The Art Of Moonlight

Here we reflect on the meanings, significations and cultural rituals connected to September’s full moon.

To mark the fullest and brightest of all the moon cycles, Ted Hughes wrote of the sight that befell his eyes come Autumn in his now-famous poem: “To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon,” he wrote, “The harvest moon has come.” Rich in light, its beauty has long been a source of fascination.

For millennia, our connection to the moon’s gravitational pull has seen us observe it curiously. Pliny the Elder observed that, in combination with the sun, the moon draws up the tides. He theorised that a ‘lunar force’ pulls on the moisture in our bodies and thought it to cause everything from epilepsy to ‘lunacy’. But it’s most often seen as divinely feminine: the female cycles connect with the moon’s journey. Its shape from a slither crescent to a full round is often associated with childbirth and pregnancy.

The Autumn moon has a particular meaning in Japan, bringing with it a melancholic beauty in the passing of the year. Woodblock artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi produced the series of woodcut prints One Hundred Aspects of the Moon in the1880s, with figures from both Japanese and Chinese mythology at its centre. His work focused on a much older tradition of tsukimi, in which the September moon invited special viewing parties that were celebrated with music and poetry readings.

Across East Asia, many countries celebrate a moon festival that coincides with the full moon on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. Ceremonies are held both to give thanks for the harvest and to encourage the harvest-giving light to return in the coming year – but they are often charged with feminine energy. It’s a time of rich storytelling in honour of the moon goddess Ch’ang-O: a young wife who drank an immortal elixir intended for her husband and floated, in full luminance, to the moon. In Chinese cultural mythology, she resides in her lunar palace alongside the jade rabbit mixing the elixir of life.

But, according to Guy Ottewell, author of The Astronomical Companion, the idea of the Harvest Moon originated in Europe (average latitude about 50 degrees north). Around the Autumnal equinox, the full moon rises only 10 to 20 minutes later each night, shortly after sunset, for several evenings in succession – this circumstance gives rise to a series of brilliantly lit nights.

“Everyone who can, go out into the country, away from city lights, to make a practice of watching for its rising,” one author writes of the harvest moon in the late 1800s. “Scarcely has the Sun departed in the west, when the Moon in the east rises from beyond some solitary hill, over a broad lake, or from behind the dark rich foliage of the trees, and sails up into the still and transparent air in the full magnificence of a world.”

It must have seemed a divine intervention: just when days were getting rapidly shorter and the Sun seemed to settle too soon, the Harvest Moon would magically extend the hours that harvesting could be done. “Neath yon lowly roof he lies,” poet Henry Kirke White wrote, “The husbandman, with deep-seal’d eyes: He dreams of crowded barns, and round the yard, he hears the flail resound.” It bred several superstitions: harvest always happened under the light of the full moon. Rural folk bundled wheat on the threshing floor “during the moon’s age” so that it would dry better.

For centuries, night-journeying depended on the phase of the Moon. In Day’s Close: Night in Times Past (2005), historian Roger Ekirch writes of 17th-century travellers relying on almanacs. Old clocks would not only mark hours but also the phases of the moon, so that travellers could plan their journeys and take advantage of its illumination. And thieves sometimes refused to work nights when the ‘tattler’ in the sky might reveal their clandestine activities.

Since the invention of electric lighting, our reliance on moonlight has faded. Many of us live in busy cities, where street lights, chimneys and tower blocks restrain the phenomenon of the moon. Many of the myths and stories, passed down through generations, have been discounted. Perhaps this Harvest Moon, with its rays of reflection, might mirror and illuminate our past, present and future. We invite you to give thanks and celebrate the Harvest season ahead beneath the light of this watery moon.