People left moonstruck over lunar superstitions


I was introduced to American lunar lore by a phone call from John Switzer, who for many years wrote the weather column in the Columbus Dispatch.

A reader had called him to ask him if the best time to fish was during a full moon. Switzer asked me to explain the science of full-moon fishing.

“Perhaps night fishing is more enjoyable when you can see what you’re doing by the moon’s light,” I speculated.

“No,” he said. “You’re really supposed to catch more fish. It says so right here in the Old Farmer’s Almanac.”

A quick perusal of the OFA yields the cause. Fish tend to feed more when the tides are higher than average.

The pull of the moon’s gravity is the primary cause of the tides. (The sun’s gravity also makes a less substantial contribution.)

The tides tend to be higher during a full moon. The best fishing of all occurs when the moon is at its highest point in the south around local midnight.

The OFA goes on to say that other good fishing times occur during the time between the new moon and full moon, i.e., when the moon is getting larger or “waxing,” as astronerds like to say.

The lunar-phase cycle begins when we see no moon at all, the night of the new moon. For two weeks after the new moon, the moon’s illuminated portion gets larger each day, growing from a thin crescent to the full moon. We call that period the waxing moon.

For the next two weeks, the moon shrinks, or wanes, from full to a thin crescent. The next day, the moon is new, and the cycle begins again.

The next waxing moon occurs between March 13-28. Perhaps you fishers will go out and try to verify the OFA’s claims. Until then, I’ll stand by my original explanation.

Since Switzer’s phone call, I’ve collected many tidbits of lunar lore. Many of them have to do with agriculture’s connection with the waxing and waning moon.

Sowing should occur during a waxing moon. Harvesting should happen during a waning moon. However, that “rule” is true only for crops that produce an above-ground yield. Root vegetables like potatoes and onions should be planted during a waning moon.

Fruit should be picked during the fall harvest’s waning moon so that any bruises will dry rather than rot. For the same reason, trees harvested for firewood during a waxing moon will rot rather than dry.

Apparently, the soil out of which those plants come is also affected by the lunar cycle. If you dig a hole during a waxing moon, the amount of soil will increase. You will have dirt left over when you try to fill it again.

If you dig the same hole during a waning moon, the quantity of soil will decrease. You won’t be able to fill the hole using the same soil.

The moon even seems to affect the weather. An old legend predicts how many snowfalls will occur each winter. Note the date of the first snowfall. Now check how many days after the new moon it occurred. The number of days will tell you how many snowfalls will occur. A five-day-old moon means five snowfalls, for example.

Apparently, the moon’s phases also affect the human metabolism. Cut your nails during a waxing moon, and they will grow back faster than if you cut them during a waning moon.

The most terrifying effect on human metabolism in lunar lore is lycanthropy, the werewolf syndrome. In several cultures throughout the planet, people believed that the full moon’s light has the power to turn humans into night-stalking wolves that feed on human prey. In some cultures, the wolves are replaced by bears, tigers or leopards.

And then there’s lunacy. Looking too long at the full moon is supposed to produce some form of temporary or permanent insanity.

In that regard, many people believe that a full-moon night leads to increases in criminality, hospital admittance, automobile accidents, suicides, crisis-center calls, and generally crazy, “lunatic” behavior.

In fact, the term “lunatic” hearkens back to the Roman moon goddess Luna. Her previous Greek name was Selene, a form of which occurs twice in the New Testament book of Matthew.

Here’s the story. A man comes to Jesus and asks for help for his son, who “has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water.”

The Greek word that Matthew uses for the son’s affliction is “seleniazetai,” which can be loosely translated as “moonstruck.”

To Matthew, the son is possessed by demons, but to our modern eye, the poor child has epilepsy.

What lunar effect could cause such afflictions? As early as the classical period, first the Greek philosopher Aristotle and later the Roman natural scientist Pliny the Elder blamed the moon’s tidal forces and their effect on the human body.

The myth persists to this day. For example, Miami psychiatrist Arnold Lieber speculated that the full moon’s supposed effects on human behavior arise from the moon’s gravity and the tidal force gravity creates within the human body.

After all, isn’t the human body made up mostly of water? Doesn’t the moon’s gravity cause tides in large bodies of water on Earth? Perhaps in some unexplained way, the moon’s gravity disrupts the organization of water molecules in the nervous system.

The facts rule out such speculations. The moon’s gravitational effect on the entire Earth cannot be downsized to a human body. As astronomer George Abell of the University of California, Los Angeles, pointed out, a mosquito sitting on your arm exerts a more powerful gravitational pull on you than the moon does. Abell rather sardonically notes the dearth of “mosquito lunacy effect” reports.

As for strange behavior during a full moon, statistical studies suggest otherwise. Most studies that try to connect accidents, suicides, hospital admittance, and the like to the full moon end up showing no connection.

The scattered few that do show a connection are often fundamentally flawed. A case in point is a study from 1982 described in Scientific American magazine. The study claims to show that traffic accidents increased during full-moon nights.

Critics pointed out that during the study period, many of the full moons occurred on weekend nights. During the weekend, more people are on the road.

Also, more people tend to drive “under the influence” on weekend nights. The full moon had little or nothing to do with it.

If the moon does indeed have any connection with criminality and strange behavior, we don’t need anything as esoteric as tidal forces to explain it. If you’re going to do something crazy or illegal at night, it’s helpful to have the light of the full moon to do it by.

I can hear some of you thinking, “But I’ve seen people do crazy things during a full moon.” I have myself seen wild student behavior and thought, “There must be a full moon tonight.”

Such misperceptions are caused by what psychologists call “illusory correlation.” Let’s face it. We tend to notice odd events and let normal ones slide right past us.

I have osteoarthritis in my knees. As I am walking about and staring at the full moon, I am likely to remember the acute pain in my knee. I am less likely to remember all the times I saw the full moon and didn’t have any pain.

Another example is our preoccupation with the so-called Supermoon, the night when the full moon is closest to the Earth and supposedly looks larger.

I usually go out on such nights. As my neighbors and I stare at the rising moon, they are often amazed at how big the moon looks as it rises.

Here’s a fact. The moon always looks huge as it rises because it is close to the horizon. Astronomers call the phenomenon the “moon illusion.”

I had seen the previous month’s full moon. My neighbors had not. The current one doesn’t look much bigger to me. My neighbors have only one experience of the full moon rising, so its size is a surprise to them.

Another factor contributing to our belief in lunar superstitions is their prevalence in movies and other media. For example, our cultural fascination with werewolves probably would have faded and died without their memorable presence in over 150 werewolf films.

Who can forget Lon Chaney’s stunning transformation into the Wolf Man in the 1943 movie? Who can forget the dark clouds passing in front of the full moon as hair grows on his tormented face?

Not all lunar associations are so unpleasant. In days long gone, people associated the full moon with romance for an excellent reason. The moon’s light provided illumination for nocturnal rendezvouses.

The growth of outside lighting has made such selenic illumination unnecessary. Yet the association of the moon with romance persists “by the light of the silvery moon.” Some of our old traditions — rational or irrational, lunar or otherwise — are worth preserving because they are woven so deeply into the human heart.

By Tom Burns


Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.

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