Emerald Isle

Under an Irish Moon

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland

I see the moon and the moon sees me

Our Irish ancestors from olden times were fascinated with the sky and its inhabitants, how they moved, what they meant and where their celestial lives intersected with our own. The Tuatha Dé Danann loved the sun foremost but others built places aligned to the movements of the moon and stars, many of which predate the solar structures.

There is even evidence for a struggle that took place between the two belief systems as waves of invasions ebbed and flowed, drowning the sorrowing soil of Ireland with the blood of heroes, but despite being driven deep, we can still hear echoes of that long-gone time if we listen to the land closely enough.

Nature was seen to move in cycles, and it was thought that the rebirth of the new moon signalled the beginning of these little seasons. On the night of the new moon, if one were to borrow a piece of silver it would turn to two by the end of the month, and if a person was to turn the coins in their pockets on that same night, they would prosper greatly.

“Whatever you have in your hand when you see the new moon first, you will have plenty of that before the next new moon comes.”

The mystery of the changing moon was near to the heart of old druidry, and they even laid out their calendars in accordance with its shifting nature. Best known of these is the Coligny calendar, made up of bronze fragments which were once a single huge plate. Each year was divided into thirteen months.

Such was their reverence for the moon that they would rarely refer to it directly, instead using words like “gealach” which means brightness. This also hints at the uses to which they put hawthorn, or the sceach geal – moon thorn. “Gealach na gcoinnlíní” is the Harvest Moon, where coinnlíní is the Irish for a stubble field with stalks left after reaping. “Seán na Gealaí” is Jack of the Lantern, “corrán gealaí” is a crescent moon.

Those touched by the moon were considered le gealaí, or keeping company with the moon. Some believed that sleeping directly under the moonlight would lead to bad dreams and ill temper, or at worst, blindness, paralysis and other afflictions.

Lunar eclipses were times of importance to the ancient Gaels and were associated with the rabbit and the hare, both symbols of fertility. They may also have had a “festival of light” to welcome eclipses, which the druids could predict.

Long before the druids or even the working of metal was known in Ireland, the people of Ireland had great knowledge of the moon and stars, as can be seen in the great passage mound of Knowth which is only a short distance from Newgrange.

There is a wealth of lunar symbolism on the many engravings in Knowth, and the eighteen monuments around the central mound, are both far older than Knowth and echo the lunar cycle, which takes eighteen years to complete.

Some researchers believe that many of the kerbstones at Knowth functioned as calendars for counting and marking lunar cycles. At certain regular intervals in the ancient past, at least twice if not four or eight times during the eigheen year lunar cycle, the east and west chambers of Knowth were lit by both the sun and moon simultaneously.

If the light of the moon shone onto the back stone in one of these passages, it would light up what some believe to be one of the oldest maps of the lunar landscape in the world. Several other stones appear to depict phases of the moon, perhaps as a calendar of the future or a memorial of past events of importance.

At Dowth, there are one hundred and fifteen kerb stones, exactly half the number of lunar months in a “moon swing” cycle, the time it takes the moon to run through its extreme rising and setting points on the horizon and back again. The mythology surrounding the building of Dowth tells us that the men working to construct a mound so their king Bresail Bó-Dibad could reach the heavens abandoned their work halfway through when the sun fell into darkness, or an eclipse took place.

The ancient Greek Diodorus Siculus wrote of the '”Island of the Hyperboreans” in and around the first century BC

“there is also on the island both a magnificent sacred precinct of Apollo and a notable temple which is adorned with many votive offerings and is spherical in shape... They say also that the moon, as viewed from this island, appears to be but a little distance from the Earth and to have upon it prominences, like those of the Earth, which are visible to the eye. The account is also given that the god visits the island every nineteen years.”

Since these ancient mounds were decorated with glimmering white quartz pieces, some have suggested they were meant to represent or reflect the moon.

The cairn in Carrowkeel in county Sligo also seems to have been built to observe the longer lunar cycles.

