In her monthly column The Moon in Full, Nina MacLaughlin illuminates humanity’s long-standing lunar fascination. Each installment is published in advance of the full moon.
Watercolor illustration from Aurora consurgens, a fifteenth-century alchemical text. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Summer now, and the petals are wet in the morning. The moon was born four and a half billion years ago. It’s been goddess, god, sister, bridge, vessel, mother, lover, other. “Civilisations still fight / Over your gender,” writes Priya Sarukkai Chabria. Dew is one of its daughters—or so the Spartan lyric poet Alcman had it in the mid-seventh-century B.C.: “Dew, a child of moon and air / causes the deergrass to grow.”
Cyrano de Bergerac, twenty-three hundred years later, imagined a dew-fueled way of getting to the moon. “I planted myself in the middle of a great many Glasses full of Dew, tied fast above me,” he writes in his satirical A Voyage to the Moon, published in 1657. If dew rises to the sky, evaporating into the atmosphere, he reasons, enough ought to take him, too. He lifts off, but “instead of drawing me near the Moon, as I intended, she seem’d to me to be more distant than at my first setting out.” He smashes a few dew vials and drops back to earth. A firework rocket gets him where he wants to go, and on the moon he meets a Spaniard who’d arrived there pulled by birds.
This figure, the space archaeologist Alice Gorman points out, alludes to a text published a few decades before de Bergerac’s work. Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone tells the story of a Spanish soldier who’s pulled to the moon by twenty-five swans. He launches on his lunar adventure at the moment in the year when the birds fly south.
But Godwin didn’t know that south was where the birds went. Sometimes we forget to think of what we know. In the seventeenth century, Europeans had no idea where the birds went in winter. Every year a mystery. One November morning, off they flew, only to drop out of the sky again come spring. In 1684, Charles Morton—a “renegade physicist,” according to Gorman—wrote a pamphlet arguing that storks spent winters on the moon.
Storks bring the babies, blanket bundles in their beaks. How wholesome, how Hallmark. How horrifying the fairy-tale origin story, the children’s book author Katherine Rundell reminds us in the London Review of Books. In 1839, Hans Christian Andersen wrote of a group of young storks who are teased by some kids, led by one boy, taunting with a song about the storks getting stabbed, hanged, and roasted. The young storks are fearful, then want revenge. Their mother tells them no, you cannot peck their eyeballs out; learn to fly instead; you’ll need to know so we can fly to the pyramids and eat frogs and snakes all winter. The young ones learn to fly but don’t give up on wanting payback. The mother comes up with a solution.
I know where the pond is where all the human babies lie till the stork comes and fetches them to their parents. The pretty little babies sleep and dream such lovely dreams as never come to them afterwards. All fathers and mothers want a little child like that, and all children want a sister or a brother.
We’ll fly to that pond, she says, and bring babies to the children who were not cruel; the ones who were, no little sibling for them. But what of the mean ringleader, the young storks ask.
In the pond there lies a little dead baby that has dreamt itself to death; we’ll take that to him, and he’ll cry because we’ve brought him a little dead brother.
Ice water spills down the spine from a cup at the base of the skull. Not just at the thought of this afloat and swollen blue-lipped dead brother, which makes me feel like I’m biting ice, but the babies in the pond dreaming dreams lovelier than they’ll ever dream again. A lonely, chalk-light sadness, that: all our best dreams behind us, warm amniotic celluloids unspooling before we’re born. “All children want a sister or a brother.” I think it’s probably true. A lack filled, a teammate under the circus tent. Artemis, moon goddess, was twin to sun god Apollo, and golden-horned deer pulled her chariot. NASA aims to put a woman on the moon by the end of this decade as part of the Artemis Program, twin to the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. They weren’t rivals, Artemis and Apollo, not this particular pair of sun-moon twins. “Like two mirrors in love with their likeness,” as Octavio Paz put it about siblings. But no matter what, a stork unloading a sibling before flapping back to the moon or swallowing snakes by the pyramids is a delivery received not without ambivalence.
Maurice Sendak captures this ambivalence in his 1981 masterpiece Outside Over There. Ida is the older sister. Her father is away at sea; her mother stares into the nothing, a chilling goneness in her eyes. Her baby sibling wails. Ida (a name as close to id as it is idea) minds the child and turns her back to practice her horn. As she plays, the goblins come with hooded heads and black cave faces. They steal the baby from the cradle and leave an ice baby in its place.
