In most stories, the moon is a woman. Often, the sun is a man. Greek mythology has Apollo and Artemis, Roman mythology has Luna and Sol, Slavic mythology has Dazhbog and Jutrobog. In Bali, there’s Dewi Ratih, whose sexual rejection of the giant Kala Rau led to him becoming an immortal floating head that chases the moon across the sky, swallows her whole, and spits her out again. The Mayas thought the phases of the moon were associated with phases of a woman’s life. Chinese mythology includes tales of a lunar deity named Changxi, who gave birth to twelve beautiful daughters who became the twelve months.
Although I’ve come across moon gods as well as moon goddesses, it’s clear to me that the moon is a woman. Her her-ness is right there in the word, full of round letters, soft as breasts and wombs. It sounds like a mother cooing to her baby.
I do not believe womanhood is located in the body. I believe womanhood is a state that one can opt into and out of, that it is culturally coded and culturally enforced. And yet, my own experience of womanhood is tied to my breasts, my womb, my menstrual blood, my mother, and my motherhood. As my body changed from a girl’s to a woman’s, it softened and opened. For a long time, I resisted this—I wanted to be angular and sharp with elbows like arrows and collarbones that cut. I didn’t like the idea of being reduced. That’s what I believed my body was trying to do: reduce me to a biological statement about fertility and purpose. I didn’t know, until I experienced pregnancy myself, how much you can gain from your body, how much beauty and joy it can give. I didn’t know that I could be like the moon. I didn’t realize I could wax and wane.
In ancient verse, women are often alone. One of the most famous fragments of ancient poetry, sometimes attributed to Sappho, is called the “Midnight Poem.” It consists of just a few short lines and has been translated dozens of times, but the bones of the poem are always the same—a woman, alone, with the moon above. This is Henry Thornton Wharton’s 1887 translation from the original Aeolic Greek:
The moon has set
And the Pleiades;
It is midnight,
The time is going by,
And I sleep alone.
It’s a small poem, a sketch made from a few curved lines. But those strong lines sweep without hesitation. They gesture toward an experience that feels, in my marrow, familiar. I, too, have been alone with the moon. Like Elizabeth Bishop, who based her poem “Insomnia” on this tiny verse, we have had so many sleepless nights, the moon and I, both of us “by the Universe deserted,” as Bishop writes. Insomnia is a lonely condition, particularly if you’re sharing a bed with someone. But I learned that it is less lonely if you’re sharing a body with someone, if there’s a pair of small, long feet that sometimes kick your lungs until they ache. It is less lonely if you swell with expectation.
I was twenty-four and drinking too much. I lived in a city that was brick red and too expensive and I slept in an apartment with three other women, none of whom liked each other. I had a job that kept me up late, staring at the pale blue light of a laptop screen, swaddled in my bed, which was also my desk and my kitchen table and my couch.
A man would come visit me after his shift at the bar. He would run the six miles from his part of the city to mine, and throw pebbles at my window. He called me his moon. “Because I only see you at night, and you outshine everything else in my life,” he wrote once on a scrap of notebook paper, wedged under my doorway. It was the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to me.
Months later, he would break up with me. Years later, we would get married. We would make a child. He would never stop calling me his moon. The name was a gift. I had never had a nickname before, at least not one I liked. I had always wanted to be seen that way: nocturnal, luminous, singular.
We see ourselves in the moon. We read its shadows as faces, and with our hubris, we turn the orb into a mirror. “The moon is my mother,” Sylvia Plath once wrote. “She is not sweet like Mary … She is bald and wild.” Some cultures see animals in the moon (in Japanese folklore, it’s a rabbit) but even those animals are personified. The moon-rabbit wound up in the sky because he offered himself as a sacrifice to a hungry beggar. The rabbit gave itself to sustain another, and as a reward, was set upon a pedestal. I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for the things we ask of mothers.
For centuries, people have viewed women’s bodies as contiguous with the moon. It was common belief (still is, in some places) that our menses follow the lunar cycle. The moon waxes and wanes for twenty-eight days. The average cycle of human ovulation follows the same basic structure. Yet the two things do not happen in tandem.
Once, I tried to match my cycle with the moon. I read about how to do this online, and while most sources said it wasn’t really possible, some Wiccan forums advised using a light to trick my inner clock. They suggested using a nightlight on days when the moon is full, and sleeping in absolute, complete darkness (with help from a silk sleep mask) when the moon was gone. The thought was that, by mimicking the experience of sleeping out under the moon, I could nudge my hormones into cycling up with her. We could match, she and I, like coyotes sharing a den. I wanted to feel wild like those strange yellow matriarchal dogs. I was already nocturnal and predatory, like them. I already lived tucked away in the woods. But still, I wanted more wilderness. I wanted more wildness. I wanted to shrug off my own domestication.
