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‘Moon of My Life’: Lunar Worship in Folk Tradition

“Hail to thee, thou new moon, Guiding jewel of gentleness! I am bending to thee my knee, I am offering thee my love. Holy be each thing, Which she illuminates; Kindly be each deed, Which she reveals.” – Alexander Carmichael, “The New Moon” from the Carmina Gadelica, 1900 

How magical is it to have a moon? The moon is thought to have existed not long after the earth formed with the debris left over. The surface of the moon is actually dark but when it reflects the sun’s light peeking around from the other side of the earth, it appears like a bright beacon in the sky; a night light for all of us. The moon looks the same night after night aside from rare celestial events because it’s in synchronous rotation, meaning we see the same side which is beautifully scarred with craters from asteroids. Although the moon is somewhat small in comparison to earth, it still holds a gravitational pull and has an influence over the ocean and earth body tides as well as the lengthening of the day. The moon’s natural influence on people and animals since the dawn of life existing on earth goes without saying. The cultural influences of the moon on lifestyle, art, mythology and language are prevalent amongst most Indigenous and Native cultures of the world and all modern life today. There is something to be said for the moon in that it was particularly valuable to sea-faring people or fisherman but also in a time without modern electricity. It was a beacon of light, hope and direction in the vast darkness otherwise only accompanied by stars. Naturally, with the isles being a group of islands and likely familiar with all sorts of fishing and traveling by water, it makes sense to revere such a wondrous illuminating guide that impacted their sight and direction at night but also the tides. Knowing the way the moon impacted the tides would have meant life or death in some instances as being trapped in a sea cave or dangerously choppy waters is a very genuine threat along the entire Atlantic seaboard and for any sea faring people across the world.

Moonbeams Dipping Into the Sea by Evelyn De Morgan

The word moon is derived from old English mōna from Proto-Germanic mēnōn and from Indo-European, mēnsis, which all mean ‘to measure’. The Latin word for moon many people would be familiar with as well, is lūna. The word in Irish Gaeilge and Scots Gaelic is gealach, meaning ‘brightness’ or sometimes éasca as in “Thug sé grian is éasca air féin (go), he vowed by the sun and the moon.” One of the most loving Irish phrases regarding the moon is the poetic phrase, gealach mo shaoil, ‘moon of my life’. Early societies undoubtedly noticed how the tides and other animals as well as themselves were impacted by the moon’s cycles as well as the sun. Keeping track of nature’s cycles and using the moon to keep track of time would have been especially important for agrarian societies where crop success or failure depended on their means of keeping track of weather patterns. It’s thought that the waxing and waning phase of the moon in particular may impact the growth of plants in a similar fashion as it influences the tides as well as ourselves and other animals. Using this understanding as a guide and based on folklore, it can be determined that the new moon would have been a time for beginnings, to begin building or starting something. The waxing moon would have been a time for planting and the waning moon a time for harvesting. Finally, a full moon would have also been used for harvesting, for action, for celebrating the fruits of labor in the spirit of pleasure and enjoyment. Even in recent generations, it was understood and claimed that the moon (especially on clear nights) helped to ripen crops.1 There’s also an argument to be made for keeping track of time and astronomical events for safety reasoning and predicting when a meteorite shower or eclipse was coming as an example. Although we know meteor showers are mostly harmless today, they might not have seemed so to early societies. Avoiding such calamities has been proposed by some scholars as the function of early Irish souterrains as well as being somewhat of a safety bunker during natural disasters if they did not otherwise have a ritualistic function or were used to store food. 

Standing Stones of Stenness by Alan Majchrowicz

Many stone circles or monuments built by Neolithic peoples across Europe are aligned to rare lunar events. For example, the Stenness standing stones in Orkney Scotland along with the Black Forest Stonehenge in Germany are aligned to a lunar event occurring every 18.6 years in which the moon appears in its most northerly possible position. In fact, locally the Stenness stones are often fittingly called the ‘Temple of the moon’ and the Ring of Brodgar nearby is called the ‘Temple of the sun’. This has been referenced from at least as long ago as the 1600’s all the way into the present by tour guides.2 The Callanish stone circle on the Isle of Lewis and Harris is also widely known to be connected to the moon as every 18 years, the full moon as seen from Callanish, rises along the nearby woman shaped hill, rises at her feet and travels across her body until it disappears behind her head. We know that overall it seems Native peoples like the various Celtic nations held the moon possibly in equal regard to the sun. There are likely countless examples that we are unaware of structures that were aligned or built in reverence of the moon.

