Reaching for the Moon


The sun and the moon battle it out, riding a lion and a griffin. In alchemical symbolism, the sun signified sulphur, male, the moon mercury, female. From pseudo-Aquinas’ alchemical treatise in Aurora Consurgens (Ms. Rhenoviensis 172, Zentralbibliothek, Zürich, 15th century CE), Fol. 10 Verso.


Sep 2, 2015

Scholarly discourse on the significance of creation myths seems as lacklustre today as ever.

Scores of recurrent themes remain undiscovered or unexplored – mostly buried in dust-gathering reams on forlorn library shelves or in scanned digital books seldom downloaded. This is deplorable, because diligent compilation and investigation of these disparate sources could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of the earth’s recent history. If this sounds like an overstatement, consider that, for all the sophistication of scientific methods to learn about the past, global mythology contains the only vestiges of a living, oral chain of memory stretching all the way back to people who actually lived through these times. Who would reconstruct the scene of an accident without wishing to hear witnesses in their own words, however garbled their testimony may be? The pickings are rich for anyone willing to suspend judgment and distil the common traits of hoary tales of ‘creation’.

In an unpublished manuscript, the controversial multidisciplinarian Immanuel Velikovsky noted: “Many traditions persist that at some time in the past the Moon was much brighter than it is now, and larger in appearance than the Sun.” This is a common motif indeed, of which dozens of hitherto unknown examples have recently come to light. The typical story line is that confusion or rivalry arises between two celestial luminaries in terms of relative brightness and role division, ending in a loss of radiance for what is currently the moon.

For example, people in Nîmes (France) used to say that ‘the moon is a sun which has lost its rays’. In the Provence, soldiers would sometimes remark that ‘the moon is a retired sun’. A Jewish legend said of Sun and Moon: ‘Now both were equal to each other and counted (weighed) as one. … Both were big …’ When the moon beseeched God to make one larger than the other, God retorted: ‘… because you complained about this, go and diminish yourself to a sixtieth of the light of the sun.’

Sunspots and the surface features on the moon are sometimes incorporated in the story as marks resulting from the altercation. The Apayao (northern Luzon, Philippines) implied a greater brilliance of the moon in the past with the following tradition: “Once the sun and the moon had a quarrel. The moon beat the sun with a broom; and so the sun struck the moon with a fire brand giving it a dimmer light and leaving a scar where it struck.” The Pitta-Pitta (around Boulia, Queensland, Australia) similarly seem to have thought that the sun used to be cooler and the moon hotter: “The Sun and the Moon were sisters. … The Moon beat her sister with a lighted fire-stick, and the Sun covered the Moon with hot ashes. Ever since then, the Sun has been very hot all over, and the Moon not so hot.”

The Vusugu (western Kenya), too, allege that the moon’s luminosity originally exceeded that of the sun:

“In the beginning the moon was larger and more luminous than the sun, who is his younger brother. Being envious of the moon and its scintillating power, the sun went to assault the moon. … it was the sun who knocked down the moon, throwing him into the mud. Then he splashed the moon all over with mud to stop him from being resplendent. … from thence forward the sun was to possess light and be brighter than the moon …”

As so often, the plot line does not stand on its own, but ties in with multiple other recurrent elements of creation mythology. The vivid portrayal of the contest between two ‘suns’ in a creation myth from the Bai (southeast China) is placed against the background of primordial darkness and a low sky:

“Old people tell that in the beginning, when heaven was not separated from earth yet, the whole world was veiled in pitch darkness, without form and devoid of creatures such as people or animals. Between heaven and earth there was a vast rolling ocean which was turbulently boiling, spurting up huge waves that violently shook both heaven and earth. One day an enormous tidal blow took place. The roaring breakers leaped skywards and made a big hole in the sky, from which a pair of suns, one big, the other small, bounced out as the tide ebbed away. They chased and dashed against each other like two fireballs, throwing off a shower of sparks that made the whole world shine glowing red. They attacked and attacked each other, spitting sparks that turned into stars bespangling the sky. … Then suddenly the crust of the smaller sun was knocked off and transformed into the moon.”

