Wednesday, September 18, 2013

To Celebrate the Moon

This is one in an ongoing series of posts regarding some of the basics of pagan practice. These are slightly tidied-up versions of the handouts I used to give my students during some of the classes I taught, once upon a time, in a prior geologic era. I hope you find them useful. Find all the posts in this series here.

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The Greater and Lesser Sabbats mark out the turning of the year, the seasons and the flow of power from Goddess to God and back again. These holy days occur on more-or-less set dates coinciding with the solar calendar; Beltaine is always May 1 (or thereabouts) and Mabon is always around September 21. But there is another cycle that affects the seasons, the agricultural year, the tides, and our bodies:  the cycle of the Moon.

Finding the Moon

You have to do more than just look up at the sky. 

The lunar year consists of 13 complete cycles of the moon. A lunar cycle (lunar month) begins at the new moon and goes through the full moon to end at the next new moon. A lunar month is 29-1/2 days long if you count from the hour of one new moon to the hour of the next. For practical purposes a lunar month appears 29 to 30 days long on the solar calendar. There are four generally recognized phases of the moon, or distinguishing points during each lunar cycle: the first quarter, the full moon, the last quarter and the new moon. Most pagans mark the full moon, and occasionally the new moon, with celebratory ritual but many points throughout the moon's monthly cycle are used for ceremonial magic.

These days, thanks to scientific measurements, we calculate each moon cycle from the exact point of one new moon to the next. Our ancestors, however, had only their eyes and a great deal of time and patience to work with. They counted each moon cycle beginning with the night when the first thin sliver of silvery moon appeared, after the three days' darkness of the new moon. In some regions this first sliver is called Diana's Bow, a reference to the goddess of that name.

Since a lunar year is actually a little shorter than a solar year the dates for the new and full moons spiral backwards through the solar calendar. And since the dates are not fixed according to the solar calendar our society follows, you must consult an almanac or specially-made lunar calendar to check the dates for the moons. The Hebrew and Islamic calendars even today follow the lunar cycle rather than the solar cycle. This is why the dates for such holy times as Yom Kippur and Ramadan vary from year to year.

A good basic reference guide is the Old Farmer’s Almanac. It is inexpensive and readily available, sometimes even in supermarket magazine racks. The Old Farmer's Almanac website also has a moon phase calendar as well as other useful and interesting information. Another source for lunar cycle information is The Witches' Almanac which is available at metaphysical bookstores and online. Or you can use a lunar calendar, also available at specialty bookstores and online; having a year-long moon phase calendar on the wall to look at can be helpful in understanding the ebb and flow of the energies associated with the lunar cycle. Googling the phrase 'moon phases' or 'lunar phases' will also net you some helpful information.

The pagan rituals performed at the new and full moons are called Esbats, in contrast to the eight solar Sabbats. Some traditions consider only the full moon to be an Esbat while others include both the new and the full. I suggest not picking a fight about terminology.

If your life allows for such flexibility, you can perform your moon rituals at the actual hour and minute of the new or full moon. However, very few people have this luxury. Most people enact moon circles the night of the new or full moon. Of course, there are many sides to the debate over which night to do these rituals. If the moon goes full in the early hours of the morning, do you perform the ritual the night before or the night after it goes full?

To avoid this sort of argument altogether just remember that a new or full moon is an astrological, as well as astronomical, event and each astrological event has an orb. The orb is the event’s sphere of influence, the time the energy from the event has a direct effect in the world. The orb for a new or full moon is three days. This means the day before and the day after are still within its sphere of influence. If you go outside each night around the new or full moon you will see there is no apparent change in the moon for three days. It looks full for three days and is dark for three days.

The Ups and Downs

As the moon moves from new to full it is said to be waxing or growing. From full to new the moon is said to be waning. These cycles affect the kinds of ritual work we do and when we choose to do it.

The new moon is just that: new, open, a clean slate. This time in the moon’s cycle is usually used for rituals that involve new beginnings or releasing the old in order to move on. This is the time for cleansing and banishing, and also for initiation in many traditions.  It is no coincidence that for thousands, perhaps millions, of years women’s cycles followed the moon, with menstruation at the new moon and ovulation at the full moon. Electric lights put a stop to that kind of synchronicity, but we can still feel a connection with those cycles if we pay attention.

The energy of the moon’s cycle builds toward the full moon, the culmination or peak in the cycle. The full moon is the highest point of energy, the time for doing strong workings, for cast spells, for raising energy. If the new moon is the time for letting things go, the full moon is the time for bringing things to you.

The new and full moon are the zenith and nadir in the cycle and therefore are the traditional points for performing ritual. These are the times when groups usually gather for circle. Remember, though, that the calendar does not hold still between the moons. The cycle continues to flow and ebb. The times between the moons have traditionally been used for personal rituals, especially those that continue for several days, and for ceremonial magic associated with particular points in the cycle.

The waxing moon energy from the new until the full is similar to full moon energy in that it is growing and gaining strength. The waning moon energy from the full down to the new is similar to new moon energy in that it is fading, releasing strength. Keep in mind where you are in the cycle when determining the timing and purpose of your rituals.

'Venus of Laussel' carving from southwestern France

A Few Other Tidbits

In addition to the basic energy of the moon’s cycle, there are a number of other factors you can include in setting up your rituals or determining when to perform them. Of course, you do not have to use all of these factors each time, but they add an extra dimension of symbolism, energy and meaning to ritual times.

The Moon’s Astrological Sign: You can find this information in the Old Farmer’s Almanac under 'Gardening by the Moon’s Sign.' Or in The Witches' Almanac. Or in an ephemeris. Or by Googling the phrase 'moon astrological sign calculator.' If you are interested in astrology you can bring in all the aspects of the moon's sign: whether it is cardinal, fixed or mutable, what its attributes are, and so on. If you are not so much into astrology you can ponder the significance of the element associated with the sign. Think, for instance, how the moon’s being in a water sign could influence the kind of ritual you choose to perform.

The Sun’s Astrological Sign: This means the standard zodiacal sign for the time of year it is, just like when you determine what sign you are according to your birthday. For instance, for a full moon on May 15 the sun is in Taurus. A new moon on October 26 finds the sun in Scorpio. You can bring in all the same kinds of information as for the moon’s astrological sign, also keeping in mind whether the sun and moon are characterized as having masculine or feminine energy in your tradition.

The Time of Year: This can be anything from the fact that it is summer to the fact that it is two days after Lammas. Keep in mind the kind of energy in the earth around you: Are things sprouting, growing, dying or dormant? Is it wet or dry? Hot or cold? It sounds simplistic, but paying attention to the earth’s cycles can add a great deal of power to your rituals. So can focusing on the Sabbat cycle. Think about whether god energy or goddess energy is stronger. Think about which two Sabbats you are between and what they mean.

Ritual Lunar Calendars: There are a number of moon-cycle calendars devised for ritual use.  Some are based on agricultural or hunting cycles while others are based on ancient symbol sets such as the Druid grove. You can find more information on these calendars in my post about the Wheel of the Year. You can bring in any of this information to add depth to your rituals.

And So Forth: If you are interested in various kinds of symbolism, numerology or sacred alphabets, you can even take into account the numbers and letters in the date and time of day. Or the day of the week or solar month, all of which have certain energies and deities associated with them. Anything that has meaning to you will add depth to your ritual. Just look around you.