Finding the Moon

The Earth Also Rises: This NASA photo shows our globe as seen from the moon’s lovely surface.

–>Finding the Moon

A cursory examination of all things lunar

By R. V. Scheide

We may have lost the moon. Oh, it’s still there, all right. I saw it the other night, waxing high above Dry Creek Valley, a silver crescent slotted into the glittering edifice of night. What I mean when I say we’ve lost the moon is that we’ve lost our connection to it.

There was a time when lunar rhythms informed nearly every aspect of daily human existence. The moon was once thought to control the forces governing the birth, life and death of every living being in the universe. But that was before progress snipped the umbilical cord tying humans to nature, casting the species adrift in the void of reason. Perhaps we don’t notice that we’ve lost the moon because we have lost a part of ourselves as well.

Few people seem to have noticed the moon’s absence. No one has filed a missing moon report. Its disappearance from our lives has not been remarked upon by major newspapers. Jack London did hint at the loss in his novel Valley of the Moon. Starting in Sonoma County, the main characters, Billy and Saxon, trek all over northern California, searching for the mythical Valley of the Moon, where the water bubbles up from the ground, fish and game abound, and there’s not too much work to do, leaving plenty of time for playing around.

Sounds like nirvana, but perhaps a little lunar wanderlust comes with the territory London called home. For while most people in the North Bay couldn’t tell you what phase the moon is in tonight to save their lives, there is a small community of individuals who time their activities to the phases of the moon. A few go so far as to tie our entire destiny to the moon.

What can that mean to those of us who have lost track of the earth’s only natural satellite?

I first encountered the local lunar community several months ago on the West County Community Bulletin Board, the aptly named WACCO Internet listserv hosted on Yahoo. In addition to being an excellent source for secondhand refrigerators, WACCO serves as a clearing house for the practitioners of the sacred arts who serve what some people call, for lack of more precise terminology, the local pagan community. The moon is all over WACCO, from screen names like “Moonrise” and “Moonsong” to moon goddess workshops to full-moon drum circles.

For the most part, this community uses the moon for keeping time– planning events on the new and full moons–which occur 14 days apart. As Sahar Pinkham, leader of one of the full-moon drum circles, told me with tongue slightly in cheek, “I time my circles to the moon, because that way I know I’ll have the week off in between.”

Fond of quoting the 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, Pinkham’s association with the moon goes deeper than that. Like most of the so-called pagans I’ve encountered so far, he freely borrows snippets from religious, philosophical and folkloric influences to form a worldview that includes the moon as a vital element.

“Stories of the moon are universal, appearing all around the earth from the beginnings of human history,” writes Jules Cashford in The Moon: Myth and Image, her scholarly examination of the written record. “The oldest markings on rock, horn, bone and stone suggest that the moon may have been the first recorded story of the human race.”

She’s talking Paleolithic times. Some members of Judeo-Christian culture may be shocked to learn that for all intents and purposes, its origins lie in a 30,000-year-old moon cult. It was the moon, not the sun, that taught us such basic concepts as the difference between light and dark, night and day, teacher and student. Cashford thinks the moon may have taught us how to think abstractly, when some ancient sage, probably a woman, imagined the existence of the “missing” phase that occurs during the three days the new moon is invisible here on earth.

The moon cycle courses through our spiritual veins today, as surely as the shifting tides, even though most of us don’t notice it. Although the Western world became “solarized” roughly 3,500 years ago with the advent of agriculture, mathematics and monotheism, Cashford, a member of the International Association of Analytical Psychology who lives in Somerset, England, writes that most scholars now agree that “the moon, not the sun, was the earliest focus of religious life.”

Despite efforts by clerics and other authorities to erase the moon’s influence on the interpretation of history and everyday life, many lunar vestiges remain. The full moon, which recurs every 28 days, was a significant event for our electricity-deprived ancestors, thanks to its capacity as a dependable natural floodlight and timekeeper. Most major religious holidays were timed to the full moon, a schedule many denominations adhere to today.