I have skylights in my bedroom, and thus I do sleep under the light of the moon. For almost a year, I let her keep me awake at night. In the winter, the light was shockingly bright. It streamed through the bare branches of the trees outside and into my bedroom. I watched the moon move across the sky. I felt the cold blue light filtering through my eyelids, through the neurons of my soft, gray brain, all the way into my pineal gland. I could almost feel the light changing me, shaping my insides, rearranging me on a cellular level. I imagined the moonlight reprogramming my very DNA. Perhaps turning me back into an animal, soft and hairy and moved by instincts. Primal.
Of course, that’s not how it works. Moonlight is romantic. It has mythological power. But its power is a placebo. It’s real only because we want it to be. Faith can sometimes birth a goddess, if it’s strong enough. Even the much-publicized belief that women living in close proximity will sync their cycles through pheromones is overblown. Studies done in the past two decades have shown no evidence for it. Scientists who study these things have cast doubt upon the entire idea of human pheromones. We secrete hormonal messages, maybe, but no one knows if we have receptors for these complex molecules. These theories, exciting as they may sound, may not lead anywhere solid.
When it comes to our bodies, it’s hard to know what’s real. Belief can change the body. Trauma can change our DNA. We know so much about how the human body works, and yet we still know so little. Bodies are murky lakes, especially women’s bodies, understudied as they’ve been.
I didn’t sync with the moon. Maybe someday I’ll try again, once my hormones have resettled and gone back to normal. I haven’t had a proper period in over a year. I don’t know when it will come again. I’ve been disrupted. My moon has gone dark. I used to hate having my period. Now, I miss it. I’ve been eclipsed.
Twelve people have walked on the moon. All of them were men. There have been women in space, but I don’t know any of their names. I only know the name of Laika, the female dog who was sent to space. She died within hours of takeoff. They chose to send a female dog to space because “they were smaller and apparently more docile.”
If you want to see a place where women outnumber men, you’ll have to fly to Jupiter. Jupiter has seventy-nine known moons. They are named for his lovers and his daughters (and a few of his sons and male lovers, but the majority are female). These space stones orbit the king of kings, the god of gods. They are all lesser than him. Lesser still is his wife, the jealous Juno. Juno is the name of a spacecraft that NASA sent to Jupiter to “check up on him.” Juno is also the name of my daughter. Her full name is Juniper, after a witch I once worshipped.
The nurse kept telling me to hold on, just wait, just a little longer. She told me the anesthesiologist was coming soon, my epidural was coming, she said, I just had to wait. The hospital was overwhelmed—too many births at once, too many women in pain. That is why I had been shuttered into a tiny triage room with no bathtub, shower packed full of medical equipment. That was why I was laboring for hours without any medication. That was why there was no one there, yet, to help me. “It’s a full moon,” the nurse told me later, when I was able to hear her again. “Ask any medical professional. Hospitals are always insane on the night of a full moon.”
For the first eight hours of labor, I gasped and choked and vomited all over the medical equipment. I spit water on myself. It was more like an exorcism than I had anticipated. I wasn’t a goddess bringing new life into the world. I was a body possessed by fire, spitting acid. I didn’t scream curses, I just moaned. I mostly asked for help, my husband told me later. “Why won’t anyone help me?” I kept saying.
Finally, someone did. I loved my epidural. After that, everything was quiet. I took a break from labor and lay in the hospital bed for a few hours, unmoving. Then, it was time to push. Forty minutes later, I had a baby on my chest. She was small and red and covered in fine blonde hair. She had long fingernails. Fur and claws.
My doctor was a no-nonsense woman, with blonde hair dyed all one shade and silver glasses. She smiled in a perfunctory way, like she knew that she should smile at patients. She moved quickly. If she wore heels, she would clack brusquely from place to place, but she didn’t wear heels. I found her businesslike manner reassuring. When it comes to doctors, I like a little abruptness. I like them to be blunt and maybe a little rude. It calms me.
But even she attributed some power to the moon. After I had my epidural, there was a lull, waiting for the child to come out. The anesthesiologist, the nurse, my doctor—they all talked about the full moon.
We have no evidence that the full moon brings more babies. We have no evidence that it causes brains to go mad or bodies to go haywire. Yet these ideas persist, and they hold their own logic. Maybe people go outside more when the night sky is lighter, and in the midnight hours, they do wild animal things, like fuck and kill and love. Maybe when the moon is dark, we stay home. Maybe the moon gives us license to be our lunatic selves more fully.
I like thinking the moon ushered in my child. That for a little while, we were alone with the moon. Me and Juno and the planetary body above.
Katy Kelleher is a writer who lives in the woods of rural New England. She is the author of Handcrafted Maine.