Some examples reveal that the strife between the two luminaries was resolved not only in terms of relative brightness, but that the distinction between day and night was on that occasion instituted for the first time. From Arlon (Belgian Luxembourg) comes the story that the moon impinged too much on the hours which were allocated to the sun, prompting God to declare: ‘To punish you, you will no longer shine except at night, the time of female rule, and you, Sun, you will illuminate the world during the day’. The following tradition hails from the Ngāti Hinepare subtribe of the Māori (around Napier, New Zealand):

“Some people say that the Sun and Moon disputed; the Sun said they should both go together in the daylight, whilst the Moon said they ought to operate at night. They were both obstinate, till at last the Sun said, ‘Enough! You travel by night so that you may be a light to mankind to make their earth-ovens.’ The Moon replied, ‘A! Go you by daylight so that you may dry women’s menstruous cloths.’”

Furthermore, the theme of the rivalry between the sun and the moon also overlaps with that of stationary suns and a time of lasting daylight. The Ibaloi (northern Luzon, Philippines) informed: “Once the sun and the moon were of equal brightness. Each in turn shined [sic] on the earth, and each in turn shined on the underworld. Therefore it was always day.” The Bontoc, of the same region, alleged “that formerly the moon was also a sun, and at that time it was always day. Lumawig told the moon to be ‘moon’, and then there was night.” And in Aztec lore, the sun and moon of the current era were created by Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl leaping into a fire at Teotihuacan, but they were equal at first:

“Exactly equal had they become in their appearance, as they shone. When the gods saw them, [thus] exactly the same in their aspect, then once more there was deliberation. They said: ‘How may this be, O gods? Will they perchance both together follow the same path? Will they both shine together?’ … Then one of the gods came out running. With a rabbit he came to wound in the face this Tecuciztecatl; with it he darkened his face; he killed its brilliance. Thus doth it appear today.”

A second obstacle was the pair’s initial reluctance to move away from the eastern sky: “And when this was done, when both appeared [over the earth] together, they could, on the other hand, not move nor follow their paths. They could only remain still and motionless.” The situation was remedied by a blast of wind delivered by the god Ehecatl.

Yet another interlocking theme is the excessive heat of a former sun, causing a conflagration on the earth. In a tradition from the Twana (Washington state) it is the moon who fulfilled this part: “Dokibatt … made the moon and sun, the moon first and in the night, intending it to be the sun. In the morning it rose, but it shone too hot and caused the water to boil, killing the fish and also many animals on land, and did much damage generally, so then he made the sun as it now is to rule the day, and condemned the moon to shine at night.” The Tsou (southern central Taiwan) relayed a similar account, in which the lifting of the sky is also integrated:

“At the beginning of the world the heaven was much lower than now, and the moon was much brighter than the sun. Since both the sun and the moon continuously sent their heat to the earth, people felt very uncomfortable. People went out when the weaker sun shone, but even then they still needed sunshades to protect themselves. When the severe sun came out, people could only hide inside their houses. It was so hot that it was difficult for a man and wife to have intercourse, and mankind seemed to be dying out. The Hamo god saw this scene and sympathized very much with the plight of the people. He used both his hands to lift heaven up to its present height …”

Shooting excess suns is another theme, itself widespread, which is frequently combined with the origin of Sun and Moon. To cite but one from myriad examples, the Udege (southeastern Siberia) identified the hunter Adyga as the man responsible for thus ending an oppressive drought caused by two suns hanging low in the sky, turning one into the moon:

“In those far-off times there were two suns in the sky. And those two suns pressed down upon the land, withered the trees and parched the grass; streams ran dry and even the mighty Amur gurgled its complaint against its stones … The two suns never rose high in the sky, they would hang sullenly upon the crest of a distant hill. One day, as the sun brothers mounted the hill and stood defiantly above it, Adyga drew back his bow, saying: ‘Fly my arrow straight and true; pierce the sun’s unyielding heart. You are our only hope.’ With a shrill whistle, the arrow sped straight to its mark and vanished into the burning soul of one of the suns. A great rumbling was to be heard as if the earth were turning over; and the wounded sun turned a deathly pale. It formed the moon.”