In fact, Easter, the remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is still timed to coincide with the full moon. The custom can be traced back to the ancient Sumerians, who passed the tradition on to the Hebrews. The first Jews observed Shabbat not once a week, but once a month, on the night of the full moon. The Last Supper was a Passover meal, once again timed to the full moon. Critics have compared Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to a horror film and rightly so, for its imagery, replete with the full moon and the cross, is the leitmotif for the entire genre.

The thing that makes Gibson’s torture-fest somewhat bearable, at least to Christians, is the concept of the resurrection, also introduced to us by the moon. The three days between the Nazarene’s execution and his surprising comeback is an interpretation of the new moon’s three absent days–and the sudden hole pierced in the cosmos by the first slender crescent of returning moonlight–that has been repeated countless times by many different cultures. This myth, which Nietzsche called the eternal return, may be among the moon’s greatest gifts to humanity.

“The essential myth of the moon is the myth of transformation,” Cashford writes. “Early people perceived the waxing and waning as the growing and dying of a celestial being, whose death was followed by its own resurrection as the new moon. The instinctive identification of the people with their moon meant that they interpreted the moon’s rebirth as offering a similar promise for human beings in their own waning and death. The moon then became a symbol of hope, the light that shone in the darkness of the human psyche.”

That’s not just solace (a sun word) for that age-old fear of death. The eternal return promised by the moon can be used as a powerful tool for self-transformation and building community. We wax, we wane, we are born again. What could be more natural?

Elizabeth Moriarty, a traditional healer who lives in Sebastopol, is in touch with the moon. The full moon, she notes, has long been viewed as a time for celebration, for turning outward. On the other hand, the new moon, with its three days of invisibility, naturally lends itself to introspection. With that in mind, she hosts for women a monthly sacred temple experience timed to the advent of the new moon.

“We are barraged with unnatural rhythms on a daily basis,” Moriarty says, describing the cacophony of modern life. Tapping into the new moon’s rhythm helps cut through all the white noise. “I try to stay with this rhythm, because it comes so naturally. When we really do feel ourselves, then we get to remember who we are.”

Most cultures, including our own, originally gave the moon male and female attributes. As civilizations became more advanced, the tendency was to view the moon as female. For Moriarty and others like her, the moon has become the wellspring for the so-called goddess phenomenon, the source for female powers of intuition, creativity and spirituality.

The most prominent link between women and the moon is of course the menstrual cycle, which on average roughly equals the time it takes the moon to complete its orbit, 29.5 days. This extraordinary coincidence led ancient cultures to believe that the moon was the source of menstruation, a belief permanently codified in language.

“In many languages, words for moon, month and menstruation are identical,” Cashford writes. “For instance, Greek: mene, moon; katamenia, menstruation. Latin: mensis, month; menses, menstruation, while menstruum meant both monthly payment or term of office, and in plural, mestrua, the blood of the menses.”

While modern medical science tends to play down the notion, anecdotal evidence of a connection between menstruation and the moon abounds. Folklore still repeated today holds that when women sleep outdoors for an extended period of time, their cycles will eventually harmonize with the moon’s.

The ancient association between moon and menstruation, combined with the moon’s very real power over the tides, led to the belief that the moon was the source of blood, water and fertility. With its waxing and waning phases, the moon brought both life and death, processes that were viewed as natural and even necessary. Every living thing followed the same pattern: birth, death and, via offspring, rebirth–the eternal return promised by the new moon.

As Moriarty notes, the full moon is more commonly viewed as a time for celebration, for looking out instead of in. That certainly seems to be the case for what might be the most popular lunar activity in the North Bay: full-moon drum circles.

My first full-moon drum circle was conducted by Sebastopol percussionist Kim Atkinson in January. Drum circles are not about showmanship; they’re about playing together with others in community. In order to play with others, one must first look inside to establish a rhythm. Like the concept of light and dark taught to us by the moon, playing a single drum beat is a relatively simple thing. It’s either on or it’s off. From this meager beginning, Atkinson led us through a session that gradually built in sonic complexity.

In February, at the next full moon, I journeyed to Schoolhouse Beach, about five miles north of Bodega Bay, where Sahar Pinkham has held full-moon drum circles for the past four years. The sun had just dipped below the edge of the ocean when I arrived. Despite the chill in the air, more than 30 drummers had turned out to gather around the fire and beat the skins.

