Through the ages, the moon has intrigued cultures all over the world, giving rise to numerous forms of folklore about its nature and its functions. It wasn’t until 400 years ago, through Galileo and his telescopes, that we began to get descriptions based on actual observations of its surface. Last Monday, July 20, we marked the 40th anniversary of the first time humans reached the moon for a first hand look at the moon, or at least a tiny portion of it.
“A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind,” intoned American astronaut Neil Armstrong as he set foot on the moon. Alas, that trip had been spurred more by the Cold War and the Americans’ need to beat Russia in space explorations, rather than by science itself. China has set its sight on putting men (maybe even women) on the moon, but again it will be more of a political statement than for science.
Fortunately, there are scientists who are able to study the moon even from our planet and they’ve helped to uncover many of its mysteries.
We know today that the moon and the earth are celestial siblings, bound to each other by powerful gravitational fields. The most visible effect of the moon’s gravitational pull is our ocean tides. Scientists now propose that this phenomenon may even have made it possible for life to emerge on our planet. Some four billion years ago, the moon was much closer to our planet and caused more intensive tides than what we have today. Not only that, there may have been several thousand tides each day and the tumult in this primordial soup, interacting with atmospheric changes, may have allowed organic compounds to come together and form life.
The moon may be much smaller than earth, but if you look at how it might have allowed life to emerge on our planet, maybe we should be looking at it as an elder brother, a kuya.
The first forms of life were to remain aquatic for another four billion years, until the moon created conditions for another dramatic transition. In creating giant tides, the moon also allowed tidal pools to develop. Slowly, through the eons, new forms of life could develop in these shallow pools which could eventually venture into land.
Without that invasion of the land, mammals, including humans, would not have evolved. Sure, some creature like Homo sapiens could have emerged in the depths of the sea, but that would have meant “human” cultures that could not see, much less appreciate, the moon.
Fast forward to our time, which is the last 180,000 years or so. Early humans looked to the skies and everywhere and marveled at their wonders. The moon, no doubt, was the most captivating of the heavenly bodies, given its proximity. The earliest calendars, some of which are still in use today, were based on the moon’s cycles. In many languages, the words for moon and month are synonymous, from the Chinese “yue” to “buwan” or “bulan” in most Philippine languages. Even “month” can be traced back as a relative of words for moon.
Lunar lore did have an element of fear and trepidation as well, as cultures throughout the world speculated if perhaps the moon’s cycles had something to do with human behavior. It’s not surprising that the English “lunacy” refers to the moon. In the Philippines, “buang” is clearly a cognate of “buwan.” Relate all that to the monthly menstrual cycles of women (the words menses and menstruation are also related to ancient words for the moon) and you can understand why many cultures associate the moon with lunacy, with menstruation, with women.
Medical scientists more or less agree about hormonal fluctuations during a woman’s menstrual cycles creating discomfort and mood swings, reaching a peak at menopause, but correlations between the moon’s cycles and human behavior are much harder to prove.
The phases of the moon have also caught our attention. In the lunar calendars used in East Asia, every 1st day of the month corresponds to the new moon and every 15th day to a full moon.
Spanish chronicles about the Philippines during early colonization have several descriptions of the way our ancestors described the moon’s cycles. These accounts are summarized in William Henry Scott’s “Barangay: Sixteenth Century Philippine Society and Culture.” I particularly like one version of the moon’s cycles used in the Visayas that reflect detailed observations of the moon. Here’s a lengthy quote from Scott:
“The new moon was subang the first night it could be seen, or more colorfully, kilat-kilat, a little lightning flash. When it appeared as a full crescent the next night or two, it seemed to have opened its eyes (guimata) or, alternately, closed its mouth (ungut)—like a baby’s on a mother’s breast. Then came a ‘three-day moon’ or high new moon, hitaas na an subang, followed by balirig, the fourth or fifth night, and next it was ‘near the zenith’ (odto). When it appeared as an exact half disk (what Western calendars call the first quarter moon), it was directly overhead at sunset, and therefore odto na an bulan. Then as it continued to wax, it ‘passed the barrier’ (lakad), and when it was lopsided both before and after full moon, it looked like a crab shell (maalimangona).
“The full moon was greeted by a variety of names—paghipono, takdul, ugsar—but most significantly as dayaw, perfect or praiseworthy. And as it began to wane—that is, darken (madulumdulum)—a night or two later. . . (it would be called) banolor, to exchange or take by mistake—like a man who dies just before a son or grandson is born. The fifth or sixth night of waning was parik, to leave or flatten, because it then rose so late the witches had many hours of darkness in which to beat down the earth by the stomping of their feet during their dances. . .”
There’s actually more to all these descriptions, including the one or two nights when there is no moon at all, during which the moon, Scott says, “was then dead, lost or gone hunting.”
All those rich lunar metaphors seem to have been lost, but it struck me that dayaw in Cebuano, although not specifically used to refer to the moon, still means “praise” today, perhaps retaining the overwhelming emotions that our ancestors felt looking at the full moon.
I’m going to be reading about lunar lore to my anthropology students at UP and hope other teachers, including those handling science in grade school and high school, can also bring in the wonders of lunar lore and show that more than folk tales, these are actually examples of folk wisdom.
Comment from Leslie –
Yup this article was written from a male perspective. I disagree that correlations between moon cycle’s and human behavior are hard to prove. Ask anyone how they feel during the waning moon. Check ER, jail and veterinary clinic stats during the full moon. There is one strong indicator.