A New Moon

The New Moon is usually and traditionally regarded as a time of new beginnings. The actual beginning of a month (a word related literally to ‘moon’ from the Anglo-Saxon monað) according to different cultures may have been on various dates, but they pretty much all went back to that notion of the renewed moon as it first appeared after the darkness. It’s in analogy to beginning the day at midnight after the Roman custom that the dark-of-moon has become the new moon, but ever indication is that primal calendars all began their months when the new moon first was visible.

There are loads of citations from primary sources I could bring up which would all reiterate the point that the new moon is associated with beginnings, but my point is that this sense of new beginnings cannot be overstressed as it is fundamentally connected to every facet of our lives. One of the most important is in our daily rhythms. Many will be familiar with the fairly old notion that it takes 21 days to form a habit, even though one writer at least argues that science presents a different picture. He says that:

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances. In Lally’s study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit.

Now, this comes after a bit of history explaining how the 21-days idea began to circulate. It’s worth reading if you’ve the time, but the interesting thing I find is that what he considers a problem — that people became convinced that 21 was a ‘magic’ number in forming a habit — is to my thinking a solution, and the clue is in his formulation of a “dangerous lesson,” viz. if enough people say something enough times, then everyone else starts to believe it.

This isn’t a problem. It’s a solution. So many people believed the 21-day theory because it worked. Simply put in the most vulgar, scientifically orthodox way, the likelihood is that you’ve had time to program a behaviour into your subconscious if you do anything every day for 21 days — or 29.53 days by the synodic, lunar month. Mr. Clear’s viewpoint is in agreement with scientific orthodoxy, its fundamental tenet being that science as both a method and a body of knowledge 1) trumps all other ways of knowing and 2) is founded on intellectual meritocracy. As pagans we see things a bit differently because we have a deep intrinsic desire to connect with our forebears and their ways. Even if we accept pagan tradition as nothing more than a complex array of mnemonic devices, it is easy to see how living in a pagan mental landscape would encourage a greater degree of influence over one’s behaviour and by extension one’s world. It is in a word powerful.

To give you some idea of this power in pagan tradition, I’ll list some facts and then a morsel of the Celtic past. First, remember that the moon passes through each of the zodiacal signs during the course of a month, though it’s slightly shorter than the period of its phases. Here’s the basic low-down.

  • It takes on average 27.32 days for the moon to pass through each of the zodiacal signs; this is called the sidereal month. The lunar month is thus a microcosm of the year as a whole.
  • It takes on average 29.53 days for the moon to pass through all of its phases, new moon to new moon; this is called the synodic month.
  • While there is usually only one night where the moon is totally full or totally invisible, it will look full and be very, very hard to find for about three days each.
  • During the course of the sidereal month, the moon enters into geometric relationships with the planets and sun, forming significant angles with them in other signs. These are called aspects, and the time after the last one and when the moon enters the next sign is considered a good time to chill out and not undertake anything in which the stakes are high. In this time the moon is said to be void of course. (Here is one of many sites that give the precise times for them this year.)
  • The orbit of the Moon and Earth are such that the moon rises about forty minutes later each night so that the full moon is always opposite the sun in the sky (i.e. highest at midnight) while the new moon is always in conjunction with the Sun (i.e. highest at noon.)
  • You can always tell that the moon is waxing if the crescent is on the right side, while the crescent bends toward the left when it is waning.

In Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century there was still a strong remnant of the old ways that Alexander Carmichael recorded in his Carmina Gadelica (vols. 1, 2 & 3; Sacred Texts does not have vol. 3 processed at this time of writing). Here is only one of the several relevant passages:

THIS little prayer is said by old men and women in the islands of Barra. When they first see the new moon they make their obeisance to it as to a great chief. The women curtsey gracefully and the men bow low, raising their bonnets reverently. The bow of the men is peculiar, partaking somewhat of the curtsey of the women, the left knee being bent and the right drawn forward towards the middle of the left leg in a curious but not inelegant manner.

The fragment of moon-worship is now a matter of custom rather than of belief, although it exists over the whole British Isles.

In Cornwall the people nod to the new moon and turn silver in their pockets. In Edinburgh cultured men and women turn the rings on their fingers and make their wishes. A young English lady told the writer that she had always been in the habit of bowing to the new moon, till she had been bribed out of it by her father, a clergyman, putting money in her pocket lest her lunar worship should compromise him with his bishop. She naively confessed, however, that among the free mountains of Loch Etive she reverted to the good customs of her fathers, from which she derived great satisfaction!

The passage gives a poem that was often said as well, heavily Christianized as you might expect after a millennium and a half of Christian influence. It was taken and turned into an amazing song by John Renbourn in 1988 on his Ship of Fools album. Here’s the recording:

So start that new resolution on the new moon! Step in to change when you see the Cheshire Cat start to grin, but don’t forget to honour the power behind the moon when you do it!

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