Phases of the moon

During the lock down the weather in Scotland has been exceptional. None of those dank, dreich grey days with grey scudding clouds or days when the sky presses down like a heavy blanket and the relentless rain dampens body and soul. There has been a long period of sunny weather and we have been able to watch spring unfurl. From bare branches to a profusion of leaves, from bud to blossom and leaf, we have had time and opportunity to watch and enjoy the trees, the flowers and the busy flights of birds and insects as they react to springtime.

A bonus of the fine weather has been clear skies at night and a chance to observe the stars. With no necessity to hurry and scurry through life there has been the opportunity to look around, to look up instead of straight ahead and to appreciate the environment around us.

Crescent moon in the west over the trees with Venus above

About ten days ago I noticed a new crescent moon in the west over the trees and a bright star above it. The brightness of the star and its rapid rate of movement suggested this was not a star but the planet Venus, confirmed by looking at one of the interactive night sky maps for my location available on the web.

Since then I have looked at the moon most evenings. In Scotland we are sufficiently far north to get short winter days (7h on Dec 21st) and long summer days (>17h on June 21st), so even between this new and full moon the daylength has increased by 1h. Last night was the full moon, known traditionally as the Flower Moon (May).

Crescent moon end of April W
Full “Flower” moon ESE in same cycle

The phases of the moon was an important interest in ancient times with each month roughly equivalent to a lunar cycle described by some as a “calendar in the sky”. Alexander Marshack, a journalist, writing in the 1960’s believed that cave drawings provide evidence that paleolithic man used the moon as a calendar. This idea was incorporated within “The Land of Painted Caves”, a book in the fascinating Earth’s Children series by Jean Auel about the lives, culture and beliefs of paleolithic man in Europe. During her training to become a spiritual leader, Ayla spends time studying the phases of the moon and the passage of the moon across the sky.

The Sumerian civilisation used a lunar calendar , which was adopted by the Babylonian empire in the 18th century BC. The lunar cycle is 29.5 days, so the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq, had to reconcile the lunar year of 354 days with the solar year of c. 365 days. They did this by add an intercalating month and their New Years Day was around the spring equinox, when the day and night lengths are the same.

For centuries afterwards many civilisations used a lunisolar calendar with the months based on the lunar cyle and the year on the solar cycle. Different civilisations made the correction in different ways but there were also revisions necessary as the estimation of the solar year became more precise. The Julian calendar, formulated in the time of Julius Caesar was the forerunner of the Gregorian calendar devised in 1582. .

Many ancient civilisations were interested in the study of the sun, moon and stars and had considerable knowledge about their movements, though it was not until Pope Gregorys time that the theory of the earth moving round the sun was proposed by Copernicus. There is evidence of this in the structures found in Orkney: the burial mound at Maeshowe, and the nearby monolith, the Barnhouse Stone, constructed by Neolithic man c 2,800 BC. On the day of the winter solstice, the sun sets over the top of the Barnhouse Stone and the last rays of the sun travel through the entrance passage to illuminate Maeshowe’s inner chamber.

Despite the modern calendar being solar-based, the moon still has its place in most diaries and calendars with tables of the phases of the moon. We have a rich lexicon of words to describe the four main phases (first quarter, full moon, last quarter and new moon): crescent, gibbous, waxing, waning etc. and despite our more urban existence we have reverted to naming the full moons for each month, by their traditional names, which mainly reflected the yearly agricultural cycle. It is remarkable that over different cultures and in widely different locations many of the names were basically the same.

The snow moon in February, the cold moon in December reflect the weather. The pink moon in April, flower moon in May and strawberry moon in June are named for the flowers that bloom in these months, while over the harvest period the moon in September is synonymous with harvesting: the corn moon , the barley moon or the harvest moon and the October moon is the Hunter’s moon.  Every three years the Harvest moon occurs in October because this moon is confusingly set as the one closest to the solar equinox on September 21st-22nd.

Unsurprisingly the moon is associated with many myths and legends and has inspired a rich array of poems, music and art over a long period of time. A famous poem written by Zhang Ruoxu, a Chinese writer of the early Tang dynasty, is called “Spring River in the Flower Moon Night”. It describes the moonlit Yangtze river in spring and his reflections on life and our passage through it. The poet reflected that the moon has been there for millennia and that each generation of people come into the world and look at the same moon as their predecessors and their successors.  The moon has a constancy and a longevity that people from different times and locations can appreciate and can form an inspiration for art.

This blog started with my looking up quietly at the moon in the sky and taking time to enjoy it. The #ramblingthreads that followed have led me into a fascinating plethora of history, myths, poems and music that have enriched my experience. I end with three poems which I came across in this rambling and I hope they may stimulate you too.

1. Death and the Moon by Carol Ann Duffy.

The moon is nearer than where death took you

at the end of the old year. Cold as cash

in the sky’s dark pocket, its hard old face

is gold as a mask tonight. I break the ice

over the fish in my frozen pond, look up

as the ghosts of my wordless breath reach

for the stars. If I stood on the tip of my toes

and stretched, I could touch the edge of the moon.

I stooped at the lip of your open grave

to gather a fistful of earth, hard rain,

tough confetti, and tossed it down. It stuttered

like morse on the wood over your eyes, your tongue,

your soundless ears. Then as I slept my living sleep

the ground gulped you, swallowed you whole,

and though I was there when you died,

in the red cave of your widow’s unbearable cry,

and measured the space between last words

and silence, I cannot say where you are. Unreachable

by prayer, even if poems are prayers. Unseeable

in the air, even if souls are stars. I turn

to the house, its windows tender with light, the moon,

surely, only as far again as the roof. The goldfish

are tongues in the water’s mouth. The black night

is huge, mute, and you are further forever than that.


2.  The Moon was but a Chin of Gold by Emily Dickinson.

The Moon was but a Chin of Gold

A Night or two ago—

And now she turns Her perfect Face

Upon the World below—

Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde—

Her Cheek—a Beryl hewn—

Her Eye unto the Summer Dew

The likest I have known—

Her Lips of Amber never part—

But what must be the smile

Upon Her Friend she could confer

Were such Her Silver Will—

And what a privilege to be

But the remotest Star—

For Certainty She take Her Way

Beside Your Palace Door—

Her Bonnet is the Firmament—

The Universe—Her Shoe—

The Stars—the Trinkets at Her Belt—

Her Dimities—of Blue—


3. Blue moon light by Jason Louis Gaydos

In the quiet calm of night, we walk hand in hand.

Down the path, across the sand.

Looking into your eyes, I feel the time is right.

Standing together, beneath the blue moon light.

The wind starts to blow, trees shake.

The ocean waves begin to break.

Holding you close, I feel the time is right

Holding one another, beneath the blue moon light.

The tide rises slowly, our feet in the surf.

A star falls from heaven, on its way towards the earth.

Making a wish, I feel the time is right.

Wishing together, beneath the blue moon light.

Our time has come, we must say good-bye.

Night has fallen in the November sky.

No need to cry, for this time was right.

To fall in love, beneath the blue moon light.


When the current restrictions on movement are lifted again, I will be able to visit  the beaches and cliffs of the Scottish coast, only a few miles away from here and see the pull and push  of the moon as the tides change. Meanwhile there are some myths and legends to read.

Written May 8th 2020

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