Reprinted from in The Twelfth House, September 2003.
The recent black-out in New York City got me thinking about how rarely we get to experience a pure, velvety black night sky, studded with Moon and stars, shimmering with information. These days we city dwellers may even forget the Moon is there, unless we catch a glimpse of her as she rises between buildings, her magical luminosity not quite drowned out by the city’s electric lights.
Though the Moon is a universal icon, ubiquitous in our romantic language, in our psychology, literature and popular song, millions of us never actually see her. But there was a time when the Moon was humanity’s primary religious and temporal reference point, as comforting as a child’s nightlight, mysterious as a sovereign goddess.
Here in the urbanized Western world it is hard to imagine how intimately connected the ancients were with the visual dome of the sky. For millions of years before the invention of modern clocks, people simply tilted their heads back and looked up. Astronomy and astrology (there was no distinction between the two until relatively recently in human history) did not used to be the province of specialists: everyday folks checked the sky as we check our wristwatches.
Familiar and visually accessible, the Moon was the first celestial body to be the focus of an astrological calendar. Waxing or waning — approaching fullness or receding into her hidden phase — she informed the sky gazer whether the month was building towards culmination or had already reached its crest. Nomads who traveled after sunset needed to know how much moonlight they could count on to see by, as did hunters following nocturnal prey. But the Moon’s phases communicated to ancient peoples many layers of meaning beyond practical utility.
Watching the Moon gave our ancestors an immediate sense of cosmic connection. The Moon was seen throughout the ancient world as a divine Mother: her regular changes were expressions of the reliable growth/diminution cycles of an ordered and benevolent universe. As predictable as the ocean tides, as inevitable as birth and death, the Moon was not just a timing device or a light to see by. She was a steadying. nurturing power in a chaotic world; her rhythms providing early humans with a coherent symbolic logic with which to order their lives.
These days students of celestial cycles are less likely to sit in moonlight and take in the Moon’s power directly; which is a shame, for we need that magic more than ever. But the meanings of the Moon’s various phases have been retained, and are still the best-known aspect of popular astrology. The fact that lunar phases are often marked even on non-astrological calendars is evidence that the Moon’s cycle is more than an esoteric theory of narrow interest: it is a natural rhythm deeply imbedded in the human psyche, and it still works. Keeping track of where the Moon is, on the page or in the sky, grounds us emotionally, as it did our ancestors; and enables us to more fully join in the dance of the universe.
The monthly cycle starts at the New Moon, which therefore symbolizes new beginnings in general. Circle it on your calendar: tradition has it that this is the most auspicious time to initiate projects of any kind — a new job, a new relationship, a new way of looking at things. On or just after the New Moon, the energy is ready and available to get something going. This is the most hands-on part of the lunar cycle: now is the time to pro-actively set an intention. Try to identify what it is that is being inaugurated. That in itself is enough to honor the New Moon; but if you wish to give the process a nudge, do what the ancients did: make up a ritual to celebrate your intention to whole-heartedly welcome in the new beginning. Write down your intention on a slip of paper and put it on your altar; light a candle at dinner and pronounce aloud your wish for the month ahead. The most ordinary acts become rituals when motivated by an understanding of the symbolism involved. Straighten up your desktop; put a plant cutting into soil; put air in your tires and get ready to roll. We are often intuitively driven to undertake such activities on a New Moon anyway; we usually do them without thinking about the timing. But when we add that extra ingredient of awareness — deliberately trying to match the moment with an apt metaphorical gesture– then we are working magic. To paraphrase Carolyn Casey: You can sweep the floor and just have a clean floor; or you can do a floor-sweeping ritual and thereby cast a spell.
The next major phase, a week later, is the First Quarter. Whatever you began at the New Moon comes to a kind of crossroads: your undertaking meets its first obstacle. This may be an obvious event, such as a glitch that arises with the software you installed a week earlier; or it may be a more subtle development, such as getting a reality check about a new infatuation. Whatever form it takes, at the First Quarter your initial premise is tested. Again, the first thing you can do to honor this phase is to notice it: your undertaking has turned a corner. The second thing you can do is to make adjustments if necessary.
The Full Moon, which follows a week after that, is the culmination of the cycle. Now things come to a head, and you can clearly see what it is you set in motion two weeks before. This may not be what you thought you were setting in motion. The Full Moon exposes the soul meaning of the period you are in. It is no wonder that this point in the cycle has always been associated with great drama: the Full Moon is like a bright light turned on in a shadowy room.
On the literal level, new information may suddenly become available; on the psychic level, you may get a revelation about the underlying point of the whole process. Full Moons are expository, full of the potential for breakthroughs in understanding. Sometimes what is revealed is welcome, sometimes it is not. Full Moons are a markedly subjective experience, associated for millennia with both enlightenment and madness. They are often accompanied by extreme events, designed to make us see things we have not yet seen. The period a couple of days on either side of the exact Full Moon may pulse with heightened energy.
The waning half of the cycle should be spent assimilating the vision received when the Moon was full. These final two weeks of the lunar month are a devolution, as natural as leaves turning color in the autumn. At the Last Quarter, the process begun three weeks earlier runs into its final wistful crossroads. Again we must regroup, and face the reality of bringing the whole operation to a graceful close.
The last few days before the next New Moon are a mysterious and uncertain time, when the old process clearly has lost its vitality but a new process is not yet ready to take its place. During this Dark of the Moon period, we are meant to let go of something. It is not a time to try to make things happen; attempts to initiate are not likely to work. It is a time to release what has been happening. Now is the time to look back over our recent projects, while gently putting our tools and equipment away.
It was when the Moon was dark but not yet new that ancient peoples conducted their most sacred rites of healing and meditation, with a spirit not of ambition but of acceptance. They knew, better than we do, that all endings prepared the way for new beginnings, like leaves that fall and decay in order to fertilize the soil for the new growth yet to come.
There is a natural arc to the timing of the month, a pattern that we are born in synch with, as surely as other living things are who dwell upon the Earth. This is why watching the Moon, either actually or astrologically, can make us feel more at home in the cosmos. Tracking her inexorable changes, week after week and month after month, we start to see the Moon not as an inanimate rock that unaccountably looks different every time we look up; but as a living, numinous entity whose various faces take on meaning only when seen as a pieces of a unified whole.
This is the key to lunar astrology, a science of analogies and parallels. By honoring each of her phases with respect to its place in the overall cycle, we see ourselves in the cosmic mirror. Instinctively, organically, like a duckling following its mother into the water, we start to understand that our own unfolding fluctuations match those of the Moon.
And everything starts to make more sense.