I turned the page to this illustration recently, having last seen it when I couldn’t yet read, and it sent a jab through my center; a hot-cold fist clenched my heart. As it did when I was small. As it did every single time. How strange, what the body remembers. Would you feel it, too, if you hadn’t seen it as a child? If you turned the page to see that ice baby in the cradle now, would it jolt you? The haunted uncanniness of the swollen ice moon baby face, its stiff body and blank stare, dead light coming from its eyes, looking right into you and not seeing you at all. Ida—who in dark and secret moments maybe wished her sib away, tired of the crying, who maybe wanted to refocus her mother’s million-mile stare, who maybe didn’t know that’s what it was she wanted—storms when she realizes the baby’s gone, furious at the thieving goblins, and at herself for turning her back. Brave Ida wraps herself in her mother’s golden velvet cloak and floats backward out the window into the titular outside over there.
This fury and devotion: she has to save her sibling. Sendak draws the dreams that unspooled in the pond, touching at the things we know without knowing, that live in the subsurface atmospheres of our shadowy and unexplored interiors. Caves, ladders, lanterns, shepherds, bridges, boats, ruins, rivers, thrashing seas. The hooded goblins carry the baby away, and Ida floats in her draping robe. (Some have said the folds of the fabric nod to Bernini’s The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, and I see it, too, but I was not leaning against my mother’s shoulder as a four-year-old thinking, Ah, yes, Bernini.) The full moon appears on each page of her search, cloaked by cloud and hidden by cliff until after Ida charms the goblins, when it emerges in its uncurtained dawnlight fullness. “Ida played a frenzied jig, a hornpipe that makes sailors wild beneath the ocean moon.” The goblins dance themselves into a frothing frenzy, and Ida is reunited with her sibling, who’s cooing in an eggshell, sweet as a strawberry, and ready to go home.
We build ladders made of myths and misconceptions, fairy tales and picture books, satellites, spaceships, and probes, cows jumping over goodnight moons, to climb back into the mystery, to try to make better sense of where we are and what we’re doing. The dreams that came to us in the pond must exist in our memories, making quiet home in some distant pocket of our minds. Is this the home we’re trying to return to? To some shared memory of the dream before we were born? “There is no ‘the truth,’ ” writes Adrienne Rich, “truth is not one thing, or even a system. It is an increasing complexity.” We’re all babies in our sleep, vulnerable and soft, dropped into the dark territory, the moon a shifting guardian keeping cool watch out the window, protective older sister.
In Aztec myth, Coyolxauhqui is the goddess of the moon, older sister to the sun god Huitzilopochtli. Coyolxauhqui and her four hundred other brothers were not pleased when their mother, the goddess Coatlicue, found herself pregnant by a bundle of feathers that fell into her lap. Disgusted and ashamed, they made a plan, hatched by Coyolxauhqui, to murder her. Coatlicue was warned, and as the brood approached, out burst the armored full-size Huitzilopochtli from his mother’s body. He dismembered Coyolxauhqui. He chopped off her head and flung her body parts across Coatepec—or Serpent—Mountain. It’s been written that the dawn sun murders the moon each morning. I think the truth is more complex: collaboration more than violence, an allegiance and shared power.
Chandra, god of the moon in Hindu mythology, has four arms and twenty-seven wives. In certain yoga practices it’s believed that two channels of energy line the spine, ida and pingala. Pingala, associated with the sun god Surya, rises up the right side, and is linked with the solar, the extroverted, heat and light. And ida (id, idea) lines the left, linked to Chandra, the lunar, the shadowy, cooling, and instinctive. The channels rise over the skull, intersect at the third eye, and end in each nostril. Can you feel moon juice rising up the left side of your spine? Is your ida open? Breathe in.
Maybe in your life you have pressed your forehead against another’s forehead. And maybe in that moment, you were not mother or father or child or sister or brother or friend or lover. Maybe in that moment, you were two skulls, two moons, hidden behind a thin cloud of forehead, behind a thin mist of eyelid, two skull moons glowing against each other, skull curve surface touching, eye sockets cratering, and the increasing complexity of truth collecting in the dark and infinite space that pooled in the shadowed place at the backs of your heads. The shadowed half of the moon is where the dream visions collect before they’re sent to the pond to be dreamed and forgotten.
We do not need vials full of dew or twenty-five swans, a rocket or a mother’s velvet cloak to feel the magnetic contours of another body in space. Bone against bone, moon against moon, your skull and my skull, and the depthless dark ponds inside them.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her most recent book is Summer Solstice. Her previous columns for the Daily are Winter Solstice, Sky Gazing, Summer Solstice, Senses of Dawn, and Novemberance.
Last / Next Article