What Would You Call This Moon?

by Vicki Garlock on November 18, 2013

Full Moon2010

Full Moon
Wikimedia Commons: Gregory H. Revera

We are currently experiencing a full moon. It’s not a particularly mind-bending experience for grown-ups. It’s been happening about every 29 days for our entire lives. On any given day, we probably fail to notice the moon at all, regardless of its phase. I spend much of my “outside time” driving kids around town to various activities. My steering ability declines dramatically when I’m trying to look up at the sky through the driver’s-side window, so I can easily go several days without even seeing the moon.

In contrast, kids love the moon. It’s right up there with dinosaurs and ponies. Nearly every young child has noticed that the moon “follows you,” or that there is an apparent image of a human face on the moon’s surface. As usual, kids are no idiots. For a rock that doesn’t even emit its own light, the moon is pretty amazing. Scientists estimate that it’s about 4.5 billion years old. It takes 13 hours to reach the moon in a rocket. Besides earth, it’s the only astronomical object that people have visited. Lunar calendars are based on the moon. The word “lunacy” comes from the Latin word for moon (luna). And we have physical evidence that humans recorded moon phases as early as 20,000-30,000 years ago.

Naming the full moons may also be an age-old activity. By the early 1700s, the Oxford English Dictionary contained entries of both the Harvest Moon and the Hunter’s Moon, suggesting usage among “country people.” The Harvest Moon was defined as the full moon closest to the autumn equinox (which occurs in September). The Hunter’s Moon was the full moon after that (usually in October). Supposedly, there have long been names for other full moons, but almost no physical records of the practice exist.

The full moon names most familiar to us are generally attributed to American Indians, but it’s not clear how widespread the practice was. What seems more clear is that there were no standard procedures. There may have been 12 or 13 full moon names, depending on how the year was calculated by a particular tribe. The full moon names may have followed the seasons – or not. Or, the names may have even reflected specific annual events associated with that moon. In any case, it is fairly certain that people in different parts of the world were using different names.

Even the Blue Moon moniker is muddled. It was originally described in the Maine Farmers’ Almanac as the fourth full moon in a single season (as defined by the solstices and equinoxes). In 1946, someone at Sky and Telescope misinterpreted the term, defining the Blue Moon as the second full moon in a single calendar month. For some reason, the Sky and Telescope definition stuck among lay people. Astronomical types tend to opt for the original definition.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac still publishes a list of full moon names, apparently taken from the Algonquin tribe. It’s fairly easy to discern the possible source for each name. A few examples from that list are shown below.

January = Wolf Moon

February = Snow Moon

March = Worm Moon

June = Strawberry Moon

July = Buck Moon

In some ways, it makes sense that the moon would defy precise designations. Her appearance, after all, is constantly changing. And this variability provides a great opportunity for families. If no one’s quite sure what the proper full moon names are, then we’re free to make them up!

For many of us, connecting with the divine involves staying connected with nature. The full moon is such an amazing phenomenon because what we see today is literally the exact same thing that our ancestors saw thousands of years ago. I fully support taking your kids to a pagan full moon ritual, and I heartily commend parents who are interested in creating a full moon ritual for their families. But I’m here to suggest something way easier. Simply ask your kids to look up to the sky – about once every 29 days – and name the full moon. You never know, the name might stick.


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