Satellite of love and fear: How the moon has lit up the human imagination

The frenzy in cyberspace over the 'Super Moon' reveals the enduring pull of lunar myths.

James Attlee
Friday 25 March 2011 01:00 GMT

For many of us, living as we do in a permanent smog of light pollution, moonlight is a rare commodity – surprising us perhaps when we wake to find it moving across the bedroom floor, as though someone was shining a weak spotlight in through the window where we have forgotten to close the blind. To appreciate the power it must once have had, we must leave the city. Alternatively, we can find its glimmer preserved in the pages of books written before the spread of artificial lighting almost erased the difference between day and night.

The moon is there, right at the beginning of human mark-making; it remains a subject of fascination for writers to this day. By tracing the different ways it has been represented we learn something about humanity's changing understanding of its own place in the universe. Along with us, the literary moon evolves and mutates; from deity to muse, from celestial timepiece to a drinking companion in the sky, a cipher of our own struggles on earth. At one moment the moon is a pure virgin, at the next a barren old maid; a beneficent, comforting presence, or a trigger for catastrophe; a harbinger of joy, of spiritual transcendence or deepest melancholy. What is clear is that despite all our telescopes, spacecraft and lunar probes, despite even that human feet have left tracks in the lunar regolith, the attraction our closest satellite exerts on the human imagination is almost as powerful as its pull on our tides.

It is as a timekeeper that the moon first appears in the literature of the great world religions, a kind of divinely appointed foreman of the nocturnal factory floor. In Genesis, we are told that God has appointed the sun to govern the day and the moon, the lesser light, to govern the night. David is assured in the Psalms that his line will endure forever like the moon, "the faithful witness in the sky". In the Islamic lunar calendar, the day starts at nightfall rather than dawn. The Qu'ran names Allah "cleaver of the daybreak", he who has "appointed the sun and moon for reckoning". The reckoning continues to this day; the calendars and festivals of "the people of the book", including Ramadan and Easter, are still governed by lunar cycles.

In Hindu mythology the lunar role is somewhat different. The moon emerged when the gods churned the sea of milk at creation and was seized by Shiva to be worn on his forehead as a jewel. At the same time, it resides within us. In the Aitareya Upanishad, written between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, Sun, Moon, Fire and Wind are brought into being and ask Atman, the creator, where they can live. They reject his offer of residence in the bodies of a horse or a cow, but accept tenancy within the human frame. "Fire became speech and entered the mouth. Wind became breath and entered the nose. The sun became sight and entered the eyes... The moon became mind and entered the heart".

This is perhaps the first recorded instance of the moon being associated with the human psyche, a theme that recurs throughout literary history, notably in Sylvia Plath's poem "The Moon and the Yew Tree".

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.

Two hundred years earlier, Edward Young, in his long poem "The Complaint, and the Consolation; or, Night Thoughts", exemplifies a writer who believed that the light of the moon provided entrance to an alternate world, freeing those who entered it from the shackles of mortal existence. The poem was a favourite of the English Romantics, including William Blake and the painter Samuel Palmer. Translated into German in 1760, it had a huge influence on a generation of poets and painters there.

Young extols death as a portal to a state superior to life, glimpsed at when the moon rises.

The conscious Moon, through every age
Has held aloft a lamp to Wisdom, and let fall
On contemplation's eye her purging ray

Crucially, Young combines this mystic vision with an accommodation of the new discoveries about the universe that are arriving thick and fast. He speaks of the "mathmatic glories of the skies" that merely underline the ingenuity of their creator. As he writes, "the undevout astronomer is mad".

Goethe was a great lover of moonlit walks, as we read in his travel journal Italian Journey. Yet he was also keenly interested in all the latest scientific developments of his day, an eminent geologist and at the forefront of understanding about human perception. When he first saw the moon through a telescope from his back garden, his words were not, however, those of a scientist: "At last", he said, "closer acquaintance with this beloved and admired neighbour."

