The Moon promised to give light after the Sun had run his diurnal course; and she said also that she had already given birth to Silence and Sleep.’(Corpus Hermetica, EXC. XXIII. Isis to Horus)
Compared to the relatively simple annual oscillating motion of the Sun, the apparent motion and cycles of the Moon are complex. The ancients spend much time and effort trying to capture the precise lunar cycles. Unlike solar observations that required long-term observations from one determined location, the lunar phases can be observed by everyone and from anywhere – it is a truly universal index. Despite the complex movements of the Moon, lunar observation and lunar calendars predate all solar forms of astronomy. Long before the solar year was recognized, prehistoric man had awoken to the lunar month as evident in Paleolithic bone and stone artifacts that display notches for tallying the days between successive new moons. The Moon in this sense was the mother of astronomy, the “hook of consciousness” that turned the Paleolithic mind upward towards the sky in an attempt to better understand one’s role and place within the universe.
Like the Sun, the diameter of the Moon disc is 32 arc minutes seen from Earth. This is a truly wondrous phenomenon in our solar system; the Sun and Moon as seen from our vantage point are the same size, when in fact the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times that of the Moon.
Lunar Phases and the Synodic Cycle:
The most obvious lunar cycle is the 29.5 days it takes to complete a lunation (from New Moon to New Moon, or from Full Moon to Full Moon). This lunation (or synodic) cycle is the reason that our months average 30 days…after all the etymology of the word ‘month’ derives from ‘Moon”. The 4 weeks in a month are also related to this cycle since each quarter of the Moon (New, First Quarter, Full, and Last Quarter ) lasts approximately 7 days.
The phases themselves result from the exposure of the terrestrial observer to different percentages of the sunlit portion of the moon. The diagram below demonstrates how the reflected sunlight contributes to the lunar phases (the outer circle is the Moon position relative to the Sun, and the inner circle are the phases as seen from earth).
Lunar months and Solar Years – Lunisolar synchronization:
Since twelve synodic months (354 days) are about eleven days shorter than the solar year (365¼ days), a thirteenth moon accumulates roughly every three years. For the cultures that attributed lunar months to agricultural seasons, this thirteenth blue moon created a potentially catastrophic problem.
Without the insertion of an intercalary period of extra days added to the calendar to account for the difference between the solar and lunar cycles, the seasons would arrive “earlier” with each passing year, resulting in a disjunction between the months and the solar periods they are intended to approximate. Important agricultural events would then occur out-of-season (i.e., harvesting or planting too early). The ability to calculate and insert intercalary periods is essential in all lunisolar calendars to maintain the anticipatory nature of the calendar, which otherwise would become random and chaotic. For early man, knowledge of this intercalary period was a source of esoteric knowledge guarded by the religious-political elite and was disseminated to the populace during luni-solar festivals as a means to re-assert the power of the ruling elite over the cosmos.
The intercalary period can take the form of 11-days added to each year, or an entire 33-day month added every three years. The Hebrew, Greeks, and pre-Julian Roman calendar opted for the extra month every third year.
A continuous 12 lunation calendar with no intercalary periods, such as Islamic calendar, will re-coincide with the solar year every 33 years. Thus, every 33 years the luni-solar cycle is completed bringing the lunar months back in sync with the solar seasons. This system functions for the Islamic calendar because the religious lunar calendar is kept alongside a separate civic solar calendar.
Sidereal Lunar Cycle:
The interval between successive passages of the moon by the same star is called a sidereal month (from Lat. siderus , ‘star’). This cycle measures months by stars, in many respects it is the lunar version of the solar cycle measured by the zodiacal constellations. The sidereal period is approximated at 27.33 days as the amount of time it takes to Moon to return to the same star. Because of the fractional number of days, the Moon returns to the same star at different hours in the day (1/3 day, or 8hrs, later). So, if the Moon is observed passing the bright star Aldebaran at midnight, the following sidereal month, the Moon will pass Aldebaran at 8 a .m. when it is not visible due to sunlight. For this reason, the sidereal month was often measured as a fixed period of 28 days to ensure that the Moon has passed the star in question by the time of sunset.