The Gauls and likely other Celtic nations were speculated to begin their days with the night including birthdays, the new moon and new year instead of the dawn which Caesar confirmed.3 As already mentioned, the Coligny Calendar, an ancient Gaulish stone calendar, was based on both the lunar and solar cycles and is incredibly accurate, arguably more so than the current Gregorian standard. The bronze fragments of the Coligny Calendar document five years, and are divided into a 12-month lunar or moon year lasting 355 days. A 30-day month after every 30 months is inserted to bring the calendar back into sequence with the sun. They had a seemingly close relationship with the moon and revered it enough that they took lunar eclipses as a bad omen as was illustrated by Greek writer Polybius when he said… “While Attalus was encamped on the Macistus, an eclipse of the moon took place, which the Galli (Celts) took to be an unfavorable sign; and they were also wearied of moving about with their wives and children who followed in the carts. Accordingly, they refused to march on.” Strabo also made mention that “Some authors assert that the Gallaicans are atheists whereas the Celtiberians and the neighboring peoples of the North dance and revel all night long by their homes, with their families, during the full moon, in order to honor an anonymous god.” It nearly goes without saying that much symbolism we find on ancient monuments, stone or metal works contain images of the sun and moon. One of the best known examples of this is the Nebra sky disc discovered in Germany and dated to approximately 1600 BCE, displaying the sun and moon with many stars. It’s thought to be the oldest depiction of the sky in the world. It is often assumed by scholars that any crescent in ancient art was likely a depiction of the moon but it could also be the circle which naturally represented the sun as well. 

Nebra Sky Disc

The moon is often quoted in ancient Roman and Greek texts as being highly significant, along with the sun and so when quotes were made of the Druids ‘studying the stars’, the moon was undoubtedly included in this. Roman geographer Pomponius Mela said that “They have, further, their eloquence and their Druids, teachers of wisdom, who profess to know the greatness and shape of the earth and the universe and the motion of the heavens and of the stars and what is the will of the gods.”4 Arguably, the well known lunulae necklaces that are found prevalent among Bronze age culture of the entire area is representative of the moon being a crescent and may have been related to the Druid role and status as they are often fittingly depicted as wearing. The Druids may have had particular herbs they only picked during specific phases or days of the moon’s cycle. Pliny related that regarding the Druids harvesting mistletoe that, The mistletoe, however, is but rarely found upon the oak; and when found, is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the sixth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their time cycles, which, with them, are only thirty years. This day they select because the moon, though not yet in the middle of her course, has already considerable power and influence; and they call mistletoe by a name which signifies, in their language, the all-healing.”5 Vervain was another sacred herb of the Druids, which was to be gathered “…on the rising of the Dog-star, when neither sun nor moon was shining. (likely a new moon)” During the famous ritual reference from Pliny, he also made mention of their wearing all white, offering two white bulls and collecting the mistletoe on a white cloth. While speculative, the white coloring may have had a ritualistic and symbolic connection to the moon. Similarly, the Germans neighboring the Gauls seemed to revere the moon in equal measure. Germanic chieftain Ariovistus, when deciding to go to battle with Rome delayed for many days on the account of a prophecy by one of his seers that they would not succeed if they engaged before the new moon.6 There is a lovely figure of a Druid in Montfaucon, France where he is represented with a half moon in his hand and we can be nearly doubtless that the Druids had an integral relationship with studying both the sun and the moon as well as other natural cycles and how to use their powers to aid in the divination and ritualistic practices embedded within daily life. This relationship harkens us to one of their main communal purposes which was being a mediator between higher powers and their communities. Whether the Gods were strictly based in nature as the sun, moon and wind or in anthropomorphic deities, the role was the same. 

“Who telleth the ages of the moon, if not I?” – Amergin, Irish Druid

In the Irish Annals it was said that the chief deities of the Druids were the …sun, moon, stars, and winds; and the woods, wells, fountains and rivers were also subjects of adoration. The sun was worshiped under the designation of Bel, Beal, or Baal, as by the Phenicians and other eastern nations, and also under the name Grian.7 There is a fascinating reference to the moon in regards to Druid prophecy as well in the Irish tradition whereby in the opening of the Fate of the Sons of Usnach, a Druid, Cathfaidh, the Head-druid of Erin, who “…numbered the moon and stars” was said to take his fairy books in his left hand and went to the border of the fort to “observe the clouds, the position of the stars and the age of the moon”. He made a prophecy on the child that was recently born there of which it was said many hurts and losses would come on account of her. The nobles of Ulster wanted to kill her but the king would not allow it and swore “…by the securities of the moon and sun, that any one who would venture to destroy her either now or again, shall neither live nor last, if I survive her.”8 This use of prophecy was mentioned again in the Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh, where it was said, “Attempt ye not prediction of the lips; neither in curved [i.e. new] moon’s omen nor in presage of soothsayer put your trust; but Me, the God of Heaven obey, for in the would-be prophets nought but falseness shall be found.” The moon was still in use as a means of divination even recently as it was said that to carry a mirror outside while letting the rays hit the surface will reveal a face for good or evil with the future fate of the holder of the mirror.9 