Pinkham signaled the beginning of the session by blowing a long, loud note on a conch shell. The moon had not yet risen and the night had grown quite cold. Again, the ceremony began with simple rhythms that gradually grew in complexity. Several hours passed before the ocean began to slowly light up. The band of silver moonlight crept toward the shore and up onto the beach. Then, high above the cliffs behind the drummers, the star performer made its appearance, the full moon.

There was no raucous celebration or howling. Someone noted that the moon symbolized hope, and there was a reverent moment of silence. Then they returned to their rhythms. By channeling the moon, they’d achieved a level of unity that manifested itself in a song I could still hear beating as I followed the full moon on the highway home.

While the full-moon drum circles and yoga sessions brought me closer to an understanding of what might be called the lunar self, actually following the moon as it waxes and wanes through the phases has proven to be the most effective means of “lunarization.” Thanks to fair weather in late January and early February, I was able to observe all of the phases, beginning with the first slim crescent after the new moon to the waning quarter three weeks later.

The moon rises on average an hour later every day, and I found myself grooving to this quirky rhythm, each night eagerly anticipating the next phase’s arrival over the eastern horizon. I imagined that I could sense the rotation of the earth and the intricate geometrical relationship between earth, sun and moon. Then the clouds rolled in and blotted out the sky for the next several weeks, and I had some semblance of what the ancients must have experienced when the moon disappeared from their sky.

One of the oldest and most elegant explanations for the moon’s disappearance comes from Vedic astrology, or Jyotisha. Originating in India some 4000 years ago, Jyotisha places far more emphasis on the moon than do other branches of astrology. Instead of 12 constellations, there are 28 “mansions,” individual star fields that correspond to each separate phase of the moon. Over thousands of years, Indian astronomers have used this system to map the sky, noting the alignments between phases and constellations, and relating them to current events as they happen.

“Jyotisha tracks the dance between the sun and the moon and their relationship to one another,” explains Penny Farrow, a Jyotisha teacher at the Vedic Vidya Institute in San Rafael. In India, Jyotisha is one of six integral parts of a complex philosophical system known as the Veda; Jyotisha is called the eyes of the Veda and is still used today. “Through accurate calculations, obser-vations of the sky and direct experience, it is linked to the destiny of man,” Farrow says.

Seeking an explanation for the moon’s monthly disappearing act, early Vedic astronomers looked to the stars and the 28 mansions of the moon, imagining that the mansions housed 28 sisters. In this case, the moon was considered male, and as it passed through each mansion, it paid each sister a visit. Some of the sisters began to notice that the moon seemed to favor one sister over the others, and they complained to the creator, who honored their grumbling and caused the moon to wane and die. But that upset the sisters, too, and they begged the creator to bring the moon back. The moon has been waxing and waning ever since.

On a personal level, Farrow says Jyotisha can be used by anyone who feels hhis or her life is out of balance. The system can also be used to test the balance of entire cultures. Farrow says Vedic astrologers successfully predicted the calamitous times we’re presently passing through long before 9-11 changed the world forever. For those of us who have lost the moon, that may sound like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, but as far as Farrow is concerned, it’s all there, in the dance between the sun and the moon and the stars.

For those among us who have forgotten the moon and remain skeptical of its powers, I’m reminded of a line from the Tao Te Ching : “Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice.” In Jack London’s Valley of the Moon, Saxon and Billy eventually find what they were looking for. Turns out that sonoma was the Suisun tribe’s word for “valley of the moon,” where Saxon and Billy began their journey in the first place. Wherever you go, there you are.

As for myself, the clouds parted and I finally found the moon again. As this story waxed and waned in my mind, I stepped outside into the night, and there it was, a silvery slit in the western sky above Dry Valley, nicely complemented by the nearby jewel of Venus. Farrow says when the moon appears in a showy combination like this, it can bring good luck.

I was ecstatic after not seeing the moon for so many days, but its placement puzzled me at first. I’d grown accustomed to finding it above the eastern horizon and hadn’t expected to find it in the west. I felt . . . unbalanced. Then I remembered that the moon comes up an hour later each day. It was right where it was supposed to be, irresistibly and inevitably drawing me toward it.

From the March 3-10, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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