The Moon is a fickle mistress.
Is she evil or is she the personification of a loving woman? Will she turn you into a murderous lunatic, or will she restore your fertility and protect you from harm? Join me as I join the rabbit on the moon in discovering all the different lunar superstitions lore has to offer.
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Hello my friends, to another episode of your favorite spooky history podcast, Strange Origins.
For a pretty special topic this week, I wanted to deep dive as much as possible into a subject that has been on my mind a lot in the past few years.
My fascination with the moon feels like it’s been a lifelong thing. And it wasn’t hard to find the moon, as it was featured pretty frequently in a lot of interesting pieces of art, or classic films, or poems about love I've read. The moon really is just a beautiful part of life on Earth that seems to inspire everyone. And while it’s had its moment in pop culture, I’ve rarely heard any stories about the superstitions of the moon or heard any explanations as to why it was such a fundamental part of mythological lore, the horror genre, or even symbology.
A large part of the reason I’m still so fascinated with the moon is largely to blame on stories my mom told me. Growing up my mother was a nurse in a smaller hospital in the small valley in Idaho. After what I can only imagine were some very long night shifts, she would come home and tell my sister and me that full moons were some of the busiest times for a hospital. This was especially true, in her experience, when it came to babies being born.
What isn’t too surprising is that my mom isn’t the only medical professional to harbor this belief. A 1995 study from the University of New Orleans discovered that about 81% of professionals in the mental health field believe that the moon has a deep effect on people’s psyches. Those changes include when people are more prone to sleepwalking, to have more violent fits of rage, to perform an illegal activity such as murder, or even contemplate committing suicide. But while medical professionals will often blame a busy night on a full moon, there are not too many statistics that can account for the superstition.
But where did these superstitions come from in the first place?
Well, as I guessed it would be, the moon is a pretty popular subject. And it doesn’t really matter which culture you study; pretty much everyone agrees that the moon has a strange effect on people that they can’t quite explain. This superstition actually led to the creation of the word lunatic, or lunacy, which derives from the word luna.
It was actually believed at one point that you could account for bad behavior in lunatic houses like England's infamous Bedlam by keeping track of the lunar cycle. At those points where the moon was brighter than it was during the rest of the month, it’s said that the more volatile patients were chained, flogged, and deprived of food even before they acted out, simply as a way of keeping them from misbehaving because of the full moon. Even in the 1930s, it’s said that a visitor to an asylum in the West Indies reported that this same practice was still being adhered to, as the guards particularly believed that the patients were harder to handle during a full moon and quote “special precautions have to be taken in order to restrain them.”
Something that could work to your benefit when it came to superstitions about the full moon is that it was sometimes used as a bargaining chip. In the 18th century in England, it was actually fairly common for those people who were then on trial for murder to attempt to get a lesser sentence by blaming the full moon as having controlled them in a moment of insanity. By making this argument they hoped to get a plea of insanity, which meant a less brutal punishment.
While those beliefs had real-world consequences, it was also around the 1900s when the lore behind modern-day monsters began to revolve around the moon. As I discussed in my episode on werewolves, it wasn’t until Hollywood got involved that a correlation between werewolves and the moon was drawn because it was easier to film a transformation under the light of a full moon. It is also believed that vampires can heal themselves when laid out in the light of the full moon.
As do most of my research topics, superstitions about the moon can be easily tied back to the ancient Greeks. The philosopher Hippocrates, who is today considered the father of modern medicine, wrote that quote “one who is seized with terror, fright, and madness during the night is being visited by the goddess of the moon.” The goddess he was referring to was Luna, who was also referred to in Greek mythology as Selene. Her male counterpart is famously Helios, the god of the sun, and she is also famously known for being portrayed alongside two other goddesses who are also connected to nighttime, forming a triad. Artemis, the twin sister to Apollo, is the goddess of hunting wild animals, and of chastity and childbirth. These two goddesses served alongside the goddess Hecate, who as I’ve discussed in previous episodes, was the goddess of witchcraft, ghosts, and was one of the only gods to hold keys to the underworld. While today they are often mistaken as serving together as a symbol of the Maiden, Mother, and Crone, they were never meant to be. Instead, they were just grouped together for their femininity and affiliation to the moon.
