Following the sun, or following the moon?

If you’ve been following my posts, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by the wide variety of cultures that have based some or all of their time measurements on the moon.  Whilst some societies have imported these concepts from elsewhere (as the Romans probably based their first system on one or other of the earlier Greek calendars, who in turn were influenced by the Babylonians, for example), in many cases it appears to have been developed locally and independently.

Astronomy as a field of study seems to be prompted by a desire to understand the way that the world and the cycle of time works, or by a need to predict events that are going to impact on a society’s survival or lifestyle.

There are perhaps a few places in the world where there are plentiful food supplies, fresh water, warmth, shelter and safety, all year round, and without people needing to work too hard to ensure their survival.  But there aren’t so very many places like that – even places with an ideal climate may have a rainy season, or droughts, or floods.  Most people, throughout most of history, have had to devote a great deal of effort and energy to ensuring their survival, by knowing what plants or animals are available, where to find them, and when they appear;  by migrating to where food is available;  by preserving and storing food in preparation for times when nothing is available locally;  or by other means.  It was therefore essential to be able to predict when the animals you hunted were likely to move south for the winter, or when it would be appropriate to move nearer to the coast for the annual mussel migration, or how much longer you had to harvest your crops before the rains were due.

And so the idea of a calendar is almost universal:  only a minority of societies that faced no uncertainties or shortages in their food supply didn’t need to develop or adopt one.  And it doesn’t take much imagination (at least, not if you live, as I do, in a temperate climate, or anywhere else that has well-defined seasons) to see that people must have become aware that there was a regularity to the pattern of warmth and cold, of longer and shorter days, of high and low rainfall.  On the whole, these are annual cycles, and it makes sense that the cycle of the seasons was usually interpreted in terms of the sun.  The place where the sun rises moves slightly from day to day, and noticeably so over the course of a season, and so does the place where it sets.  As this movement continues throughout, for example, the spring, the days get longer and the nights shorter, the sun appears to gain in strength and warm us more and more, and rainfall decreases, until, at a certain point, the whole system goes into reverse.  Throughout the autumn (in the northern hemisphere), the sun’s rising and setting points slide southwards, the length of the night increases, the days grow cooler, and the influence of the sun seems to wane.  It is no surprise, then, that so many societies watched, recorded, and predicted the movement of the sun, and used their predictions to decide when to move camps, or when to sow and when to harvest their crops.

So, if the sun’s movements are the best way of tracking the seasons, why was and is moonwatching so prevalent?

I think it’s a combination of factors.  On a purely practical basis, the moon’s changes are more obvious.  A mere glance at the moon will tell you where it is in its cycle, whereas knowing the time of the year from the sun involves some sort of measurement – either comparing its setting or rising point with those of previous days, noticing how late in the evening it stays light, or knowing when it reaches its highest point in the sky, and estimating how that comparing to other days.  Without measuring, we know about where the sun is in its yearly cycle (by how warm the weather is, how long daylight lasts each day, etc), but we know exactly where the moon is in its cycle.  The moon therefore introduces an easy precision into time measurement.

It’s also useful to have a regular time period that’s shorter than a year, and yet longer than a day, and most societies throughout history and pre-history have developed a unit of time that is about a month long, based on the time it takes the moon to work its way once through all its phases.

There are also, perhaps, more subtle influences at play.  Many early myths and stories contrast in some way the sun and the moon, according them attributes and characteristics that seem to suit their appearance and behaviour.  So the sun might be seen as bold, brash, hot-tempered, yang, while the moon is considered calm, peaceful, yin.

Because there is, at least in temperate climates, a clear link between the sun’s annual journey and the seasons, which also follow a yearly cycle, the sun was responsible for bringing back warmer and longer days, so essential to a pre-industrial society, and some peoples felt the need to propitiate the sun as autumn drew on, and to celebrate the winter turning of the corner, when the days started to lengthen again.  Many societies also attributed to the sun power over crops, their germination and ripening, because growth was related to how kindly the sun shone on them.  For many communities, this added a layer of tension to their relationship with the sun, and some explained poor crops or flooding in terms of their not having sufficiently pleased the sun.  Although the sun’s cycle was regular, its influence varied from one year to another, and people tried various tactics to propitiate it and ensure that it was beneficent.

In contrast, the moon might change more frequently, and might offer a colder light, but it was entirely predictable.  Man had no reason to appease the moon, because it never appeared linked to floods, droughts, or failed crops.  And so, people have been able to have an entirely companionable relationship with the moon, free of the anxiety that sometimes colours that with the sun.  And in some respects, that may endow the moon with spiritual characteristics, for it always seems benign, even-tempered and serene.

People in early communities may have needed the sun, may have had cause to be grateful for its warmth, may have feared its anger, but perhaps they could appreciate the moon in an entirely different way, and feel secure and relaxed in its light.