Josephine Wall

It is well known that ancient people but particularly the Irish, swore by the sun and the moon as well as the elements and this is quoted in many various places of Irish source material and mythical as well as historical text.10,11,12 Folklorist Lady Wilde went on to say that “…in pagan times, the invocations were made by the power of the sun, the moon, and the winds; but the Christian converts, while still retaining the form of the ancient charms, substituted the names of the Trinity.”13 It’s very relevant and telling that at least this knowledge was still common in the early 1900’s and fairly recent. There is a related legend regarding early Gaelic society tying Ireland and Scotland whereby a pact was made and the sun and moon sworn on. The Irish were said to have founded the matrilineal succession of Pictish society when neighboring Picts arrived in Ireland with no women. The Irish chieftain Eremon was said to give them three wives whose husbands had been killed in battle on the condition that they continued their kingdom with inheritance following the female line. The agreement and pact was finalized by swearing on the sun and the moon.14 

The moon is also mentioned quite frequently in the Annals of Ireland which take note of unique moon events such as a red or blood moon or lunar eclipse. Days were always given as the ‘xxth day of the moon’.15 Alcohol, East India cloths, silks and tobacco were imported from Europe to the isles out of the Isle of Man under the ‘dark of the moon’.16 While speculative, in Ireland, Ana, Anu, Áine or Danu, the Mother of the Tuatha Dé Danann (Tribes of the goddess Danu) may be cognate for one another and she had a widespread worship throughout Ireland that continues into the present. The word Áine may also represent the moon as the name means ‘brightness or glow’.17 Áine could also turn into a red mare which may have been symbolic for the various ‘red blood’ moons (referenced in the Irish Annals) or somehow connected to menstruation, which matches the cycles of the moon.

Blood Moon Transition

Interestingly, about seven miles from Aine’s hill, Cnoc Áine in County Limerick is another hill of the goddess Grian, Cnoc Gréine, her name meaning ‘sun’ and thought to be her sister. In Wales, Lleu’s mother, Arianrhod, her name meaning ‘silver wheel’ may have been associated with the moon. The Scottish goddess Ioua, associated with Iona was also thought to be a moon goddess.18 Possibly coincidentally, on the island Iona itself, there is a holy well called Tobar na h’oige or ‘fountain of youth’, said to have been a cauldron of the Tuatha Dé Danann. It was said that those looking into the well at dusk, dawn or the night of a full moon may be offered visions of healing as the site related to immortality.19

Art of Manquenda

While it is speculative, many scholars feel that there was some ancient Indo-European reverence of the moon being representative of the feminine, of fertility, linked with menstruation and the sun was typically representative of the masculine. However, there are no hard lines here in this regard, especially in relation to Irish deities (many female goddesses are tied with the sun too as an example) but nonetheless, at minimum, classical writers such as the Roman Pliny did indeed refer to the moon often as ‘her’ or ‘she’. The moon also had many female deities connected to it through Roman and Greek mythology. This is not surprising considering again, women’s connection to the moon via their ‘moon cycles’ or menstruation. Often, women will find that their cycles will subtly shift to align with starting near the full moon. Within this concept is release and renewal and a new start of the cycle at the new moon. Embedded here as well is the association of fertility in general as this natural cycle is irrevocably linked to conception.

While the Irish eventually adopted the seven day week of the Roman calendar with the introduction of Catholicism, they originally had a lunar calendar which contained three, five, ten and fifteen day units. Such calculations would have been important to figuring out the solstices and equinoxes as well as the cross quarter festivals. Quite a scandal related to this keeping of time occurred between the Irish and Roman church when there was a discrepancy about when to celebrate Easter…

“The question of when to celebrate Easter day was one which long sundered the British and Irish Churches from the rest of Europe, and has, as students of ecclesiastical history know, given rise to all sorts of conjectures as to the independence of these churches. The charge against the Irish was that they celebrated Easter on any day from the fourteenth to the twentieth day of the moon, even on the fourteenth if it should happen to be Sunday, but the fourteenth was a Jewish festival and the Council of Nice had, in 325, declared it to be unlawful to celebrate the Christian Easter on a Jewish festival. The Irish had obtained their own doctrine of Easter from the East, through Gaul, which was largely open to Eastern influence; also the Irish used the old Roman cycle of 84 years, not the newer and more correct Alexandrian one of 19 years. The consequence was the scandal of having different Churches of Christendom celebrating Easter on different days, and some mourning when others were feasting, a scandal which the Epistle of Cummian was designed to put an end to.”20

