Friday 25 December 2015

The Ancient & Modern Woman in the Moon

I gazed at the last Christmas Full Moon, in 1977, from the window of a Swiss hotel where I was becoming radicalised, working a 20-hour shift as a waitress. More deserving of concerted efforts at memory was that mystical Christmas Eve of 1968, when I was as enraptured as all of us humans waiting for Apollo 8 to return from our species’ first ever flight round the dark far side of the moon. 

Ten orbits and a spine-chilling reading from Genesis broadcast to Planet Earth later, as an eight-year-old also waiting for Santa, the moon became associated for me with incredible excitement. Santa welded with the Man in the Moon, and my brain has confused his chariot with a NASA space rocket ever since.

Selene drives her winged horses

After handing in my notice in Switzerland (hard, because they confiscated all Gastarbeiters’ passports) I went to university and discovered one of the biggest cons of all time: the inhabitant of the moon whose face you can sometimes see is not male at all but female. Plutarch (who has had a moon crater named after him as reward) wrote a treatise with the catchy title Concerning the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon. It has been very important in the history of science, as an inspiration for Johannes Keppler in his early 17th-century Somnium, the first serious study of lunar astronomy. But Plutarch’s text quotes a Greek poet who saw in the moon ‘a maiden’s face, with moistened cheeks, which blush to meet the gaze.’ 

Selene with Crescent Moon hat
Long before the Greeks merely associated the moon with Artemis, Diana/Cynthia/or Hecate, they actually personified her as Selene, a disturbing, beautiful name of high antiquity stretching back to early Indo-European hunter-gatherer times. Selene, like Santa, had a chariot; sometimes she rode horseback. She had a great love life, since her boyfriend, the good-looking cowherd Endymion, was kept eternally young and asleep in a cave awaiting their next erotic encounter. She had exciting children including the Dew, the Months, and the poet Mousaios as well as the exquisite Narcissus and the dangerous Nemean lion.

"Honey, wake up. I'm ovulating!"

As a Briton I am proud that the idea that the goddess’s train of escorts were in fact green seems to have been the invention of the English showman Elkanah Settle, whose spectacular musical The World in the Moon (1697) included five green men dancing in Cynthia’s lunar court, to music by Daniel Purcell.

Lunar Crater 'HYPATIA'
But as a woman I am more impressed that according to the official Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature maintained by the International Astronomical Union, amongst the tiny proportion of moon craters named after women, the ancient astronomer Hypatia does at least feature alongside Plutarch and Aristarchus etc. 

Elfie begins her Lunar Escapade
And as soon as I have made the mince pies and finished trying to peer behind the clouds atop my wold to see the moon, which will be at its fullest shortly (11.11 GMT), I am going to return to Feminist Adventures in Lunar Lore. I am reading Frances Vescelius Austen’s Elfie's Visit to Cloudland and the Moon, partly based on Lucian’s thrilling moon-travel story in his True Histories. Austen’s novel antedates L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by several years, and thus may lay claim to feature the first female quest heroine in modern literature.
Dawn, Evening Star and Selene on a vase in St. Petersburg

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