28 Mansions of the Moon – the Lunar Zodiac:
Ancient astronomers also defined a lunar zodiac similar to the solar zodiac of 12 constellations. The lunar zodiac divided the lunar ecliptic into 28 equal constellations, each corresponding to one day in the sidereal period of the Moon(27.33 days). These lunar constellations were called the Mansions of the Moon, and each corresponds to approximately 13 degrees (12.86) of the lunar ecliptic circle. The mansions are further divided into four quarters, called the Quarters of Heaven, that approximate the sidereal movement of the Moon in a week.
In Islamic traditions, the 28 Mansions of the Moon were marked by prominent stars and each mansion corresponds to the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet. Early Islamic divisions of the 28 Mansions were not uniform, each Lunar Mansions ranged from 3 to 27 degrees.
The Picatrix discusses the use of Lunar Mansions for Talismanic Magic. The relevant section can be viewed by following the link: Picatrix on Talismanic Magic and the 28 Mansions.
Lunar Ecliptic, the Lunar Nodes, and the Draconic Year:
While the ecliptic of the Sun lies at an approximate 23.5 degree angle from the Celestial Equator, the lunar ecliptic is further inclined by 5.1 degrees. The points where the lunar ecliptic intersect the solar ecliptic are called the Lunar Nodes. The Nodes take a period of 18.6 years to complete one cycle around the ecliptic. This period is called a Draconic Year (18.6 years or 6,794 days) since the ancients identified the ecliptic (both solar and lunar) with a dragon or serpent. Hence, the north node is called the Dragon’s Head () and the south node, the Dragon’s Tail ().
Twice every Draconic Year the Lunar Nodes coincide with the vernal and autumnal equinox points of the Solar ecliptic (VE and AE in diagram above). This event happens around winter and summer solstice when the Moon achieves a maximum (+/- 28.6 degrees from the east/west axis) and minimum (+/- 18.4 degrees) extreme as seen in Positional Astronomy. These extremes are also called lunar standstills and are the Moon’s equivalent to the Sun’s solstices.
The Moon and Saturn:
The Moon and Saturn are synergistic in a way, ruling the Capricorn/Cancer axis in Traditional Astrology. Thus, the extremes of the solar cycle are thereby governed by these two planets as the Moon rules the constellation of the summer solstice, while Saturn rules the constellation of winter solstice. Furthermore, of the classical planets and depending on the perspective taken Saturn can be the first or last planet…same with the Moon. This brings us to the basic principle whereby the Alpha is the Omega and underlines the synergy between Moon and Saturn.
Saturn’s cycles mimics the Moon’s but at different magnitudes. While it takes the Moon 29.5 days to complete a lunation, Saturn takes 29.5 years to complete a cycle around the zodiac. Because Saturn spends approximately 2.46 years in each of the twelve constellations of the zodiac, one Saturn “month” (or period it takes Saturn to traverse one constellation) happens every 29 to 30 lunations. Thus the 29 to 30 day lunar months of the solar cycle are reflected at a higher magnitude in the 29 to 30 lunation “months” of the Saturnine cycle. A Saturn “year” brings us full circle as it is composed of 360 lunations.
The Moon and the Rabbit:
For many ancient cultures (Egyptians, Romans, Chinese, Ancient Americans. and others) a rabbit or a hare adorned the face of the moon. This association likely resulted from the parallel gestation period for rabbits/hares and the length of the lunation cycle. The Egyptian word for hare, Un, meant “opener” and “cycle”. This was also related to the fact that hare’s are born with there eyes open. But from an initiatic standpoint we find a direct allusion to the Moon as the “hook of consciousness”; comprehending the lunar cycles being the first step towards realizing (“opening” our consciousness to) greater astronomic truths.
Modern day Easter, in all its material trappings of Western capitalism is nonetheless a reminder of the Traditional associations between the Moon and the Rabbit/Hare. What is the Easter Bunny, if not a direct reference to the Rabbit on the Moon, which of course is visible on Easter since the holiday corresponds to the first Sunday after the full Moon closest to equinox.