Fly me to the moon!

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module (Eagle) on the moon, as Michael Collins orbited the moon in the command module (Pilot).  Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on July 16 and returned to Earth on July 24 after more than eight days in space. Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, famously declaring as he did so ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.’

In addition to its historic and scientific importance, the Apollo 11 mission was, and remains, a culturally significant event. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, UCD Library’s Cultural Heritage Units have consulted our catalogues and prepared two blog posts (one today and one tomorrow) in celebration of the moon and the moon landings themselves. Today’s blog looks at the moon in folklore, science and literature.

The Moon in Folk Tradition

‘I cannot tell whether the wilder sort of Irishry yeeld divine honour unto the Moone. For when they see her first after the change, commonly they bow the knee and say over the Lord’s praier, and; so soone as they have made an end they speake unto the Moone with a lowd voice in this manner: Leave us as whole and sound as thou hath found us.
William Camden, Brittania (1586)

The idea that fate has a controlling power over human destiny has been very strong in the popular mind since time immemorial. Indeed, so uncertain was life in earlier times that through the observation of signs and omens around them—by looking to nature, and to the Heavens—our forebears attempted to protect themselves against malevolent influence and misfortune. It should come as no surprise then, that there exists in tradition a considerable body of folk belief and custom pertaining to the moon and its influence on human affairs.

In ancient times, each day of the week was named after the deity or heavenly body presiding over it: Tuesday was originally dedicated to the Roman god Mars (the Irish language name for the day still bearing his influence: Dé Máirt), later being named after the Germanic deity Tyr (in a process known as Interpretatio Germanica). Wednesday was dedicated by the Germans to Wotan, having originally been named for Mercury by the Romans (visible in the French ‘Mecredi’). Thursday bears the influence of the Germanic god Thor, Friday belonged to Freya (Venus, for the Romans), Saturn presided over Saturday and the Sun (perhaps unsurprisingly) Sunday. Early Christian practices are also visible in Irish language words for days of the week, with Dé Céadaoin (Wednesday) meaning ‘first fast’, Dé hAoine (Friday) meaning ‘Day of Fasting’ and Déardaoin (Thursday) meaning ‘Day between two Fasts’. Finally, Dé Luan (Monday) was understood as being under lunar influence.

The re-appearance of the moon each month was met with a certain mixture of trepidation and hope in folk tradition. Prayers were often said on sight of the new moon, and it was believed that to see the new moon through glass—through a window for example—was unlucky. Even the light of the moon was considered dangerous, and those who slept with the light of the moon upon their faces were in danger of losing their senses and becoming lunatics (the Irish word phrase to describe madness—le ghealaigh—meaning literally to be ‘with the moon’).

'Man in the Moon'

‘Man in the Moon’ illustration from ‘The Nursery Rhyme Book’ by Andrew Lang, 1897. Courtesy of University of Oklahoma.

The idea that the moon was inhabited is a particularly common idea, finding expression in myths and folk traditions the world over. A popular traditional explanation for the ‘Man on the Moon’ relates the story of an individual who (having profaned the Sabbath by going out to gather sticks on a Sunday) was swept away to the moon there to remain forever. A 1937 account collected by the Irish Folklore Commission as part of the Schools’ Collection (and available online at Dúchas) elaborates on this idea, explaining how a lazy husband who ignored his wife’s counsel to go out to the woods to gather sticks on a Saturday evening so as to avoid profaning the Sabbath was swept away to the moon where he now resides.

In parts of Ireland, the Man in the Moon is named—in Kerry we hear of ‘Seáinín sa Ghealaigh’, while the people of Cork had ‘Éamonn na Ghealaigh’ (which was also a term employed to describe a useless sort of a man) and in Donegal, we find reference to Dómhnall na Ghealaigh. Dómhnall was a young fellow who was swept up to the moon for his having first refused, before relenting, to fetch a pail of water from the well for his mother. Arriving at the well and cursing his misfortune and his chores, he beheld the full moon that was out that night, and wished himself to be upon it, whereupon it came down to earth and promptly swept him away. Young Dómhnall took hold of some bushes growing by the well, but it was to no avail; all were swept—bushes, water can and boy—taken up to the moon where he will reside for all eternity.

So—the moral is clear—do what your mother says or spend the rest of time orbiting the earth on a lifeless body approximately 4.6 billion years old. It is also worth noting that the above account, collected in 1938, would suggest that the good people of Donegal were on familiar terms with the lunar surface long before NASA’s astronauts ever set foot upon it!

Science and Literature

The Royal College of Science for Ireland Library held in UCD Special Collections contains many books pertaining to astronomy and celestial bodies including, of course the planets (including one from 1876 that predicts the 2012 transit of Venus), the sun, stars and the moon. The nineteenth century was a very important period in the advancement of the sciences including astronomy. The titles and illustrations from the following books within the RCScI collection demonstrate the approach to the topic and the context of the scholarship.

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd was an American lawyer and astronomer. He invented instruments for his studies, including the micrometer for measuring photographs, a machine for producing improved ruled diffraction gratings, and the first telescope designed specifically for astrophotography. Using these instruments, Rutherfurd produced exceptional photographs of the sun, moon, and planets, including those of the moon shown above taken from The moon: her motions, aspect, scenery and physical condition (1873).

Selenography is the study of the surface and physical features of the moon. Edmund Neville Nevill, also known as Edmund Neison, wrote a key text on this called The moon and the condition and configurations of it surface which was published in London in 1876. Contained within are numerous illustrations of the moons surface.

Of course the moon has always been a source of inspiration for creative writers of all kinds including those who write for children. UCD Special Collections holds the John Manning collection of Victorian and Edwardian children’s books which includes this lovely title From the Earth to the Moon Direct in 97 hours 20 minutes: and a trip round it by Jules Verne (London, Samson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1875). If only we could all go to the moon by train!

The RTÉ Radio Drama and Variety Scripts Collection in UCD Archives includes an adaptation of Jules Verne’s Earth to the Moon which ends with combining the voices of the characters with the voice of Neil Armstrong.

Join us again tomorrow when we look at material in our heritage collections to relates to the moon landings themselves!

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan and Jonny Dillon, Assistant Archivist, National Folklore Collection, and Evelyn Flanagan, Head of Special Collections, UCD Special Collections.

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