The Moon in Mythology

(This post is a response to Randy’s July Myth Café prompt.)

When I was younger than I am now, I worked with a bunch of ladies that always celebrated the full moon by drinking red wine and hanging out illegally in the public park after dark. I went along once, and we were asked to leave by the police, and one of the ladies lost her keys in the dark. It was kind of fun, really. So, this was followed by an exploration on the relationship between women and the moon: modern women menstruate in accordance to the lunar cycle; ancient matriarchal societies (so they say) operated under some semblance of a lunar calendar; the moon represents fertility (it gets fat, then it’s not, like pregnancy); the moon is linked with snakes (who shed their skins) and thus represents rebirth; and etc. so on and so forth. In truth, I’ve never really considered my personal relationship to the moon. Being more of a morning person than a night owl, I tend to ignore moon cycles, until there are noticeable changes in some around the time of the full moon.

There was this one occasion, which trumps all moon events I’ve encountered so far. We were driving in Arizona late at night, leaving Phoenix on our way to Tucson, and there was a lit up building on the horizon. It was so huge that I thought it either was a stadium or one of those inflatable-looking football practice fields. As we got closer to where this building should be, I had the realization that it was actually the moon rising over the Arizona desert. It was one of those moments when you can’t take a good picture with your cell phone, but you really wish you had been able to take the picture…

…and it wasn’t a Space Station, thankfully.

So, to write this post, I decided to set out to find a moon myth. Now, you say “moon myth,” and I say… “Tomorrowland!” but that’s the space I seem to permanently live in these days. A series on the “Tomorrowland” segment of the Disneyland television show in 1956(?) explored what our first voyage to the moon would look like, complete with recreations of a space flight and lunar landing. Of course, they got a few things wrong, such as what the moon would actually look like, but it is nonetheless fascinating to watch (this series is captured on the Tomorrowland collection of the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs). I can only imagine what it was like to watch the lunar landing on television. This event is one of the most crucial in modern American history, because a) it gave us a real view of what the globe really looks like and b) it vastly altered our relationship to our cultural myths. Following 1969, science fiction stories exploded and Westerns started fading into the sunset. This isn’t a happy accident. Thanks to the footage of the “earth rise,” our little blue planet seemed small compared to the vast expanse of outer space, a new frontier to be conquered, civilized, tamed. Sure, there is science fiction dating back to the 1800s (I recommend here that you go to YouTube and pull up La Voyage dans la Lune right now to look at an early example of a science fiction film, one you will recognize even if you haven’t already seen it), but the realm of the fantastic (science fiction or otherwise) became a mythic proving ground after World War II). How interesting then, on the eve of the end of the NASA program, that we have not made it back to the moon. Are we giving up on the outer space wasteland or are we choosing to adhere to the science fiction fantasy of the “inner reaches of outer space?”

But the moon is nonetheless an orb in the sky, whether we actually go back to it or not. I took the challenge to find a moon myth that is not tied to American popular culture. Of course, I drifted immediately to warewolves, but I can’t discuss those without discussing Twilight, and I’d rather not go there right now. This leaves the need to look a little further into the past. Looking at Greece, Egypt, etc., is too easy. And then I remembered that there is a moon myth in the Humanities textbook I use to teach, Gloria Fiero’s The Humanistic Tradition. The story is Native American – credit is given to the Northwest Coast – and it’s called “Raven and the Moon”:

One day Raven learnt that an old fisherman, living alone with his daughter on an island far to the north, had a box containing a bright light called the moon. He felt that he must get hold of this wonderful thing, so he changed himself into a leaf growing on a bush near to the old fisherman’s home. When the fisherman’s daughter came to pick berries from the wild fruit patch, she pulled at the twig on which the leaf stood and it fell down and entered into her body. In time a child was born, a dark-complexioned boy with a long, hooked nose, almost like a bird’s bill. As soon as the child could crawl, he began to cry for the moon. He would knock at the box and keep calling, “Moon, moon, shining moon.” At first nobody paid any attention, but as the child became more vocal and knocked harder at the box, the old fisherman said to his daughter, “Well, perhaps we should give the boy the ball of light to play with.” The girl opened the box and took out another box, and then another, from inside that. All the boxes were beautifully painted and carved, and inside the tenth there was a net of nettle thread. She loosened this and opened the lid of the innermost box. Suddenly light filled the lodge, and they saw the moon inside the box; bright, round like a ball, shining white. The mother threw it towards her baby son and he caught and held it so firmly they thought he was content. But after a few days he began to fuss and cry again. His grandfather felt sorry for him and asked the mother to explain what the child was trying to say. So his mother listened very carefully and explained that he wanted to look out at the sky and see the stars in the dark sky, but that the roof board over the smoke hole prevented him from doing so. So the old man said, “Open the smoke hole.” No sooner had she opened the hole than the child changed himself back into the Raven. With the moon in his bill he flew off. After a moment he landed on a mountain top and then threw the moon into the sky where it remains, still circling in the heavens where Raven threw it. (Chapter 18, copied from the e-book)

Ravens are night creatures, and birds that I tend to associate either with Edgar Allan Poe or with The Crow. The raven is often the counter to a white bird, such as a dove. How interesting that this raven should want to play with the moon as if it were a ball, and to do so, he had to become human. Divine pregnancies are very interesting in myths. They just happen, and sometimes in the most creative ways possible – being poked with a stick. Freud would have fun with that one.

As I was formatting this passage, I was reminded of another story from the same textbook, this one coming from the Vishnu Purana (Hindu):

… [Krishna], observing the clear sky, bright with the autumnal moon, and the air perfumed with the fragrance of the wild water-lily, in whose buds the clusteringbees were murmuring their songs, felt inclined to join with the milkmaids [Gopis] in sport….

Then Madhava [Krishna], coming amongst them, conciliated some with soft speeches, some with gentle looks; and some he took by the hand: and the illustrious deity sported with them in the stations of the dance. As each of the milkmaids, however, attempted to keep in one place, close to the side of Krishna, the circle of the dance could not be constructed; and he, therefore, took each by the hand, and when their eyelids were shut by the effects of such touch, the circle was formed.

Then proceeded the dance, to the music of their clashing bracelets, and songs that celebrated, in suitable strain, the charms of the autumnal season. Krishna sang of  the moon of autumn—a mine of gentle radiance; but the nymphs repeated the praises of Krishna alone. At times, one of them, wearied by the revolving dance, threw her arms, ornamented with tinkling bracelets, round the neck of the destroyer of Madhu [Krishna]; another, skilled in the art of singing his praises, embraced him. The drops of perspiration from the arms of Hari [Krishna] were like fertilizing rain, which produced a crop of down upon the temples of the milkmaids. Krishna sang the strain that was appropriate to the dance. The milkmaids repeatedly exclaimed “Bravo, Krishna!” to his song. When leading, they followed him; when returning they encountered him; and whether he went forwards or backwards, they ever attended on his steps. Whilst frolicking thus, they considered every instant without him a myriad of years; and prohibited (in vain) by husbands, fathers, brothers, they went forth at night to sport with Krishna, the object of their affection.

Thus, the illimitable being, the benevolent remover of all imperfections, assumed the character of a youth among the females of the herdsmen of [the district of] Vraja; pervading their natures and that of their lords by his own essence, all-diffusive like the wind. For even as the elements of ether, fire, earth, water, and air are comprehended in all creatures, so also is he everywhere present, and in all … (Chapter 14, copied from the e-book)

The celebration of the moon is thus a festive occasion, and there certainly is a Greek version of this story somewhere replacing Krishna with Dionysos. Which leads me to wonder what it is about the “autumn” moon that is so inviting of celebration? Dancing and singing of the autumn moon leads me to think about Halloween, but perhaps that is another post for another occasion.

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