Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Meditating on Moonshine

Just now, it’s all about the moon.  When I saw it rising so huge and luminous last night it seemed to have the unreal mineral color of the crayons and magic markers used by children to depict it.  It was so low in the eastern sky that we had to walk all the way to the bottom of the dark garden, beyond the stone wall and into the open field, to see it above the tree line in its fullness.  It is still magnificent this morning as I write this.  It is still fairly low, but now in the west, still magnificent but further away, as though it were perched just above Denver or maybe even San Francisco.

            It is a “blue moon”—a wonderful term that, like so many in popular culture, has no absolute or fixed conventional meaning beyond its suggestion of rarity.  Growing up I was taught that a blue moon was a second full moon falling within a single calendar month.  Since there are only twenty-nine and a half days within a lunar month it is inevitable that the “irregularity” will occur, though of course it didn’t this month.  This blue moon—which is also in some parts called green and red—is of a different astronomical hue.  When I was a kid full moons of August or September were often called “corn” moons.  Insofar as I thought about it I connected the idea with the color of corn on the cob; but I now suppose the term must preserve the older English sense of corn as grain, and thus be identical with a “harvest moon”.

            Apparently it is a fact well known to students of abnormal psychology and criminologists that at the full moon there is a discernible spike in aberrant and sinister behavior.  One of the former presidents of my university—who like all heads of large and complex organizations had to deal with a certain number of cranks and eccentrics—maintained a drawer in a file cabinet actually labelled “Full Moon Mail”.  But last night’s blue moon was so pure and inspirational that I expect to read in tomorrow’s press of a dramatic spike in altruism.

            The moon, like so many very old things, looks better at a distance.  We now have all seen demythologizing close-ups and real time moon walks and fragments of drab moon rocks indistinguishable from road gravel.  I shall persevere in my attempt to see the moon through medieval eyes.

            For where we see on the full moon’s surface the faint outlines of irregular geological shapes, of craters, hillocks and ravine slopes, our medieval ancestors, if they tried hard enough, could see something rather more interesting: the Man in the Moon!  The Man in the Moon had the form of a peasant earthling—an old man who bore upon his back a bundle of thorny faggots.  If you looked really hard you could sometimes see also the man’s little dog, as unimposing as its master, walking at his side.

            There were disparate explanations of who the Man in the Moon was, and how he got there.  The admirable Rev’d Sabine Baring-Gould, M.A., the great Anglican hagiographer, has written learnedly of these explanations, most of which are a variants on the theme of the Wandering Jew.*  The Man in the Moon was perhaps a scoffing Sabbath-breaker who gathered wood when he should have been at his prayers.  His punishment—a contrapasso worthy of Dante—is forever to bear his heavy and prickly burden across the face of the moon, so far distant as to be beyond even death.  There are many other folk reminiscences of the ancient belief.  It may well be that Jack and Jill fetching their pail of water distantly reflect an Old Norse version of the legend.

            We have a few early iconographic representations of the Man in the Moon.  One of the most curious is a sigil.  Among the documents in the Public Record Office in London is one dated ix Edward III (i.e., 1335), which has a wonderful Man-in-the-Moon seal with the following circular Latin inscription: te waltere docebo cur spinas phebo gero.  In English this would be “Walter, I will teach you why I carry brambles to the moon”.  How one might wish to be able to meet this whimsical Walter—supposing that he himself was the designer of the seal!

            That is impossible, lacking a Time Machine.  But we all know the “rude mechanicals” whose rehearsal of “Pyramis and Thisbe”—the play within the play of Midsummer-Night’s Dream--is one of the finest things in Shakespeare.  At one point (Act III, scene1) Quince, Bottom, and Snout are discussing the technical difficulties posed in staging their play.
            Quince:…But there is two hard things; that is, to bring the moonlight into a chamber; for you know, Pyramus and Thisby meet by moonlight.

            Snout: Doth the moon shine that night we play our play?

            Bottom: A calendar, a calendar!  Look in the almanac: find out moonshine, find out moonshine!

            Quince: Yes, it doth shine that night.

            Bottom: Why, then may you have a casement of the great chamber window, where we play, open, and the moon may shine in on the casement.

            Quince: Ay, or else one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lanthorn, and say he comes to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine….

*in Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (London, 1866)