Aibhistín, an Irish astronomer wrote in 655 an illustrated master’s computation of this lunar astrological system. In this he discusses the effect of the moon on tides and was one of the first writers to do so. While speculative, this reference to an Irish moon calendar may link them to Gaul and the similar usage of the Coligny calendar in tracking time. Diciul, an Irish geographer, would go on to create one of the first Irish astrological charts in his De Astronomiam in 814. In essence, following the introduction of Christianity, the clergy and educated members of the Catholic church subsumed the role of the Druids as the above mentioned scholars did and continued their function to study the movement of the sky world and its celestial bodies.

Two Men Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich

While many, especially in Ireland, sought to amalgamate old traditions to new seamlessly, there were those who ambitiously sought to outlaw much of this ancient worship such that is illustrated in old historical and political quotes like “By the incorporation of the Danes with the nation, (says Lingard, in his History of England,) the rites of paganism had again made their appearance in the island. Canute forbade the worship of the heathen gods, of the sun or moon, of fire or water, of stones or fountains, and of forests or trees.”.21 In the The Senchus Mór or Brehon Law, there are five things that every intelligent ecclesiastical person should know which include the day of the solar month, the age of the moon, the time of the flow of the tide, the day of the week and the chief saint’s festival days.22 There are additionally and speculatively nine traditional elements including the moon which are mentioned in the pseudo tellings of St. Patrick when he stumbled into an ambush by King Logaire and claimed to arm himself “With the strength of the heavens, The light of the sun, The gleam of the moon, The brightness of fire, The swiftness of lightning, The rush of the wind, The depth of the sea, The firmness of earth, The hardness of rock.”

As far as actual celebrations regarding the moon, we know little, but there are a few fragments of information that have survived surrounding again, the auspiciousness of certain days as they relate to the moon’s cycle. Certain days were lucky while others were unlucky to pick herbs or conduct business in general. This was true as already mentioned in regards to practices surrounding the Coligny calendar but also in old Ireland and Scotland as well, all the way into the early 1900’s and arguably, the present.23 There may have been auspicious days of the moon phase to start things in particular such as building your house as it was said by an early Irish Christian missionary that “There is no house more auspicious with its stars last night, with its sun, with its moon.”24 In Ireland, it was good to have your hair cut at the new moon or by the light of the moon but never on a Friday.25 This was also common in Scotland regarding a new moon where it was good to have your hair cut, but also to cut peats, reap corn (name for wheat, rye, oats) or shear sheep.26 It was common across the isles to curtsy or bow to the new moon.27 In Cornwall specifically, it was tradition to nod at the new moon and turn silver in your pocket for good luck and in Edinburgh, to turn their rings on their fingers and make wishes.28 The great Irish herbalist Tadgh O’Cuinn in his Materia Medica (1415) made mention that certain plants should be gathered at the waxing of the moon as well which was echoed already as mentioned since times of old. In another wonderful Irish herbal, On Wounds (1352) it is said that the membrane of a wound should never be allowed to grow when the moon is waxing (lest it grow bigger). In both Ireland and Scotland, when farmers killed animals for use they would never do it on the waning of the moon but rather waited for a new or waxing moon. 

“The men of old would not kill a pig nor sheep nor goat nor axe-cow at the wane of the moon. The flesh of an animal is then without taste, without sap, without plumpness, without fat. Neither would they cut withes of hazel or willow for creels or baskets, nor would they cut tree of pine to make a boat, in the black wane of the moon. The sap of the wood goes down into the root, and the wood becomes brittle and crumbly, without plight, without good. The old people did all these things at the waxing or at the full of the moon. The men of old were observant of the facts of nature, as the young folk of today are not. The new moon was propitious for clipping hair, for cutting peats, for reaping corn, for shearing sheep, and for many things of that nature.” -Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica

God in general is often referenced in old Irish and Scottish texts as ‘King or Lord of the sun and of moon and stars.’ Common incantations may have been declared at this time of the new moon such as “Hail to thee, thou new moon, Beauteous guidant of the sky; Hail to thee, thou new moon, Beauteous fair one of grace. Hail to thee, thou new moon, Beauteous guidant of the stars; Hail to thee, thou new moon, Beauteous loved one of my heart.”29 While speculative, many scholars believe that the cross quarter fire festivals may have originally been celebrated on the new moon of the month and it was only with Christian influence that the dates changed to sundown on the 31st to the 1st of the month. All of these aspects and much more folklore that would fill an entire book up in itself is considered by scholars to very much harken to a form of ancestral moon and sun worship. Take a look into the Irish Folk Duchas and there are countless references to moon worship or certain practices surrounding the moon phases.

Another aspect of moon and sun worship is that ancient people understood the direction of the moon and sun as going deiseil or clockwise, of which they mimicked their rituals after. Therefore, when you did habitual tasks or rituals, you walked clockwise and to do otherwise was often deemed very unlucky. Many mythological stories were framed around the idea of a character walking counterclockwise and bringing bad luck on themselves or even death such as in the famous tale of Bóinn creating the river Boyne. It is still a modern living tradition to walk around a well, a church or a tree three times and say a blessing before taking water from it or saying a prayer asking for healing. Many of these practices and more were preserved in old books by folk historians that recorded local traditions such as in the Carmina Gadelica, written between 1860 and 1909 by Alexander Carmichael. Very relevant to the worship to the moon in particular, in his introduction he said, “There are observances and expressions current in the West which savour of the East, such as sun, moon, star, and fire worship, once prevalent, nor yet obsolete.” There are over 60 references to the moon, particularly the new moon in his three volume set alone. It is commonly quoted in the lines of various incantations and clearly the moon was very well beloved, worshiped and honored. 

“I arise today in the strength of the heaven, The glory of the sun, The radiance of the moon, The splendour of fire and the swiftness of the levin, The wind’s flying force, The depth of the sea, The earth’s steadfast course, the rock’s austerity.” – Alfred Graves, A Celtic Psaltery, 1917

Footnotes

  1. Logan, James. The Scottish Gael. Hartford, 1850. Pg. 307.
  2. Toland, John. A New Edition of Toland’s History of the Druids. 1814. Pg 138.
  3. Caesar’s Gallic War, trans. W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn. 1st Edition. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1869.
  4. Pomponius Mela. De Situ Orbis § 3.2.18.
  5. Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Henry Bohn, 1855.
  6. William Smith. A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology. London. John Murray: printed by Spottiswoode and Co., New-Street Square and Parliament Street. Ariovistus-bio-1.
  7. Connellan, Owen. The Annals of Ireland of The Four Masters. Dublin. Pg. 271.
  8. Hyde, Douglas. A Literary History of Ireland. New York Scribner, 1901.Pg. 304.
  9. Wilde, Lady. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland. London, 1890. Pg. 119.
  10. Hyde, Douglas. A Literary History of Ireland. New York Scribner, 1901. Pg. 88.
  11. Joyce, P.W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland Vol 1. Longmans, Green & Co. 1903. Pg. 292.
  12. Wilde, Lady. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland. London, 1890. Pg. 102.
  13. Wilde, Lady. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland. London, 1890. Pg. 9.
  14. Rankin, David. Celts and the Classical World. Croom Helm Ltd. 1987. Pg. 251 – 252.
  15. Hennessy, William. Annals of Ireland Vol. 1. (A.D. 431 to 1056) Dublin, 1887. Pg. 265.
  16. Koch, John. Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. ABC CLIO, 2006. Pg. 1617.
  17. Freitag, Barbara. Sheela-na-gigs: UNraveling the Enigma. Routledge, London and New York, 2004. Pg. 28.
  18. Matson, Gienna, Roberts, Jeremy. Celtic Mythology A to Z. Chelsea House, 2010. Pg. 68.
  19. Monaghan, Patricia. The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. New York, 2004. Pg. 262.
  20. Hyde, Douglas. A Literary History of Ireland. New York Scribner, 1901. Pg. 202.
  21. Fellows, John. Exposition of the Mysteries or Religious Dogmas and Customs.1835.
  22. The Senchus Mór. Ancient Laws of Ireland Vol. 1. Dublin, 1865. Pg. 31.
  23. Joyce, P.W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland Vol 1. Longmans, Green & Co. 1903. Pg. 233.
  24. Joyce, P.W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland Vol 1. Longmans, Green & Co. 1903. Pg. 230.
  25. Wilde, Lady. Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages of Ireland. London, 1890. Pg. 63.
  26. Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelics Vol. 3. Edinburgh, 1940. Pg. 279.
  27. Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelica Vol. 1. Edinburgh, 1900. Pg. 122.
  28. Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelics Vol. 1. Edinburgh, 1900. Pg. 123.
  29. Carmichael, Alexander. Carmina Gadelics Vol. 3. Edinburgh, 1940. Pg. 275.
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