Sunday, 12 August 2007

The moon, meteors and myths

The moon and meteors have long been the subject of myths: for thousands of years cultures have studied the stars and been ruled by their movement. Terrestrial travellers throughout the world used the stars and the moon to guide them, seafarers navigated by the constellations.

Historically farmers have grown crops according to the phases of the moon. Wheat was sown during the waxing of the moon and small holders planted their peas: all above ground crops. When the moon was waning however, it was the time to sow root crops and trees.

Now, when tending their vines, winemakers of the New World are considering the lunar activity that ancient viniculture abided by: full circle. They are harvesting their grapes as close to the full moon as possible in order that the fruit is full of moisture and flavour.

And it's not such a daft idea: after all, it's the gravitational interaction between the Earth and the moon that causes the tides to change and similarly the moon affects moisture in the soil. Depending on whether the moon is waxing or waning, so light is increasing or decreasing, affecting plant growth.

In the 20th century interest was renewed when Rudolph Steiner encouraged such biodynamic agricultural techniques as planting according to the moon's phases: it seems that seeds germinate more quickly if planted at full moon. But you ask any countryman about when to grow fruit and veg and he'll spout planting and gathering times based on the lunar calendar that were part of folklore long before Steiner gave it any scientific credentials.

The Romans were heavily into the lunar calendar as we all know and belief in the mythical powers of the planets and stars is still with us in the 21st century: so strong is it that we even organize our lives by consulting the twelve constellations of the Zodiac on a daily basis. What star sign are you? is one of the most popular openers for women (in particular) on speed dates and many have been know to reject a partner on the strength of his perceived personality: in some cultures a potential bride or groom can be rejected after consulting the stars for fear of an inauspicious match.

For more down-to-earth types however, tonight, Sunday, after midnight, there will be a spectacular shower of shooting stars through the British skies: the Perseid meteor shower occurs every year around the time of the St Lawrence's feast day on 10th August (Romans again). The show has already begun but will peak tonight. A new moon – a darker sky – should help us see the spectacle more clearly: that and the absence of light pollution.

Killjoy, I hear you groan, why mention pollution. Why can't you just celebrate this wonderful astronomical phenomenon without recourse to green issues: quite simply, because light pollution of our night skies may stop us seeing this colourful cabaret.

Light pollution is the adverse affect of artificial light on the night sky: in many cities throughout the world only the brightest of the planets and the moon are now visible. In our village we boast of having a clear night sky: there are no street lights or large illuminated signs so astronomers travel miles to study the stars on the elevated Common. But in the distance there can be seen sky glow from the nearby town and it's creeping ever nearer.

So what? Well, light pollution affects us all, star gazer or not. Lighting burns money and it uses up our natural energy resources: it harms nocturnal wildlife and it destroys our night skies which is a crying shame. There is nothing like walking home from the pub on a chilly evening under a starry, starry night: nothing more wonderful that going out into the garden after a warm day, when there's not a cloud in the sky, and seeing above you a canopy of stars. It's apt to stir mystical or philosophical (or romantic!) thoughts depending on character (or company).

Down in Devon this spring, my sister-in-law brought out her telescope. She said that it was an excellent evening to see the rings round Saturn and the mountains on the moon: sensational and spooky both. They too live in a village with an unpolluted night sky and the clarity of the images was extraordinary.

If only every night sky was as clear: it actually takes very little – and costs next to nothing - to cut light pollution in residential areas and so increase visibility. When some town dwellers move to the countryside they feel insecure without street lights, but country dwellers know that a torch is all that's necessary to find your way. And lights on gateways or porches have simply to be changed to lower wattage, put on a time switch and, most importantly, designed with a narrow beam angled downwards to minimise the affect of pollution.

The stars and the moon and the sky: we can make or mar magic.


Book Note: books on mythology abound and it’s a fascinating subject. Two of the books I used when researching myths for my novel were The Myths of Greece and Rome by H A Guerber - because it was published in 1907 and therefore reflected the presentation of them at that time - and African Mythology by Geoffrey Parrinder because it included myths that linked the coming of death with the waxing and waning of the moon (go to for more South African myths)

In the same Paul Hamlyn series are books about Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Oceanic and American Indian mythology and I can bet there are myths about the moon and the stars in all of them.

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