Strange Beliefs About the Moon by Timothy Harley 1885
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There are a few phosphorescent fancies about the moon, like ignes fatui,
"Dancing in murky night o'er fen and lake,"
which we may dispose of in a section by themselves. Those of them that are mythical are too evanescent to become full-grown myths; and those which are religious are too volatile to remain in the solution or salt of any bottled creed. Like the wandering lights of the Russians, answering to our will-o'-the-wisp, they are the souls of still-born children. There is, for example, the insubstantial and formless but pleasing conception of the Indian Veda. In the Râmâyanam the moon is a good fairy, who in giving light in the night assumes a benignant aspect and succours the dawn. In the Vedic hymn, Râkâ, the full moon, is exhorted to sew the work with a needle which cannot be broken. Here the moon is personified as preparing during the night her luminous garments, one for the evening, the other for the morning, the one lunar and of silver, the other solar and of gold. Another notion, equally airy but more religious, has sprung up in Christian times and in Catholic countries. It is that heathen fancy which connects the moon with the Virgin Mary. Abundant evidence of this association in the minds of Roman Catholics is furnished by the style of the ornaments which crowd the continental churches. One of the most conspicuous is the sun and moon in conjunction, precisely as they are represented on Babylonian and Grecian coins; and the identification of the Virgin and her Child with the moon any Roman Catholic cathedral will show. The Roman Missal will present to any reader "Sancta Maria, coeli Regina, et mundi Domina"; the Glories of Mary will exhibit her as the omnipotent mother, Queen of the Universe; and Ecclesiastical History will declare how, as early as the close of the fourth century, the women who were called Collyridians worshipped her "as a goddess, and judged it necessary to appease her anger, and seek her favour and protection, by libations, sacrifices, and oblations of cakes (collyridae)." This is but a repetition of the women kneading dough to make cakes to the queen of heaven, as recorded by Jeremiah; and proves that the relative position occupied by Astarte in company with Baal, Juno with Jupiter, Doorga with Brahma, and Ma-tsoo-po with Boodh, is that occupied by Mary with God. Nay more, she is "Mater Creatoris" and "Dei Genetrix": Mother of the Creator, Mother of God. Having thus been enthroned in the position in the universal pantheon which was once occupied by the moon, what wonder that the ignorant devotee should see her in that orb, especially as the sun, moon, and stars of the Apocalypse are her chief symbols. Southey has recorded a good illustration of this superstitious fancy. "A fine circumstance occurred in the shipwreck of the Santiago, 1585. The ship struck in the night; the wretched crew had been confessing, singing litanies, etc., and this they continued till, about two hours before break of day, the moon arose beautiful and exceeding bright; and forasmuch as till that time they had been in such darkness that they could scarcely sec one another when close at hand, such was the stir among them at beholding the brightness and glory of that orb, that most part of the crew began to lift up their voices, and with tears, cries, and groans called upon Our Lady, saying they saw her in the moon."
The preceding fancies would produce upon the poetic and religious sense only an agreeable effect. Other hallucinations have wrought effects of an opposite kind. The face in the moon does not always wear an amiable aspect, and it is not unnatural that those who have been taught to believe in angry gods and frowning providences should see the caricatures of their false teachers reproduced in the heavens above and in the earth beneath. We are reminded here of the magic mirror mentioned by Bayle. There is a trick, invented by Pythagoras, which is performed in the following manner. The moon being at the full, some one writes with blood on a looking-glass anything he has a mind to; and having given notice of it to another person, he stands behind that other and turns towards the moon the letters written in the glass. The other looking fixedly on the shining orb reads in it all that is written on the mirror as if it were written on the moon. This is precisely the modus operandi by which the knavish have imposed upon the foolish in all ages. The manipulator of the doctrine stands behind his credulous disciple, writing out of sight his invented science or theology, and writing too often with the blood of some innocent victim. The poor patient student is meanwhile gazing on the moon in dreamy devotion; until as the writing on the mirror is read with solemn intonation, it all appears before his moon-struck gaze as a heavenly revelation. Woe to the truth-loving critic who breaks the enchantment and the mirror, crying out in the vernacular tongue, Your mysteries are myths, your writings are frauds; and the fair moon is innocent of the lying imposition!
