without controversy at the time. Civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy called the moon mission “an inhuman priority” while poverty was rife in the US. Gil-Scott Heron also criticised Nasa’s space programme in his song “Whitey on the Moon.”
Angela Chan, curator of the online platform Worm, discussed the exploitation of minorities that still occurs with space missions, from the mining of fossil fuels to the misdirected use of resources. The moon, like other planetary bodies and space, cannot be owned by anyone, and thus belongs to everyone. May we remember this as we begin to colonise other planets.
Chan also considered the environmental impact of moon missions, peppering her discussion with the story of the Chinese moon goddess Chang’e, also the namesake of the Chinese lunar exploration programme. I had no idea that China has plans to build a second, artificial moon and hang it above the city of Chengdu. The intention is to complement the light of earth’s existing moon. There are concerns however about how this will impact upon animals, who are highly sensitive to the moon.
We know that the moon affects wildlife—how does it influence human behaviour? It’s often thought the menstrual cycle is governed by the moon cycle. “The jury’s out on that one,” said Margaret Atwood earlier this evening, in conversation with Irenosen Okojie. While many women, myself included, notice that the full moon coincides with our menses, there has been little controlled research to date. “Everyone’s energies are at a higher point [during the full moon],” she continued, careful to emphasise that it’s not only women’s behaviour that is likely influenced by the moon cycle.
Is lunacy a myth—or behind all myths is there a grain of truth? Studies have shown that the full moon coincides with increased crime rates (mercury is also in retrograde until the end of the month. Hold tight.) Researchers put this down to the moon’s illuminatory power that historically made crime easier when the streets were dark at night. Some research does indicate increased levels of aggression in schizophrenic patients around this time. The same study showed that other mental illnesses were not affected by the moon cycle. While more research is needed, folklore has long viewed the moon as a heavenly body or entity which holds sway over our behaviour. The werewolf is the most obvious manifestation, the man that becomes a beast only when the moon is full.
“O Fortuna, as inconsistent as the moon.” These are translated words from the 13th century Latin Goliardic poem, O Fortuna, which Margaret Atwood read to introduce the changing nature of the moon in mythology. Atwood set the scene by telling us about her childhood in rural Canada, where there was no electricity and people used the moon to predict the weather. She recalled the gatherings of the great northern diver birds on the lake and their calls during the full moon, and those of wolves and other animals. “That was the sound of my childhood.”
After a vivid recollection of her early years, the author spoke about the folklore and mythology revival, which she became fascinated with reading Robert Graves’s The White Goddess. Women’s divine powers were taken away from them from the bronze ages, diminishing even further with monotheistic Christianity, which pushed out the many deities worshipped in ancient Pagan pantheons. The one god in this new cosmology was male. Atwood recalled the triple goddess, the subject of Graves’s book. Viewed as a trinity of three separate aspects of the divine, each aspect of the trinity is paired with a different moon cycle and a different stage in the female life cycle: the maiden, the mother and the crone. “I’m now in the crone phase,” she said, smiling. The crone is wise, gathers herbs, and dispenses advice; the crone is also often neglected in modern narratives. The author went on to describe the moon card in the Marseille tarot deck, associated with dreams, intuition, the unconscious mind and illusion. Water, like the moon, is illusionary in that it reflects.
When drawing inspiration from the moon, which deities should writers turn to? Atwood recommends Apollo for order or structure, or Hermes if you’ve hit a roadblock and don’t know where to go next. She asked the interviewer if she writes to a moon calendar, and in an interesting digression spoke about her interest in the Neolithic structures that were made with the moon in mind rather than the sun. As one would expect from the author of at least seventeen books, Atwood’s knowledge is wide-ranging. So was her keynote lecture.
To round up the evening, Janet Fischer, with her powerful, expressive operatic voice, sang songs about the moon, including Dvořák’s “Song to the Moon.” In between songs, Fischer told folk tales from the Haida people in Alaska and the Appalachian realms of Tennessee. She also read a stanza from Sylvia Plath’s “The Moon and the Yew Tree,” a poem which so poignantly expresses the melancholic aspect of the moon:
“The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a Knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.”
Whether it provokes madness, romance, creativity or sadness, it’s clear that humanity has long been fascinated with this space rock which reflects the sun and illuminates the darkness. We see ourselves and our current mood mirrored in it. We still have much to learn about its influence on our lives, whether we’re changed by it or just guided by its light.
Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myth that we need new myths and rituals in modern times, a sentiment echoed by Yuval Noah Harari in Homosapiens and Adam Curtis in an interview in the Economist. The moon, ever present and ever changing in our night skies, has been the centre of myths for thousands of years. It seems as good a time as any to create new stories and new traditions that centre around our natural satellite, which still has around it an aura of mystery and magic, which in its immensity reminds us there are still natural forces at work in the world bigger than ourselves. At the start of her keynote lecture, Atwood said “a venerable tradition might just have been established right here, before your very eyes.”
The inaugural Moon Festival runs 19-26 July 2019 in various London locations. Artists, scientists, and spiritual practitioners come together to talk about the moon across cultures and disciplines. Tickets are available on the official festival website.