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.
The Wild Hunt of Odin, by Peter Nicolai Arbo, Nasjonalmuseet
Summer is dead. The last flames of its cremation heat the leaves across New England where I live. The rest of the fire-stained leaves will fall, ashy on the forest floors, ashy on the sidewalks. This is how ghosts speak, the sound of ashy leaves blown by wind or shuffled by feet, and October is when they speak the loudest. Ghosts are white in the imagination, pale blurs, small fogs of body. The moon is also white, but no one thinks it a ghost.
For this haunted moment of the year: the Hunter’s Moon. Bare trees, bare fields—all the better, by moonlight, to spot the prey, take aim, drain blood, skin, sever limb from joint, and slice flesh to store for the cold months ahead. Me, I go to the grocery store; my meat has its skin peeled off before I bring it home. Have you sliced the throat of a mammal? Snapped the neck of a fowl? Put a bullet through the soft parts to stop the light in the eyes of a creature who leaps or flies? Do you know what it is to crouch in brush and wait, hoping the wind does not carry your human scent to the nostrils of whatever beast you’re trying to catch? I don’t. But something stirs in the blood this time of year regardless. Maybe you feel it, too. Maybe you’re able to detect things that normally elude our dulled and faulty senses. As if all of a sudden noses become more alert. May and June have their blooms, the dewy grassy floral scent of spring. Late fall smells earthier: mulch, ash, the turpentine tang of decay, worm chew, slowing sap, flinty night.
October marks a crossroads. The last warmth fades behind us; the apple-skin present invites the teeth; the cold dark looms. Past present future spin and overlap at greater speed. Ghosts travel in these swirling tunnels, the dead whispering alongside us, reminding us, softly, where we’re headed at some unnamed, unknown moment.
Crossing the autumn moor—
I keep hearing
someone behind me!
So wrote Yosa Buson nearly three hundred years ago. Who’s there? What follows us? Death is not the hunter. Time is.
Time pulls open the steel jaws of a trap and sets it tight to snap the leg. Digs a pit in the path, covers it with twigs and leaves and forest soil: a footstep on what looks like solid earth and quick as a car crash you’re smelling dirt at the bottom of a hole with walls too steep to climb. Time has its nets, its ropes, its bow strung tight and its quiver full of arrows. It surrounds us on all sides. We find ways to dodge it now and then, to slow its creep. Drugs, sunscreen, meditation, all the ecstatic pursuits that dissolve the limits of your senses. It can happen in simpler moments, too, in a chair, eating a hard-boiled egg, an olive, soft butter on some bread. “I shall live centuries in the hours,” Mary MacLane writes in I Await the Devil’s Coming. It is a good way to live. To say, I am in your hands, Time, you have me, I am yours. Thus some do learn how to make love with the hunter. It’s possible.
In Northern European folklore there is a spectral horde known as the Wild Hunt. Like time, they fly. The elder of the Grimm brothers, Jacob, describes a pack of spirits, gods, wraiths, horses, hounds, thundering across the sky, harbingering plague or war or death to the poor fool out at night alone who glimpses them. Hunting souls, they “sweep through forest and air in whole companies with a horrible din.” Their legend, Grimm writes, “interweaves itself, now with gods, and now with heroes. Look where you will, it betrays its connexion with heathenism.” Some tales have it that a woman and her twenty-four daughters loved hunting so much, they claimed it was better than heaven. As punishment, they were flung into the air, and all two dozen daughters turned into dogs, condemned “there betwixt heaven and earth to hunt unceasingly.” If you see them, hide.
In Celtic mythology, a roving band of underfolk called the Sluagh, gone-wrong souls of the dead, fly through the night on Samhain, the last night in October, hunting for more souls to join their mob. People once left food and treats to keep the gang appeased, a precursor to trick-or-treating. Gods, ghosts, fairies, heroes crash across the sky, up, look up, time’s up. Time’s up! Few phrases ice the heart as fast. To hunt or be hunted is to know the private smells, the sour tang of fear, its mix-up with desire, the heady musk of the creased places, salted, glandular. “Hunters and undergrowth are intimate,” Ruth Fainlight writes. “The hunt is out, torch-light and screams … terror cannot be disguised … smell is carried by the wind.” Tempus fugit. It flies.
But the verb in Latin, fugere, does not mean “to fly.” It means “to flee.”
Who’s hunted? What’s being chased?
Escaped the nets,
escaped the ropes—
moon on the water.
The ungraspable moon glitters on the surface of a lake. Reach in for it, it scatters, flees, and then returns, reassembling its shimmer, same as if you try to grab a handful of fog. We cannot catch it, though its light is on our skin. (Every month time chews on the moon until it’s gone, and yet the moon returns.) We can’t catch time, either, and maybe we’re the horde who chases, galloping after it, berserk and wild-eyed, more please, more.
The moon, the hunt, the realm between life and afterlife—these bring us to Diana, a triple goddess. Goddess of the hunt with her bow and arrow. Of the moon, often depicted with a crescent crown. And goddess, too, of the crossroads, the haunted in-between, the underworld place where the paths split, where hunters might find themselves, lit by the moon, and face a choice: stay the course, go back the way they came, or veer off someplace new. “We are divided in ourselves, against ourselves,” D. H. Lawrence writes in an essay on The Scarlet Letter. “And that is the meaning of the cross symbol.” Are all ghosts holy?
Lawrence buys into the duality: we have mind-knowledge (self-conscious, rational, guilty) and blood-knowledge (instinctual, sexed, hungering). “Blood-consciousness overwhelms, obliterates, and annuls mind-consciousness,” he writes. “Mind-consciousness extinguishes blood-consciousness, and consumes the blood.” One hunts the other, in other words. “The two ways are antagonistic in us… That is our cross.”
The moon is presumed mute—its silence is the silence of death. But when it does speak, it speaks in the language of shadows. You speak this language, too. It was your first language, our shared first language, the language of the dark. When you can’t scream in nightmares, it is the moon caught in your throat, a bright white rolling marble that garbles the voice, makes it choked and animal. Moonlight smells like chalkboard, like snowcloud, like a rock in the dirt. You can skin it with a glimpse, lay its pelt down by the hearth, and wrap yourself in its furred light. No weapons, no blood. A glimpse as it shifts in time; what a thing to witness, the full moon’s monthly resurrection.
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.
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