46 Sedna Enters the Arena
AR 45 Royal
Stars of Persia
AR 44 Ancient
Formulas for Immortality
AR 43 Twelve
Gates of Heaven
AR 42 Jupiter
AR 41 Geometry
of the Spheres
AR 40 Saturn
in Cancer, June, 2003 to July, 2005
AR 39 The
Poles of the Zodiac
Twelfth Planet, Plutinos or
Eclipses Promise or Peril?
The Lunar Mansions of Vedic Astrology
Children of the Gods
Wheels Within Wheels
Horoscopes of Destiny
Zodicac of Dendera
A Star Is Born
Age of Aquarius
Persia's Royal Stars of Ancients
The Lore of a Shaman
“The fault, dear Brutus,
is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
- Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar
The commonly-accepted definition
of a “blue Moon” is a second full Moon in a calendar month. This
assertion is backed by such diverse and impressive authorities as
Sky & Telescope Magazine and the Trivial Pursuit Game. But this
technical-sounding description is something of a red herring, pardoning
the mixed metaphor, and tracing the origin of the expression becomes
an object lesson in the mechanism of folklore and idiom.
The root of the problem lies
in the modern calendar. Before clocks and calendars the motions
of the Sun, Moon and stars gave us divisions of time. A day is one
rotation of Earth, sunrise to sunrise. The passage of the Earth
around the Sun gives us the year; the Sun’s apparent path in the
sky. The idea, and Anglo-Saxon word for month, came from the movements
of the Moon. But these familiar cycles move at different rates relative
to each other.
The Moon’s motion is complex
because the Sun, Earth and planets all tug on it. The Moon rotates
on its axis every 27.3 days, the same time it takes to circle Earth.
This is called the Sidereal period as the Moon returns to the same
place relative to the stars. This dual motion is why the same side
of the Moon is always turned toward Earth. However, the far side
is not always dark since the Moon’s rotation exposes the whole surface
The Synodic month (29.5 days)
is the time between successive New Moons. This period is longer
because while the Moon is orbiting Earth, we have traveled about
thirty degrees of arc in our annual trek around the Sun, and the
Moon has to compensate.
Numerous cultures throughout
millennia have wrestled with this problem. Indigenous cultures give
names to the Moons, relative to the solstices and equinoxes, describing
what occurs at the time of year. The most familiar of these is the
Harvest Moon which is the full Moon closest to Autumn Equinox. Similarly,
in Astrology there is one New Moon and one Full Moon in each of
the twelve zodiac signs as the Moon circles Earth, which in turn
orbits the Sun.We’ve adopted some
of the names of the Moon, like Harvest Moon or Hunter Moon, but
we’ve forced them into the calendar months.
Dividing the 365.25 days
of the year by the 29.53+ days of the lunar cycle yields about 12.37
New or Full Moons. There’s no easy way to make these important cycles
move in synch, and there is no inherent reason why our modern year
begins on the first of January. It makes more sense to begin either
at Winter Solstice when light returns, or Spring Equinox when the
new cycle of growth begins. Today we use the Gregorian calendar
with twelve fixed months of differing lengths, so as the cycles
change, the shorter lunar cycle (29.5 days) can fall twice in a
calendar month, resulting in what’s now called a blue Moon.
Curiouser and Curiouser
In a tumble down the rabbit
hole with Alice in Wonderland, the evolution of the modern idea
of a blue Moon is a bit surreal. According to the Oxford English
Dictionary, the first reference to a blue Moon appeared in the year
1528 in a poem titled “Rede Me and Be Not Wroth.”
“If they say the moon is
We must believe that it is true.”
One linguistic interpretation
suggests that the word “belewe” originally implied betrayal, suggesting
that the early use of the term had to do with deception. For the
most part however, modern researchers assume the expression meant
that a blue Moon was an absurd idea. But sometimes the Moon looks
blue. If a substantial amount of sulfuric dust fills the air, resulting
from a volcanic eruption or forest fire, the Moon takes on a bluish
hue. This literal blue-tinted Moon is rare.
Jumping ahead in our story
300 years to the 1800s, the next reference quoted is from a Maine
Farmers Almanac. Here a blue Moon is defined as the third full Moon
in a season that has four full Moons. This definition stems from
ecclesiastical rules for determining the dates of Easter and Lent.
Easter Sunday is observed on the first Sunday, following the first
full Moon after Spring Equinox, which can fall in March or April.
Lent begins forty-six days before Easter Sunday and must contain
the last full Moon of winter, called the Lenten Moon in church parlance.
According to the almanac, when there are four full Moons in the
winter season, the Lenten Moon (third one) became a “blue Moon.”
The plot thickens
In a March 1999 article in
Sky & Telescope magazine, Philip Hisock, noted folklore expert and
archivist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and
Language Archive, traced the origin of the term “blue Moon.” He
concluded that two full Moons in a month was not the original definition.
The May 1999 issue of the magazine featured a red-faced follow-up
article, revealing that Sky & Telescope had actually, and inadvertently,
created the current meaning back in 1943 through a misinterpretation
of the Maine Farmer’s Almanac.