Something I found fascinating about the goddess Selene was her relationship with the first astronomer. The story revolves around Endymion, who is often depicted as a beautiful young man who spent much of his time asleep because he was given a gift by Zeus that allowed him, through sleep, to remain forever youthful. Because of this, the moon, or as we now know her, Selene, fell in love with him and would visit him often while he lay asleep in a cave on Mount Latmus. She loved him so much that in the end, she bore him 50 daughters. In all reality, it’s believed that Endymion was simply just a shepherd who was the first person to really study the phases of the moon and became an astronomer. In the second and third century Roman funerals, it was pretty common to see coffins, or Roman Sarcophagi, as having both Selene and Endymion carved into the outsides. Usually, Selene will be holding a billowing veil above her head in a crescent shape that symbolizes her role as the moon.
Other than the Greeks, it seems every mythology has its moon deity. Egypt has Khons, who is often depicted as a young boy. In Norse mythology, it is Mani who serves as the personification of the moon, along with his brother, Sol. When it came time for Mani and Sol to make their trips around Earth, it was decided that they should be chased by wolves so that they never became lazy on the job.
The effect of that particular mythology can still be felt today in any English-speaking part of the world, as it was traditionally the second day of the week in Nordic cultures that the goddess of the moon was worshipped. It was also customary in Ancient Britain for any girl born on a Monday to be named Mona. Later the Anglo-Saxon version of the word, Mondandaeg, which means “the moon's day” morphed into Monday.
Something I found interesting about lore connected with the Moon was that, for the most part, the moon is a symbol of femininity and fertility. This is thought to be because the lunar cycle, as well as the female reproductive system, go through monthly cycles, which is evidenced by the fact that the word menstruation has shared linguistic roots with the word moon. Especially in the Yoruba religion, it is the goddess Yemoja that has the ability to cure infertility and protect women.
In Incan mythology, the most popular lunar deity is referred to as Mama Quilla, which can be translated to mean Mother Moon. According to her origin, she was the daughter of the supreme creator and the Goddess of the sea, so she had an important role to play in Incan mythology. One of the myths surrounding Mama Quilla stated that when a fox fell in love with her he attempted to go up into the sky to her so that they could be together forever. She squeezed him so hard against her that it created the dark patches that we can now see on the moon. It was also strongly believed that lunar eclipses were things to be feared, as it was believed to be animals such as mountain lions or snakes attacking Mama Quilla.
This left people attempting to throw weapons at the eclipse and making as much noise as possible in an attempt to distract the creature attacking her. This was because they believed that if the animal was successful in its attack, they would be left in total darkness. It's also said that during blood moons, the red coloring was once interpreted as a jaguar attempting to eat the moon. Making loud noises was all they could do to drive the creature away. Likewise, it was in China that a three-legged toad or a dragon was blamed for causing a lunar eclipse. To keep it from swallowing the moon whole, they would use the ringing of bells to try to distract it and draw it away from the moon.
Also in Chinese folklore, there is the well-known story of Chang’e. Chang’e was the goddess of the moon, who was said to have been punished by her husband for stealing an elixir of immortality. The elixir was so precious to him because he had been awarded it after completing the task of shooting down nine out of ten suns that were making Earth uninhabitable at the time. As punishment Chang’e has been banished to live on the moon, supposedly, alongside a rabbit who keeps her company. The figure of the rabbit on the moon is a popular one in Far Eastern folklore, as it’s pretty easy to see a particular patch of dark marks on the moon that look like the side view of a rabbit bent over a pot. It’s said that the rabbit is pounding and mixing herbs for Chang’e, or other Chinese immortals.
An alternative story for the imprint of the famous rabbit comes from the Buddhist tradition. It's said that a monkey, an otter, a jackal, and a rabbit got together and resolved to practice charity together on the day of the full moon. It was when an old man begged them for food that they each went on separate missions to retrieve and cook a meal for the man. While the other animals gathered different foods, the rabbit realized that he only knew how to gather grass, so he decided that instead he would sacrifice himself and throw himself onto a fire for the old man. When he jumped into the flames, he slowly began to realize that the fire didn’t harm him. It was later revealed that the old man was the ruler of Buddhist heaven, referred to as Sakra. Touched by the sacrifice of the rabbit, he drew his likeness on the moon for all to see.
As for scientific explanations as to why the full moon causes madness, there’s not a lot to go off of. It was in the first century, A.D. that Pliny the Elder believed the full moon quote “gave birth to especially heavy nocturnal dew and called the brain to become ‘unnaturally moist.’' According to him, this led to madness and even epileptic attacks.
