Ah that full-bellied moon she’s a shining on me*

by chuckofish

When I took a walk this morning quite early (6:30!) the moon was still visible.

painting by Thomas van Stein

painting by Thomas van Stein

And it got me thinking about a curious piece of folklore that I recently came across; namely, that some women (usually witches) have the power to “draw down the moon.” The earliest reference to this phenomenon that I’ve encountered is in a 7th century BC Neo-Assyrian letter in which the writer denounces some Syrians to the king, claiming that:

Zazâ, the wife of Tarṣî, and her sons should not be kept alive, O king, my lord! The priest is a brother-in-law of Tarṣî. Their wives bring down the moon from the sky!

Interestingly, the notion that sorceresses can bring down the moon also appears in Greek and Roman tradition. Thessalian women were particularly associated with the act. In Aristophanes’ play, Clouds (lines 749-56), one character says, “I would buy a witch woman, a Thessalian, and take down the moon at night. Then I’d shut it up in a round box like a face mirror, and then I’d keep it there.”

Aglaonike, a Thessalian 'astronomer'

Aglaonike, a Thessalian ‘astronomer’

Plato, Plutarch, Livy and others repeat similar stories. Lucan references it in his Pharsalia:

Magic the starry lamps from the heaven can tear,

And shoot them gleaming through the dusky air;

Can blot fair Cynthia’s countenance serene,

And poison with foul spells the silver queen….

Till down, and downward still, compell’d to come,

On hallow’d herbs she sheds her fatal foam.

The image persisted into the modern age. Extolling the wonders of the telescope in 1859, the amateur astronomer, poet, and right Reverend Jeremiah Horrox wrote:

…Blest with this (telescope)

Thou shalt draw down the moon from heaven and give

Our earth to the celestial spheres and fix

Each orb in its own ordered place to run

Its course sublime in strict analogy.

It’s funny how traditions and imagery get transferred and transformed over time. There are loads of similar examples. For instance, the word Abracadabra is very, very old and started life as a potent ancient spell against fever. There really is very little new under the sun!

I leave you with this joyous video of the Icelandic commentator describing the winning goal in the final minute of the game (sorry the video is blurry). His reaction perfectly captures how happy I feel about England’s exit from the EU (it’s about time).

  • The Moon Song, Gregory Alan Isakov