As last week we had what astronomers claim will be the longest lunar eclipse this century, we took a look at what traditional folklore had to say on the subject and came up rather short. For contrary to numerous claims that eclipses provoked fear and terror in our ancestors, it rather seems the case that eclipses were very well understood, and hence as a recognised natural phenomena there is little true folklore about them. However humanity has always been somewhat enchanted by the moon and while there is little lore on lunar eclipses, there is a wide range of folk beliefs concerning the moon.
Now firstly we must remember that as the moon has a regular cycle of waxing and waning, keeping track of the lunar phases formed the basis for many different calendars and methods of long range time-keeping. However another important aspect of our relationship with the moon is its effect on bodies of water. As earlier societies all had to live near water in one form or another, the role of the moon in changing tides was very well understood. Furthermore despite biology and medicine being in their infancy, it was very well recognised that fluid made up most of what we are, and despite that old saying which states that blood is thicker than water, it was recognised that we were indeed mostly water. Hence it was a short but logical leap to assume that the moon perhaps had a similar tidal effect on living beings.
In the classical world we find this theory outlined in Pliny's epic work Natural History, written in AD 77. Our learned sage wrote -
We may certainly conjecture, that the moon is not unjustly regarded as the star of our life. This it is that replenishes the earth, when she approaches it, she fills all bodies, while, when she recedes, she empties them. From this cause it is that shell-fish grow with her increase... also, that the blood of man is increased or diminished in proportion to the quantity of her light.Skipping forward a few centuries, in medieval times we find that the practise of bleeding people to cure disease - with the idea being to literally let out the bad blood - was if you will pardon the pun, a cutting edge medical treatment. And the influence of the moon upon the supposed inner tides of the body was still considered an important factor. In AD 731, the Venerable Bede noted that -
Archbishop Theodore, of blessed memory, said that it was very dangerous to bleed at a time when the light of the moon and the pull of the tide was increasing
the Venerable Bede in Historia Ecclesiatica V III
However we also discover that the power of moon was thought to extend to more than just the blood. Now of course we are all familiar with the folk belief that the moon influences the insane - indeed it is the origin of our word "lunatic". But the moon was thought to have some very far reaching effects indeed. For example, it was thought what phase the moon was in when a child was born would affect its future growth. In his epic tome The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), Reginald Scot wrote -
One borne in the spring of the moone, shalbe healthie; in that time of the wane, when the moone is utterlie decaied, the child then born cannot live
Likewise it was widely thought that it was hazardous to begin weaning a child off its mother's milk while the moon was waning. This piece of lunar folklore, in which the later lunar phases were considered deleterious to health and growth, also lingered for many centuries. And these ideas persisted even into the 19th century. In his 1878 volume English Folk-Lore, T. F. Thiselton Dyer notes -
In Cornwall, when a child is born in the interval between an old moon and the first appearance of the new one, it is said that it will never live to reach puberty. Hence the saying 'No moon, no man'
Naturally similar beliefs existed around the planting and harvesting of crops. However somewhat stranger is a piece of lunar folk wisdom found in a popular weather-forecasting and agricultural handbook, The Husband-man's Practise. For in an edition published in 1673, it is advised in the month of November to
Kill swine in or near the full of the Moon, and the flesh will the better prove in boyling.
And while the moon influencing how your bacon and ham cooks may sound bizarre to us now, this belief evidently proved popular for several centuries. For Robert Forby in his book The Vocabulary of East Anglia, published in 1830 records that -
A very general precaution, to ill hogs in the increase of the moon; because it is 'an admitted fact', that pork, killed in the wane of the moon, shrinks in boiling
I have no idea whether the pork industry still holds to this concept, although one would guess not in these more enlightened times. However maye there is something in it... for it certainly it could explain the variable quality of the bacon in my local supermarket, particularly when large tasty rashers dwindle to half their size in the frying pan!