Finally, the ‘confused’ sun and moon appear in conjunction with sky pillars of axis mundi type. This is illustrated in the Finnish Kalevala, in which replacements for the real sun and moon, which had vanished, were formed the wrong way around and stuck on two trees:

“And he made a moon, a gold one,
And a new sun made of silver …

But he did lift up the moon
And he did set up the sun
Since the moon is on the fir tip
And the sun upon the pinetop –
But the moon, it does not glimmer,
And the sun, it does not shine …”

Even the above spate of material only scratches the surface of a truly ubiquitous ‘mythologem’. But what was its source? It would seem lunacy to suggest that the stories were concocted purely to account for the dark regions on the moon; the cross-cultural consistency of the associated themes enumerated above requires a complex prototype in the real world.

To a catastrophist, it seems irrefutable that the stories commemorate some extraordinary event that happened in the sky many moons ago. If taken literally, how could the moon possibly have outshone the sun? Could it be that, once in a blue moon, spectacularly turbulent conditions – such as solar superstorms or extraordinary cometary activity – somehow cause this to happen?

In the 1950s, evidence emerged that the observable moonlight is not solely due to scattered sunlight, but also to “photoionization of some of the lunar surface material” by x-rays and corpuscular radiation from the sun, “associated with specific disturbances of the solar surface.” Although the sun is undoubtedly at the basis of variations in lunar luminescence, “the causal relationship between the solar and lunar phenomena is probably not simple, or direct” and the earth’s magnetosphere is fingered as an “intermediary agent which can serve as a ‘go-between’ in this connection”, “the tail of which can actually graze the Moon around the time of the full Moon.” It was suspected that “energy amplification by acceleration of solar protons in the geomagnetic tail of the Earth [sic] may provide one way in which the intensity of lunar transient events occurring in daylight (and, particularly, around the time of full Moon) could, perhaps, be reconciled with the observed intensity of the solar wind.” Further discoveries pending, “a transient luminescence of the lunar surface … should now be accepted as a recurrent fact.”

In this light, it would not at all be surprising if extreme solar storms – far more intense than anything witnessed in the past few millennia – could significantly enhance lunar luminescence. The possibility of a literal interpretation – the sun being dimmer and the moon brighter than normally – thus seems worth reflection, but only in the context of profound geomagnetic turbulence. Could such circumstances even have led to the formation of a temporary plasmasheath in glow mode around our satellite? And would the inevitable interaction of this plasmasphere with the earth’s magnetic tail induce discharges suggestive of fiery barbs, as if some mighty warrior had it in for the moon?

Whether such a scenario is at all feasible or not, the web of correlated themes must be considered as a whole. The ‘two suns’ or ‘sun and moon’ of some myths are structurally identical to the ‘three, four, seven, nine or more suns’ of other myths – and what would those have been? The true sun and moon could not reasonably have been reported to remain stationary in space.

A promising overarching hypothesis is that the earth’s atmosphere was at times compressed and acted as a dielectric medium. In this state, it blocked the actual stars, planets and moon from view and facilitated intense lightning. Magnetospheric or atmospheric plasmoids resulting from z-pinch instabilities in these discharge channels or from other sources could have given the impression of oddly behaving ‘suns’ populating the low and dark sky and its associated axes mundi before the actual celestial bodies regained visibility. If such a spectacular pageant could have unfolded in the ancient sky, it would assuredly have been something new under the sun – though perhaps no reason to be over the moon.

Rens Van Der Sluijs


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