The ‘biggest supermoon of the year’ is here, but our fascination with the lunar cycle is far from new
From a sign of evil intent to a symbol of peace and prosperity, humans have long been captivated by the Moon and how it shapes the world around us.
With astronomers set to look to the skies this week for what’s being billed as the ‘biggest supermoon of the year’, it’s clear our fascination with Earth’s closest celestial object has not diminished.
“The Moon and the stars, the sight of the night sky, can be a wonderful unifying influence.”
“It was a huge omen for them”
For centuries, people have claimed that the Moon affects human behavior (though it’s important to point out that science disagrees).
The word madness itself comes from the Latin “luna”, which means moon. As the Macquarie Dictionary notes, the term was originally “applied to a person afflicted with a kind of madness which was thought to have recurring periods dependent on the changes of the moon”.
Some Hindu folk tales suggest that lunar eclipses are caused by a demon, while in ancient Mesopotamia a “decoy” king would be put in place until an eclipse ended.
“They actually concluded in peace because they were so worried about the disappearance of the Sun. It was a huge omen for them.”
Dr Martin says that many different cultures have a long tradition of observing and recording eclipses, and while they “didn’t report them for the particular reason that we need them now”, they have proven useful.
“In order to determine the rotational position of the Earth, it is important for us to try to determine where the Moon’s shadow fell at that time, because the rotation of the Earth is actually variable,” explains Dr George.
“It changes with speed.
“So these recordings like, for example, ‘it was dark in the middle of the day,’ from a certain location somewhere in Europe or somewhere in China, they really helped us better understand this variable rotation of the Earth. .”
“History tells you a lot of different things”
Each culture has its own way of “memory-coding” understandings of the Moon and the role it plays, says Duane Hamacher, associate professor of cultural astronomy at the University of Melbourne.
“[People] have developed narrative stories and songs and dances around it all,” he says.
“These stories not only tell you what is happening in the world around you, but they will also have a cultural and social connection.
“History tells you a lot of different things, a lot of different layers of knowledge.”
Professor Hamacher discusses Gedge Togia, a sacred spiritual dance in the Torres Strait, which proved pivotal in the Meriam peoples’ legal battle for rights to the sea in the mid-2000s.
The lyrics are “Gedge Togia, Milpanuka”, which translates to “Moon rising above the house” in two languages, and describes “the Moon rising above the house as the people of Meriam traveled from Mabuyag to Sea”.
“Government lawyers were arguing that the islands were all separate little enclaves that didn’t have much connection to each other,” Professor Hamacher said.
“So it showed that even before colonization, [there were] these connections between the islands.”
A lasting legacy
Although cultural ties to the Moon and the traditions surrounding it vary by place and time, their legacy remains evident today.
Celebrations like the Mid-Autumn Festival (also known as the Moon Festival or Mooncake Festival) are held every year in China, while similar festivals are celebrated in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. .
“The Moon plays a very important role in Chinese culture, history, literature, philosophy, basically everything,” said Shengyu Fan, deputy director of languages at ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific.
“China is primarily an agricultural country, and our calendar is actually planned around the moon.
“For thousands of years, the Chinese have used the lunar calendar to know when to plant and when to harvest.”
The Moon has come to be known as a “symbol of fulfillment and family reunion”, says Dr Fan, and it is not uncommon for women to have the Chinese character for it included in their name.
He says his mother’s maiden name includes the character.
The story of Chang’e – a Chinese goddess who supposedly drank an elixir of immortality on Earth before fleeing to the Moon – even finds its way into the space race.
“So they are called Chang’e 4 and so on, which basically means ‘Moon Goddess Number Four’, ‘Moon Goddess Number Five’.”
Why are we captivated by the Moon?
Humans have long sought to understand and explain the Moon and all of its complexities – and it’s not hard to see why.
“Once telescopes were invented, it became clear that its surface was interesting to explore,” says Richard de Grijs, professor of astrophysics at Macquarie University.
The Moon was the ultimate goal of the US-USSR space race, Professor de Grijs adds: “A place outside of Earth where humans could actually travel.”
“I remember when [Neil] Armstrong and [Buzz] Aldrin went to the moon, they left a plaque saying, ‘We have come in peace for all mankind,'” says Dr George.
“I think it was a wonderful, unifying thing. So in that context, I think celestial objects can play a role there.”