This year, the Harvest Moon rises today, Friday the 13th September. But why was this particular moon so special to ancient cultures?
The brilliant Harvest Moon will appear tonight and will reach its fullest at 12:33 a.m. EDT on Saturday 14th. For several nights leading up to the Harvest Moon, the moon appears just after sunset, which enabled ancient farmers to harvest their summer-grown crops into the night, hence: a “Harvest” Moon!
Every year, there are just a little over 12 complete moon cycles, averaging about 29.53 days in a synodic month, and throughout the year the Moon rises an average of about 50 minutes later each day but nearing the autumnal equinox that difference is only about 30 minutes.
The phases of the Moon as viewed looking southward from the Northern Hemisphere. (Orion 8 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
What is the Harvest Moon?
The Harvest Moon stands apart from the other names given to full moons because it is not actually associated with a specific month, but it’s the full moon that occurs closest to the autumnal or vernal equinox (September 22 or 23), so depending on the year, the Harvest Moon might occur in either September or October.
According to astronomy author Guy Ottewell in his brilliantly user friendly book The Astronomical Companion , the name “Harvest Moon” originated in Europe where it was seen rising 10 to 20 minutes later each night. This means that just when the days were shortening towards the end of the year, the light of the Harvest Moon extended the hours that harvesting could be undertaken.
Avoiding Rain And Rot With The Moon
Native South American peoples named each month’s full moon after a natural event or sign associated with the season. In ancient Colombia, where the indigenous Muisca people planted seeds according to the lunar cycle, their entire number system was derived from it. For example, the 20th lunar month was called “Gueta” which means frog, and when frogs sounded it indicated the rainy season had arrived and harvesting was undertaken accordingly.
A report in USA Today speaks with Alan MacRobert, an editor at Sky & Telescope magazine, and he affirms that last point by explaining that “in the days before tractors with headlights, having moonlight to work by was crucial to getting the harvest in quickly before rain caused it to rot”.
The fullness of the Harvest Moon allowed farmers to harvest into the night. (Szilas / Public Domain )
In North America, according to an article on Almanac.com, alternative full moon names for this month include: “Moon When the Plums Are Scarlet” by the Lakota Sioux; “Moon When the Deer Paw the Earth” by the Omaha; and “Moon When the Calves Grow Hair” by the Sioux. And if the Harvest Moon occurred in September it symbolically replaced what was known as the Full Corn or Barley Moon, and in October it replaces the Full Hunter’s Moon .
Having looked at the practical applications of changing moonlight, in symbolic, metaphorical and mythological terms worshiping the moon required its personification and that deity was linked with the basic rhythms and changes of life. The cyclical process of the moon and its disappearance for the three days of darkness after a lunar eclipse led it to be associated with the otherworld and the place where souls ascended after death, before being reborn, which lead to associations between the moon and fate.
The sun god Ra, in the form of great cat, slays the snake Apep, the moon. Legend states that every day Apep must lay below the horizon and not persist in the mortal kingdom. But Apep comes out at night and lurks just before dawn. (DingirXul / Public Domain )
Another Almanac.com article explains how during the three days of darkness, many ancient cultures mythologies accounted for this with battles between a moon devouring monster who eventually regurgitates and revives the moon.
Many Neopagan religious and spiritual traditions worship a Triple Moon Goddess, or three distinct aspects of the moon, most often perceived as a maiden, mother, and crone. While these three aspects are symbolic of the three key stages of the female lifecycle they were often applied to the three cosmic layers of heaven, earth, and the underworld. And this is why the Moon goddess ‘s sacred number is also the number associated with the underworld: ‘three’.
The triple Hecate, symbolic of the three phases of the moon. (Eloquence / Public Domain )
The Triple Moon Archetype
In their 1949 book Science of Mythology: the Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis authors Carl Jung and Karl Kerényi wrote of the Triple Goddess as an “archetype arising at the most primitive level of human mental development and culture”. The years threefold division, according to Jung, is inextricably bound up with the primitive form of the Greek goddess Demeter, who was also Hecate, and Hecate could claim to be “mistress of the three realms” and that her relations to the moon, corn, and the realm of the dead are “ three fundamental traits in her nature”.
Returning to the Muisca people in Colombia, they also worshiped the moon in three aspects: Huitaca, a young rebelling goddess, Chia was the full moon goddess, and Bachue was an old and wise mother goddess. But in hard reality, beneath the maiden, mother, and crone archetypes, the primary reason the moon manifests in three aspects in world mythology and religion, is because looking up at night anywhere in the world, we see a waxing, full, and waning moon, which are the original maiden, mother, and crone.
Statue of Chía, she was the full Moon goddess to the Muisca people . (Andruvv / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Top image: The Harvest Moon. Source: klagyivik / Adobe Stock.
By Ashley Cowie