To multitudes the moon has always been an object of terror and dread. Not only is it a supramundane and magnified man--that it will always be while its spots are so anthropoid, and man himself is so anthropomorphic--but it has ever been, and still is, a being of maleficent and misanthropic disposition. As Mr. Tylor says, "When the Aleutians thought that if any one gave offence to the moon, he would fling down stones on the offender and kill him; or when the moon came down to an Indian squaw, appearing in the form of a beautiful woman with a child in her arms, and demanding an offering of tobacco and fur-robes: what conceptions of personal life could be more distinct than these?" Personal and distinct, indeed, but far from pleasant. Another author tells us that "in some parts of Scotland to point at the stars or to do aught that might be considered an indignity in the face of the sun or moon, is still to be dreaded and avoided; so also it was not long since, probably still is, in Devonshire and Cornwall. The Jews seem to have been equally superstitious on this point (Jer. viii. 1, 2), and the Persians believed leprosy to be an infliction on those who had committed some offence against the sun." Southey supplies us with an illustration of the moon in a fit of dudgeon. He is describing the sufferings of poor Hans Stade, when he was caught by the Tupinambas and expected that he was about to die. "The moon was up, and fixing his eyes upon her, he silently besought God to vouchsafe him a happy termination of these sufferings. Yeppipo Wasu, who was one of the chiefs of the horde, and as such had convoked the meeting, seeing how earnestly he kept gazing upwards, asked him what he was looking at. Hans had ceased from praying, and was observing the man in the moon, and fancying that he looked angry; his mind was broken down by continual terror, and he says it seemed to him at that moment as if he were hated by God, and by all things which God had created. The question only half roused him from this phantasy, and he answered, it was plain that the moon was angry. The savage asked whom she was angry with, and then Hans, as if he had recollected himself, replied that she was looking at his dwelling. This enraged him, and Hans found it prudent to say that perhaps her eyes were turned so wrathfully upon the Carios; in which opinion the chief assented, and wished she might destroy them all." Some such superstitious fear must have furnished the warp into which the following Icelandic story was woven. "There was once a sheep-stealer who sat down in a lonely place, with a leg of mutton in his hand, in order to feast upon it, for he had just stolen it. The moon shone bright and clear, not a single cloud being there in heaven to hide her. While enjoying his gay feast, the impudent thief cut a piece off the meat, and, putting it on the point of his knife, accosted the moon with these godless words:--
'O moon, wilt thou
On thy mouth now
This dainty bit of mutton-meat?'
Then a voice came from the heavens, saying:--
'Wouldst thou, thief, like
Thy cheek to strike
This fair key, scorching-red with heat?'
At the same moment, a red-hot key fell from the sky on to the cheek of the thief, burning on it a mark which he carried with him ever afterwards. Hence arose the custom in ancient times of branding or marking thieves." The moral influence of this tale is excellent, and has the cordial admiration of all who hate robbery and effrontery: at the same time it exhibits the moon as an irascible body, with which no liberty may be taken. In short, it is an object of superstitious awe.
One other lunar fancy, born and bred in fear, is connected with the abominable superstition of witchcraft. Abominable, unquestionably, the evil was; but justice compels us to add that the remedy of relentless and ruthless persecution with which it was sought to remove the pest was a reign of abhorrent and atrocious cruelty. Into the question itself we dare not enter, lest we should be ourselves bewitched. We know that divination by supposed supernatural agency existed among the Hebrews, that magical incantations were practised among the Greeks and Romans, and that more modern witchcraft has been contemporaneous with the progress of Christianity. But we must dismiss the subject in one borrowed sentence. "The main source from which we derived this superstition is the East, and traditions and facts incorporated in our religion. There were only wanted the ferment of thought of the fifteenth century, the energy, ignorance, enthusiasm, and faith of those days, and the papal denunciation of witchcraft by the bull of Innocent the Eighth, in 1459, to give fury to the delusion. And from this time, for three centuries, the flames at which more than a hundred thousand victims perished cast a lurid light over Europe." The singular notion, which we wish to present, is the ancient belief that witches could control the moon. In the Clouds of Aristophanes, Strepsiades tells Socrates that he has "a notion calculated to deprive of interest"; which is as follows:--
"Str. If I were to buy a Thessalian witch, and draw down the moon by night, then shut her up in a round helmet-case, like a mirror, and then keep watching her--"
"Soc. What good would that do you, then?"
"Str. What? If the moon were not to rise any more anywhere, I should not pay the interest."
"Soc. Because what?"
"Str. Because the money is lent by the month."
Shakespeare alludes to this, where Prospero says, "His mother was a witch, and one so strong that could control the moon" (Tempest, Act v.).
If the witch's broom, on whose stick she rode to the moon, be a type of the wind, we may guess how the fancy grew up that the airy creation could control those atmospheric vapours on which the light and humidity of the night were supposed to depend.
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