Achieving the precarious balance between newly gained knowledge and previous, often ancient relationships with the moon has been a constant literary challenge. Writers in early 17th-century Europe had an understanding of astronomy largely derived from the classical world, disseminated through the writings of Plato and Aristotle among others. One prevalent belief was that the heavens were fixed, immutable. The moon, like the planets, was incorruptible and made of a substance called aether. Everything within the sublunary sphere that stretched between the earth and the moon, including our own planet, was impermanent and subject to decay.

Galileo's telescopes changed all that, just as they challenged the notion of an earth-centred universe, revealing that the moon was somewhat like earth: a place of mountains and plains.

You can hear the gears whirring as Robert Burton accommodates these revelations in his eccentric compendium of all knowledge The Anatomy of Melancholy, first published in 1621. "They find by their glasses that maculae facie lunae [the spots on the face of the moon] the brighter parts are earth, the dusky sea... and manifestly discern hills and dales, and such concavities, if we may believe and subscribe to Galileo's observations". Elsewhere, in a typical leap, Burton turns this new knowledge around: "If it be so that the earth is also a moon, then are we also giddy, vertiginous and lunatic within this sublunary maze."

In the 20th century, poets had similarly vast mental adjustments to make when they saw their moon conquered as mankind leapt the yawning sublunary space to plant a flag and send back their holiday snaps. WH Auden brought a weary, middle-European cynicism to the party in his poem "Moon Landings" to balance any New World euphoria. The motives that prompted the "huge... phallic adventure", he suggests, "were somewhat less than menschlich". The moon is undoubtedly worth seeing, but not necessarily worth going to see; he prefers a well-ordered garden, with its opening and closing morning glories, "where to die has a meaning". Despite everything, Auden's moon survives invasion.

Unsmudged, thank God, my moon still queens the Heavens
As She ebbs and fulls, a Presence to glop at...

Extraordinary that this modern poet should still be ascribing a gender to the moon and a personality, worthy of capitalisation, in these carefully structured lines. Yet this is the case too in the poetry of the 21st-century writer Alice Oswald, whose portrayals of the moon in "A Sleepwalk on the Severn", despite being totally contemporary, are anthropomorphic and gendered, owing as much to Shakespeare and Philip Sidney as the moonshot.

Alongside "the huge repeating mechanism" of the tidal estuary, "in whose engine", the moon wanders, an insomniac, quavering being "with a stomach full of gas" and "a black and white television screen light that picks out loneliness". Once a year, this tremulous presence displays a different face, when the moon "lights the touch-paper of her power" and the inland tsunami of the Severn Bore races upriver, attracting surfers and sightseers from all over the world. The moon will do this – suddenly attracting attention to itself after wandering in obscurity, unnoticed, for what seems like an age.

Last weekend, it was the predictions of an astrologer about the full moon of the 19 March 2011, which he christened a "super moon", that lit up the blogosphere. This particular moon, apparently, approaching as it would 30,000 miles nearer to earth than usual, would unleash chaos and destruction. Naturally, it was to blame for the earthquakes and tidal waves afflicting Japan.

Amid the claims and counter-claims, the superstition and spurious science, I was reminded of A Midsummer Night's Dream, a play shot through with the moon's influence. In one sub-plot, the argument between Titania and Oberon has caused them to neglect their duties in regulating nature, so putting it out of kilter.

No night is now with hymn or carol blest:-
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound.
And through this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Fall in the fresh lap of the crimson rose.

Now, warns Titania, "the spring, the summer,
The chiding autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the maz'd world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.

Plague, climate change – all contemporary anxieties are here. Though the responsibility for these events is clear, as it is today, the agent of retribution is a lunar one. When faced with cataclysm and catastrophe, the characters in this 16th-century play, like the bloggers and tweeters of the past few weeks, will blame the moon.

James Attlee's 'Nocturne: a journey in search of moonlight' is published by Hamish Hamilton next week

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