Some parts of the Beaghmore stone circles are astronomically linked with dawn and dusk on the solstices, but unusually, for the most part, the overall alignment is more closely connected to the phases of the moon. This forms part of a different and perhaps older tradition than the cross quarter celebrations.

Night time is truly magical amid the Beaghmore stones, due to the remoteness and altitude of the site, the sky is darker here than almost anywhere else in the country, and it was under silverine moonlight that rituals were conducted here of old. The purpose of these rites is not known today, but the seventh circle might give some hint, the one known as the Dragon's Teeth.

For within the eight hundred stones of this seventh circle, seven being a number associated with the lunar cycle, were discovered the remains of several children of great antiquity, and some visitors have reported hearing the voices of children, or even the touch of child's hand on their own as they made a hasty departure!

One of the highest figures among the ancestors the Gaels reverenced was Elatha, Ealadha or Elathan, a prince of the Fomorians and the father of Bres of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He was most associated with the moon since he visited Eriú by night in a silver boat.

Seeds planted and roof thatching begun when the moon was young would be smiled upon, and children born on this night were considered favoured. Animals were slaughtered during this time so that they would “swell in the boil”. Hair should also be cut when the moon was waxing to ensure subsequent growth, although other traditions held that hair should only be cut during the waning phases, so that it might be longer before needing your next haircut!

Contrariwise, the fading moon was thought to take disease and sores along with it.

Catching the first glimpse of a new moon through glass was to suffer bad luck for the coming month, and worse yet if you happened to see it over your left shoulder! Whereas seeing it over the right shoulder was fine, similar to walking deiseal or clockwise around ancient stones when seeking a blessing.

Should the moon pop out in front of you however you were due for a fall. There must have been some strange dances taking place on that night! Which might be why on a bright moonlit night the fairies were said to be out singing and dancing.

Here we can also see the admixture of old pagan beliefs with Christianity, in the veneration of the new moon for protection as long as it lived. A seventeenth century German writer wrote: “The wild Irish have this custom, that when the moon is new they squat upon their knees and pray to the moon that it may leave them vigorous and healthy.”

Petitioners would kneel before the moon, say a Pater Noster or Ave Maria, make the sign of the cross or other pious motion and then sing out:

“Oh Moon! May thou leave us safe, as thou hast found us!”

or alternatively

“God and the holy Virgin be about me!
I see the moon, and the moon sees me
God bless the moon, and God bless me!”

When the new moon first appeared, people would bless themselves and say “Go mbeí mis seo and tam seo arís” and wish for something, and it might just come true.

The eternal return of the moon was naturally something mysterious, there was a saying about the new moon: “On the first night nobody sees it, on the second night the birds see it, and on the third night everybody sees it.”

People used to say that the potatoes were not ripe to dig until the first harvest moon’s full. And if that came late, the potatoes would be poor eating. The harvest moon was said to gather the cabbage. While the moon was filling it was a good time for fishing but while it was going back you would hardly catch any fish at all.

The motions of the moon were used by the people of Ireland to predict their futures, if the new moon was on its back that was a sure sign of rain but if it stood upright that was a sign of fine weather. If the new moon was pale with a ring around it, “súil circe ré” or the moon of the hen’s eye, that was a sign of rain.

If you were working when you saw the new moon you would be at that work for a long time. If the new moon appeared early in the sky, rain would follow after, but if the new moon was red, the wind would chase hard on its heels.

 It was often held that a full moon on Saturday was a sign of bad weather or some other local misfortune.

Young Irish women seeking a sign of their future husbands appealed to the new moon as well, kneeling down and taking a black-handled knife before lifting a sod of turf from under their right knee and from under the toe of their right foot, calling out the following cant:

“New moon, new moon,
Happy may I be
Whoever is my true love
This night may I see.”

And many a young Irish couple walked hand in hand under the waxing moon.

The moon over Galway bay is a beautiful thing, and can be found on the map below.

Further Folk and Faerie Tales of Ireland

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