Friday, August 22, 2014

The waning moon, and the struggling brothers

image: NASA, Wikimedia commons (link).

And so we return to the end of another moon, rapidly decreasing towards the point at which the sun will again overtake the moon and illuminate only the side of the moon facing towards the sun and away from the earth -- the new moon, arriving on the morning of September 24 (GMT -- or the evening of September 23 for those of us on the trailing edge of the North American continent, who cross into the "next day" behind most of the other parts of the globe).

The moon is currently in its last quarter, waning into a thin crescent, and rising very late in the night (in the small hours of the morning, about 4am on Friday, then closer to 5am on Saturday as the sun inexorably overtakes the moon, as happens every month). For discussion of the mechanics of the sun's monthly overtaking of the moon, see this and this previous post.

The late rising of the moon, and the fact that it is waning rapidly towards invisibility, makes these nights among the best for stargazing. Currently, the stars on brilliant display during the "prime time" hours of the night after nightfall and leading up to midnight include dazzling Sagittarius squarely in the south (for viewers in the northern hemisphere) at his highest point, with the Scorpion of Scorpio leaning steeply down towards the west, and the shining river of the Milky Way arcing straight up and overhead, in which fly the unmistakable forms of the Swan and the Eagle. 

All these constellations, as well as the Big and Little Dippers, Hercules, and the Herdsman (who are also easy to locate right now) are described with some pointers on how to find them in the index listed in this recent post.

The monthly declining cycle of the moon was seen as having deep spiritual significance, and was incorporated into numerous extremely important and central myths in the world's ancient mythological systems. The insightful self-taught Egyptologist, mythologist, and poet Gerald Massey (1828 - 1907, whose work has been discussed in numerous previous posts including this one and this one) expounded at length upon the mythological manifestations of the lunar cycles and their possible spiritual meanings in Luniolatry, Ancient and Modern (1887).

There, he demonstrates that the monthly pattern of the moon's decline and eventual disappearance, followed by its "rebirth" immediately after the time of new moon in the potent upward-horned crescent of the young moon which grows thicker and stronger on each successive night all the way up to the point of full moon (where the cycle of decline begins again) was behind many myth patterns, but one of the most widespread included the wrestling or contending of two "brother-figures," one dark and one light, with the darker one eventually proving to be at least temporarily victorious.

Massey demonstrates that, although Osiris is also a solar god (the sun in the underworld, who is reborn  triumphantly as Horus at the eastern horizon), he also has strong lunar elements in his myth, and his murder by his brother Set (or Seth) is a clear manifestation of the lunar cycle. Part of the evidence that Massey offers in support of this interpretation is the fact that Plutarch tells us in his version of the Egyptian myth (in which Plutarch calls Set by his Greek name, Typhon), Set is hunting by moonlight when he comes across the corpse of Osiris, and he subsequently dismembers the body of Osiris by cutting it into fourteen pieces and scattering them abroad in order to try to prevent his brother's revivification. 

In the monthly lunar cycle, Massey explains, the moon is waning towards invisibility for fourteen days -- the fourteen pieces into which Set sliced his brother's body:
Another fable of the dark half of the lunation has been preserved by Plutarch, who relates that when Typhon, the evil power, was hunting by moonlight, he by chance came upon the dead body or mummy of Osiris prepared for burial, and, knowing it again, he tore it into fourteen parts, and scattered them all about. These fourteen parts typify the fourteen days of the lessening light, during which the devil of darkness had the upper hand. The twenty-eight days made one lunar month according to Egyptian reckoning. 8.
Isis, who in some aspects of the myth is herself associated with the full moon, re-assembles the fourteen pieces, although (as Plutarch tells us but Massey does not mention) she is never able to find one important piece, perhaps representative of the fact that the new moon is invisible (unlike the other "slices" of the moon on the days in which it is declining down towards the point of new moon).  And yet it is out of the invisible new moon that the young and powerful waxing moon will be born, growing in power until he avenges his father's death (see the myth of Horus, as well as Hamlet). Plutarch's important text discussing the myth-cycle of Osiris, Set, Isis and Horus can be found online here.

Massey goes on to demonstrate that the struggle between the forces of light and darkness in the cycle of the moon is almost certainly fundamental to the myths of Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, Krishna and Balarama, and many other world-myths of twin brothers who fight against one another (and in which the one representing the power of darkness is seen to prevail, at least for a time).

These stories in the world's ancient scriptures of brothers killing brothers, such as Cain and Abel, would be horrible and depressing, if they represented literal events (and, tragically, battles pitting brother against brother are in fact part of the human experience), but the evidence compiled by Massey and other researchers, showing the clear repetition of the lunar pattern in myth after myth from around the world, strongly argues that these myths, at least, were not intended to be understood as describing earthly events, but rather heavenly ones.

However, as intimated by the quotation from Alvin Boyd Kuhn included in the previously-linked discussion of the phenomenon of the new moon, these heavenly motions were seen as conveying and embodying powerful truths about our own human condition, here in our earthbound incarnated state ("as above, so below"). 

The moon's monthly cycle of decline and then eventual rebirth, according to Alvin Boyd Kuhn, imparted to us the same message that the nightly, yearly, and even "Great-Yearly" motion which all the stars, planets, and faraway constellations also impart: the truth that we come down to this human existence from a higher, fiery, spiritual plane, here to toil for a time in what is, relatively speaking, an underworld, but that there is something miraculous in this cycle, and that out of the hidden new moon  (when light seems swallowed up by darkness) the triumphant new Horus always ascends again in the lunar cycle, repeated before our eyes each month (if we are paying attention).