I wrote this post in response to Myth Cafe’s July writing prompt: Moon Myths.
When I was in college, my wife and I spent one year following the lunar calendar fairly closely. We observed — in a limited way, of course — the holidays from the Hebrew Torah. (We went camping with friends for Sukkot, for example.) We would watch every month for the new crescent moon, sometimes from the top of a nearby parking garage. That year I first understood how the phases of the moon really work and got a handle on how the months, seasons, and years are all related. I technically learned all that in school, but it never really meant anything to me. In our modern technological world, it is easy to lose touch of the natural world around us.
The moon myths that I love are those that talk about the moon either in terms of wandering or in terms of chasing. The moon and sun both appear to travel around our planet from east to west in the sky, the sun going a little faster than the moon. In reality, of course, our planet is rotating. (The sun doesn’t move, but moon moves a little bit west to east each day.) This gives the appearance that the moon is traveling a little slower than the sun. If you watch the moon regularly at sunset after the new moon, you really do get the sense that the moon and the sun were traveling together but that the moon just couldn’t keep up or preferred to travel at his own leisurely pace. In Egyptian mythology, the moon god is named Khonsu, which means “Traveler” or “Wanderer,” and that makes really good sense to me.
When the moon goes from new to full, you can see it at sunset and then throughout the night until the moon sets. However, after the moon is full, you can see it at rise at night and watch it until sunrise. If you watch it from that point of view, you get the impression that the one of them is chasing the other … and gaining ground daily. I am pretty sure there are many myths from different cultures talking about the moon and the sun chasing each other, but the one I remember the most is the Inuit story. Malina and Anningan were sister and brother. Anningan forced himself on his sister one night; because it was night, she didn’t know who it was. When he came back the next night to force himself on her again, she had covered her hands with ash so that she could smear ash all over her attacker’s face and then be able to identify him. When she found out her was her brother, she ran away from the village. He chased after her, and they both ran so fast that the flew into the sky and became the sun and the moon. Anningan (the brother, the moon) still chases after Malina (the sister, the sun) to this day. (I believe the ashes on Anningan’s face represent the dark spots on the moon.)
In the Norse myth, the Sun and Moon do not chase each other. Instead, they are each chased by a wolf: Sköll chasing the sun, and Hati Hróðvitnisson chasing the moon. (The sun and moon are also brother and sister in Norse myths, the sister Sól the sun and the brother Máni the moon.) The wolves will consume the sun and the moon as part of Ragnarök.
Of all the moon myths that have left an impression on me, two come from modern works of fiction. First, I loved the story of the sun and the moon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Silmarillion” legends. Tolkien must have had the same reaction to moon myths, preferring the wandering and the chasing, because he incorporated both of those:
Now Varda [goddess of the stars] purposed that the two vessels should journey […] and ever be aloft, but not together; each should pass from Valinor [the home of the gods] into the east and return, the one issuing from the west as the other turned from the east. Thus the first of the new days were reckoned after the manner of the Trees, from the mingling of the lights when Arien [the sun] and Tilion [the moon] passed in their courses, above the middle of the Earth. But Tilion was wayward and uncertain in speed, and held not to his appointed path; and he sought to come near to Arien, being drawn by her splendour, though the flame of Anar scorched him, and the island of the Moon was darkened.
— Quenta Silmarillion, XI: Of The Sun And Moon and The Hiding of Valinor
The other story comes from Avatar: The Last Airbender (the Nickelodeon cartoon series). I have only watched the first season of this series, but it is really good. The world is divided into four nations or tribes, corresponding to the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. In each nation or tribe, there are powerful individuals who can “bend” (i.e., control or manipulate) the element of their tribe — “fire-benders”, “water-benders”, etc. We spend a lot of time with water-benders in the first season. In the climatic final battle in the last two episode, culminating in a battle between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribe, we learn that the water-benders are more powerful when there’s a full moon. The tribe’s princess explains it like this:
The legends say the moon was the first water-bender. Our ancestors saw how it pushed and pulled the tides and learned how to do it themselves.
After spending eighteen episodes in that world, this myth resonated with me and felt like exactly the kind of myth the Water Tribe would have.