In the 20th century, a man by the name of Arnold Leiber wrote a book on the way the moon affects people. In these books, Pliny the Elder's ideas, which were formed around 1500 years ago, were tweaked slightly and modernized. In Leiber's books, it was stated that the human body had biological tides which were caused by the gravitational force of the moon on the human organism. Essentially, he was saying that since humans are made up of fluids, the moon had a similar effect on us, the same way it does with the tides of the ocean. To use as evidence for this claim, he put forth that he had found a significant correlation between the full moon and homicides over a 15 year period. While it’s been disproved that the moon’s gravitational pull has a significant effect on human bodies, that theory is still a popular theory, and Arnold Leiber's book is still celebrated.
Something else I found fascinating about the supposed effect of the moon was its correlation with female menstruation and fertility. A popular old wives tale even states that it’s the fifth day after a full moon that is the best time to try to conceive a child. Even as late as the 1950’s, a Czech doctor took it upon himself to tell his female patients looking to get pregnant that they should look at the phases of the moon. He advised that they should track their ovulation by those phases, as they ovulated when the moon was in the same position as it was when they themselves were born. While this is completely untrue, as every woman's ovulation is different and completely unaffected by the moon, it’s still a pretty common misconception, strangely enough. Another superstitious theory states that to have your baby under a full moon is to invite the chance of birth defects. Recent studies, though, have found that really no statistical evidence for this superstition exists.
And as is the case with a lot of the topics I’m interested in, another theory about the moon that I came across was the idea that it is inhabited by aliens. This theory was mostly pushed by the Bavarian astronomer Franz von Paula Gruithuisen (Gry-thou-sen). A brilliant astronomer and physician, he was even the first person to propose the idea that the craters of the moon were caused by meteorite impacts.
Gruithuisen noted one day that in his observations of the moon it looked as though a city had begun to be built in a very small section of the surface that even included buildings and streets. Most likely this was due to the quality of the telescope he was using while looking at the moon, and this claim was later disproved by other astronomers with more powerful instruments.
Something I hadn’t considered about the full moon was the fact that it is known to cause people some very sleepless nights. And while this makes sense when you realize that more light outside can cause people to become restless, it still doesn’t explain the fact that sleep studies of patients kept in windowless rooms are still recorded as sleeping less on more moonlit nights. Some believe that this monthly sleep deprivation, could, in theory, be quote “ sufficient to induce mania/hypomania in susceptible bipolar patients and seizures in patients with seizure disorders."
Another common myth about the moon dictated that farmers should consult the lunar cycle when deciding when to plant certain crops. In the Farmers’ Almanac, for example, it was at one point advised that farmers should plant crops that grow above ground while the moon waxing. That way, with their corn and wheat, the moon could more fully pull the plant out of the ground and cause it to grow larger. Conversely, it also stated that to help grow root crops like yams or turnips, you should plant them when the moon is waning, so that as the moon fades, it will help the plants to grow deeper into the ground.
As for the lore concerning New Moons, it’s a bit more controllable. In Hindu culture, it is during a new moon that you should take time to ponder the concepts of good and evil. It is also a day where many Hindus fast and seeing as the New Moon is symbolic of new beginnings, it’s also believed to be a time when new projects can begin. When the New Moon is on a Sunday, and the following day is then a Monday, that particular day is referred to as Amavasya Somvati. It’s especially believed that fasting on that day will ensure childbearing, prevent widowhood, and even lead to one's dreams coming true.
In Ireland, it's believed that the new moon could have an effect on what happens to you in the coming month. Because of this, it was thought to double your wealth when you could be seen carrying around a silver coin you had borrowed under a new moon.
All I know at the end of this episode is that the moon is pretty complicated. While through history she has served merely as a second act to the role of the sun, she has still managed to cause her fair share of disturbances on Earth. In an apocalyptic book I once read about what would happen if an asteroid disrupted the gravitational pull of the moon a fair point was made that I still think about to this day. It’s said that quote “I never really thought about how when I look at the moon, it's the same moon as Shakespeare and Marie Antoinette and George Washington and Cleopatra looked at.” ― Susan Beth Pfeffer, Life As We Knew It.
I hope that is something you ponder when you look up at the night sky.
Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to my little podcast, my friends. Stay safe out there, remember to look for the little rabbit on the moon, and don’t forget to keep it strange.