Last night, waiting for my train, I stood on the platform and noticed that the CN Tower was unusually dark (its LED lights turned off in an expression of sorrow for the victims of the Ethiopian Air crash). This served to highlight even more the crescent moon that rose behind it, accenting it like a cosmic apostrophe. (The photo I took with my phone, unfortunately, blurs the sweep of the crescent into a blob). Later, on the train, lost in music, I happened to gaze out the window and up at the same crescent moon, which now appeared high and to the side, not quite a guide, not quite a companion, but a presence.
It dawned on me that every sighted human who has existed on this earth have precisely two things in common that they have looked upon: the sun, and the moon (and to some extent, the night sky). Every single one, for good or evil. Celestial bodies are the only objects that are impossible for humans (at the moment) to affect , for good or evil. They are beyond us. We cannot control them. And so we wonder whether they control us. In ancient times, it was postulated that these bodies might be gods, or controlled by the gods or by God; hence, the rise of astrology.
But there really is something mystic about the rhythms of the skies–rhythms that do actually control us. It’s the revolution of the earth around the sun that dictates the length of the year in our modern reckoning. It’s the rotation of the earth that defines the day. And it’s the moon’s orbit around the earth–the time from new moon to new moon–that provided the first division of the year into months. Wholly or partially lunar calendars still are used today–the Chinese, Islamic, and Hebrew calendars, for example, are all based around lunar, rather than solar, cycles, and this comes into the Christian world around the time of Easter, which, being linked to the Jewish feast of Passover, changes from year to year as a result.
The moon’s phases and cycle through them made it be characterized as inconstant. Juliet says to Romeo:
O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
She addresses the moon as “she.” This was (and in some ways) still is a trope in literature, because of the link with women’s monthly cycles (the word menstruation comes from the Greek root mene-, meaning moon, which is the root of the Latin mens-, meaning month). It also carries over into the stereotype as women as moody and inconstant. However, there is absolutely nothing inconstant about the lunar cycle. In fact, I would argue that for the average person, it’s the moon and its phases that is perhaps the most consistent celestial phenomenon across all cultures. Depending on where a person is located on earth, the sun is going to be seen more or less during the course of any given day due to the earth’s axial tilt. Likewise, the stars visible at night will depend on latitude and time of year. But the moon shows the same phase at the same time for everyone on earth who can see it. Because the moon is tidally locked to the earth, the moon will always be at the same part in its orbit each time a particular phase comes around. The new moon will always be between earth and sun and appear dark, the full moon, on the opposite side and show a completely illuminated face. That also means that the growing crescent moon always appears in the western sky at sundown, and as its face becomes more and more illuminated it seems to be further and further east until at the time of the full moon, it is rising in the east as the sun sets in the west. This will be the case no matter where on earth the observer is located. With such consistency, it is no wonder that the phases of the moon were used to subdivide the years into months, and likely also account for its further subdivision of months into four weeks of seven days each, based on the moon’s phases.
But don’t mistake consistency for perfect synchronization. One cycle of the moon takes 29.5 days, so the synchronization of weeks with phases is off. It also does not conveniently fit into our solar year of 365.25 days at all. A pure lunar calendar of 12 months, at 354 or 355 days, is considerably shorter than a solar year, and as a result, will never be in sync. This was not an issue for the Islamic calendar, with the result that the months in that calendar do not sync with the solar–or the agricultural–year. But the Hebrew calendar inserts an extra month in every 3-4 years on a 19-year cycle to keep things more or less in sync with the solar year; the Chinese system uses a similar system of “leap months.” In an interesting side note, it takes the moon 27.3 days to revolve around the Earth, but since the Earth itself is revolving around the sun, another 2.2 days are needed for the moon to go through its full set of phases. This is part of what was so radical about the replacement of an Earth-centred model of the universe with the solar system model we know now to be actual fact. Would God, so the thinking went, create something that was not “perfect”, from a human understanding of that word?
I won’t go into theology or belief, but suffice it to say, the universe is weird, at least from a human perspective. We perceive the passage of time based on the systems that we can observe, and so we talk about years, months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, but those are simply the handiest reference points for our experience of the temporal dimension. Current superstring theory postulates 10 or more dimensions; those we are not aware of may be so large or so tiny as to be unable to be perceived by humans. What this really brings home, to me, is that the universe isn’t about us–but yet, at the same time, it is about us, because our observation of it may change it (the classic observer effect.)
I have traveled a long distance (not so much in time, but in discourse) since I looked out the window at the moon last night, and have talked about time, the cycles of life, and the universe. But I’m left looking up at this distant celestial body that humans have managed to touch a handful of times, a body that, for us, has always existed. Neanderthals saw what we do. Apart from those without sight, any figure of history you might wish to name looked at the moon, too. Any celebrity, any athlete, any politician, artist, musician, writer; any human, rich or poor–we all have seen, more or less, the same thing. And yet, for each of us, it has different meanings, all of them true, if not necessarily fact.
In the great green room
There was a telephone
And a red balloon
And a picture of the cow jumping over the moon
And there were three little bears sitting on chairs
And two little kittens
And a pair of mittens
And a little toy house
And a young mouse
And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush
And a quiet old lady who was whispering “hush”
Goodnight cow jumping over the moon
And the red balloon
And goodnight mittens
And goodnight socks
Goodnight little house
And goodnight mouse
And goodnight brush
And goodnight to the old lady whispering “hush”
Good night noises everywhere
—Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown