One of the fun things about writing this column is never knowing what direction it will take me. This weekend has seen the appearance of a blue moon. Actually a blue moon has nothing to do with the color of the moon.
I started thinking about the blue moon Thursday night as Karen and I watched a beautiful moon rise in early evening over St Paul’s Episcopal Church. Then early Friday morning while walking with Sharon Falkner the moon still commanded the sky. I had some fun with photos I had taken Thursday night and Sharon had taken Friday morning and realized a moon column was in order. So, what is a blue moon?
Each year is divided into the four seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall with each month having a full moon. In 1937 the Maine Farmers’ Almanac addressed the uncommon occurrence of four full moons in a three month season. The seasonal moons had been known as early, mid and late and that terminology did not work with four moons in a season. So the last seasonal full moon could continue to be called the “late moon”, the third full moon in a season with four full moons was called a blue moon.
Then in 1946 Sky and Telescope Magazine published an article titled “Once in a Blue Moon”. It confused and changed the earlier definition of a blue moon. The new definition provided that a blue moon occurred when there were two full moons within one month. That resulted in popular confusion over the correct definition of what is a blue moon. The confusion in the public’s eye ended when in the popular board game “Trivial Pursuit” a blue moon was defined as being the second full moon within one month.
In Southeastern Native American lore about the moon several traditions appear. The cosmos as viewed by the people of the southeast consisted of “this world”, an “under world” which was found under the earth and under water and the “upper world” above the sky of “this world”. Within the upper world was found the moon which the Cherokees considered to be their grandparent. They viewed both the sun and the moon with respect as their ancestors from the remote past.
Some Native American people believed that an eclipse of the moon was caused by (depending on the nation) a giant frog or even a giant rat eating the moon. People would beat drums and make loud noises to scare the vermin off thereby saving the moon. The Chickasaws in Mississippi had a totally different view. They called the moon “hushi ninak aya” or “the sun of the night.” They believed that an eclipse of the sun or the moon was simply an unexplainable phenomenon over which they had no control and should not be concerned. They referred to an eclipse as “hushi kunia” or “lost sun”.
An animal and moon tradition is also found both in Chinese folklore and the U S space program. In an ancient Chinese legend a great hero by the name of Hou Yi was given an elixir by the queen of heaven. It was a drink by which he could ascend to heaven and become a god. He gave the vile to his wife Chang E for safe keeping. One day when Hou Yi was away from home, an evil person tried to get the elixir from Chang E and she drank it to prevent it from falling into evil hands. She then ascended to the moon where she became a goddess.
Later a rabbit was rewarded for an act of self sacrifice by being sent into the heavens to be a jade rabbit living in the moon palace with Chang E. Then there is the little-known incident forever linking the Apollo 11 moon landing with Chang E and a jade rabbit.
Shortly before man first landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, there was a communication between NASA Capcom and Apollo 11. Houston advised the Apollo crew to be on the look out after landing on the moon as a “beautiful Chinese girl called Chang’e has been living there for 4,000 years. It seems she was banished to the moon because she stole the pill of immortality from her husband. You might also look for her companion, a large Chinese rabbit, who is easy to spot since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree.” One of the astronauts on board responded: “Okay. We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.” The part of the flight transcript which would identify whether it was Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin or Michael Collins who responded is missing. Like the definition of a blue moon I guess it will be up to Trivial Pursuit to have the final say.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.