“Star Date,” a popular radio
show hosted by Deborah Byrd in the 1970’s, further spread the idea
by repeating the “wrong” answer to a 1943 “star quiz” from Sky &
Telescope, which included the question about two full Moons in a
calendar month. The quiz gave the answer as “blue Moon.” A later
article in 1946 in the same magazine repeated the misinterpretation,
and the definition gained ground. Then adding momentum, the 1986
Genius II edition of Trivial Pursuit included the blue Moon question,
also with the answer as two full Moons in a calendar month. Trivial
Pursuit cited their source as a children’s “Fact and Records” book
published in 1985.
Folklore becomes fact
The accepted definition
for a blue Moon is now two full Moons in a calendar month, but this
description has nothing whatsoever to do with astronomical phenomena
or the color of the Moon. The authors of the May 1999 Sky & Telescope
article admitted, “With two decades of popular usage behind it,
the second-full-Moon-in-a-month (mis)interpretation is like a genie
that can’t be forced back into its bottle.”
The making of a blue Moon
increases our understanding of the mechanism of folklore and the
process which creates a cultural idiom. An idiom is defined by Webster
as “A phrase established by usage whose meaning is not deducible
from the individual words.” Somehow, an idea takes hold in the collective
psyche and becomes a common cultural conception of reality without
regard for technical truth. The blue Moon chronicle is filled with
Medieval charm, human frailty and a generous dose of whimsy, and
blue Moons are now part and parcel of our lexicon. Science and folklore
have jointly created a new definition.
Colloquially, “once in a
blue moon,” means rare, and actually happens about every thirty-three
months. We just experienced a blue Moon of this kind on July 31,
2004. (The next “blue Moons” will be June 30, 2007 and December
31, 2009). Perhaps July’s blue Moon came and went without much fanfare
because it has no intrinsic or symbolic significance. It’s an arbitrary,
if agreed-upon term. Unlike the amusing chronicle of blue Moons,
another fascinating story is unfolding which which is filled with
symbolism and significance and concerns the Moon’s origins and the
relationship between Earth and Moon.
Brother Sun, Sister
Since astronauts have walked
on the Moon, returning home with moon rocks, scientists have been
able to study the Moon’s origins first hand. Prior to that multiple
theories competed to explain how the Moon came to be circling Earth.
One knotty problem is the Moon is too big to be a “moon.” Analysis
of the geology of the Moon, coupled with high-tech, computer-generated
images, is resulting in a fascinating thesis. Scientists now believe
that 4.6 billion years ago there were two planets circling the Sun
where the Earth and Moon are now.
In this scenario, a Mars-sized
planet, traveling in a tight orbit with Earth, collided with us,
stirring up and jettisoning a great deal of planetary matter. After
a lot of cooling and coalescing our Moon formed and settled into
orbit around Earth. So rather than planet and moon, we are two planets,
poetically termed Terra and Luna by astronomers, moving in a circular
pas de deus around the Sun. No wonder our bond with the Moon is
so strong; she is more sister than satellite.
Cutting edge astronomical
theory is supported by astrological symbolism. Astrological interpretation
has long understood this intimate and symbiotic relationship. Astrologically,
the Moon represents our instincts, memories, the past, our habitual
behaviors and our inheritance. The Moon is seen symbolically as
our lost psyche, separated from our waking consciousness as we journey
through time. The Moon reflects our instincts and our evolving personality.
The hidden side conceals our habitual selves and unconscious patterns
which need to be healed or reclaimed. The cycles and phases of the
Moon’s reflected light offer periodic illumination into our individual
and collective nature. Just as space travel has given us a glimpse
of the Moon’s hidden side, the relationship between Earth and Moon
is a journey of ever-changing, but ever-increasing, light and consciousness.
Measure versus meaning
Astronomy is science, based
on observation and measurement. Astrology is an interpretative discipline
which applies meaning and correspondences to what has been observed
over thousands of years. Not so long ago they were the same.
I believe we’ve lost a great
deal as a result of the extreme polarization of these two disciplines.
When we separate meaning from measurement, and cleave two halves
of the same pursuit, we tear apart the mind and heart. Clocks and
calendars are useful devices, but they make it easy to loose touch
with the real rhythms we’re biologically and spiritually tuned to.
Artificial light disconnects us from the night, sweeping lunatics
and werewolves under the carpet, and denying our instinctual response
to these deep impulses.
Gratefully, there is a tremendous
resurgence in backyard astronomy, and sales of small telescopes
is sharply on the rise. Likewise there’s an enormous interest in
astrology, and this subject tops the charts of “new age” book sales.
In both cases I believe it’s because we long to feel connected and
crave purpose and meaning. It’s a lovely and synchronous irony that
the idea of blue Moons unwittingly made partners of science and
folklore. As the eye of science peers further into the history and
workings of the Universe, it’s my belief and heart-felt desire that
the two ends of the star-gazing spectrum will in time be reunited
in a circle.