Since ancient times the moon—that seemingly simple, piercingly bright shape in the sky—has taunted humankind to understand it and push back the barriers of their imagination. Myths and legends about the moon have abounded in almost every culture and society around the world as people have tried to place their finger on this celestial body that appears close, but in reality remains much more than a night away.
Europa, the Cretan moon goddess, was adopted into Greek mythology. Zeus in the form of a white bull came to her one day and took her away to produce offspring with her. Her name is the only attribute that hints at that planet. Another character in Greek mythology, Selene, meaning moon in Greek, was the moon in the form of a goddess. She is also worshiped as Luna in the ancient Roman religion. Both Greek and Roman citizens worshiped her during full and new moons in temples dedicated to her; she was often represented as a lady with an image most often of a crescent on her head and driving a chariot with two horses.
Selena was the daughter of the great Titan gods, Hyperion and Theia. Her brother was the sun god Helios, and her sister was Eos, also known as Dawn. In the fifth century she was sometimes referred to as Artemis or Phoebe, which means “the bright one.” The Romans built temples to her as Luna on the Aventine and Palantine hills in Rome.
Another culture from around the world that has a moon-myth is the Native Americans, specifically the Cherokees. They tell a story about Sun, a young woman who lived in the east, and her brother, Moon, who lived in the west. The woman had a lover who courted her every month when the moon was dark; he came at night and left before dawn. Sun could not see his face, and he would not tell her his name, so she did not know the identity of her lover. One night she grew weary of guessing and dipped her hand into the ashes of the fireplace and rubbed them on his face without him knowing.
When Moon rose the next night, he had spots on his face and Sun, his sister, realized that he was her lover. Moon was so embarrassed at the truth that he kept as far away from her that he could in the sky and sometimes tried not to be seen at all, shrinking to what looked like a sliver of a fingernail.
The Chinese tell the Legend of the Jade Rabbit, at the Chinese Moon Festival which takes place in mid-autumn. At this event families congregate to devour “moon cakes” and regale each other with stories and tales about the earth’s smaller sister.
The story of Jade Rabbit is about three wise men with magical abilities who wanted to test the virtue of a fox, monkey, and rabbit. To do this the men turn into despairing old beggars and ask the three animals for food. Even though the fox and monkey have more food than they need, they refuse to share. The rabbit, however, who is almost as destitute as the beggars, selflessly offers his own tasty body when he jumps into a flame to roast himself. The three men, who do not actually need food, are so awed and overwhelmed by the rabbit’s sacrifice that they give him immorality and send him to live in a palace on the moon as Jade Rabbit. Many other cultures around the world have their own myths about the mysterious planet that encircles are own and beliefs spun from their imaginations to banish the secrets of space.
By Rachel Fike