Are you cyclically confused? In a ceremonial quandary? Completely clueless? Wonder no more.
Ask Your Mama, The What, When, Where, Why, How, and Who of Ceremony & Spirituality
by Mama Donna Henes, Urban Shaman
Dear Mama Donna,
I have noticed that when you refer to the new and full moons, you call them by very colorful names, for example the Harvest Moon, the Beaver Moon, etc. What do these names mean? What do they signify? Where do they come from? Could you kindly explain?
Moon Watcher in Massachusetts
Dear Moon Watcher,
You are in good company. People everywhere have always watched the moon, tracked its path, plotted its course, and counted its cycle of eternal return. Originally, the moon delineated the parameters of time, dividing the year into moonths.
Each new moon has usually been associated with and named for common seasonal phenomena – attributes of nature, animal traits, or human activities – which somehow relate to that particular lunar period. How the moonths are named says alot about a people, revealing specific details of environment, weather conditions, seasonal occupations, diet, and belief systems.
For example, the twelve moonth names of the Omaha, dwellers of the Great Plains and woodlands of the Missouri River valley in what is now Nebraska, clearly indicate that they were hunters, focused as they are primarily on animals: Moon In Which The Snow Drifts Into The Tents Of The Hoga, Moon In Which The Geese Come Home, Little Frog Moon, Moon In Which Nothing Happens, Moon In Which They Plant, Moon In Which The Buffalo Bulls Hunt The Cows, Moon In Which The Buffalo Bellow, Moon In Which The Elk Bellow, Moon In Which The Deer Paw The Earth, Moon In Which The Deer Rut, Moon In Which The Deer Shed Their Antlers, Moon In Which The Little Black Bears Are Born.
The calendar of their neighbors about five hundred miles to the north, the Ojibway, reflects a completely different lifestyle. Here, along the heavily forested waterways surrounding the western Great Lakes, agriculture was impractical and large prey scarce. The people thrived on the wild fruits and grains that they gathered. Long Moon, Spirit Moon, Moon Of The Suckers, Moon Of The Crust On The Snow, Moon Of The Breaking Of Snowshoes, Moon Of The Flowers And Blooms, Moon Of Strawberries, Moon Of Raspberries, Moon Of Gathering Wild Rice, Moon Of The Falling Leaves, Moon Of Freezing, Little Moon Of The Spirit.
The Ugric Ostiak, a group living further north still on the vast, empty tundra of northern Siberia has produced moon names which reflect their chilly existence. Trees seem to have been prized for their rarity and the importance of their wood – less for fuel than for shelter for themselves and their horses. The list also suggests that fish and game birds are import food staples. Spawning Month, Pine-Sapwood Month, Birch-Sapwood Month, Salmon-Weir Month, Month Of Hay Harvest, Ducks-And-Geese-Go-Away Month, Naked Tree Month, Pedestrian Month, Month Of Going Home While Ice Still Remains, Month Of Going On Horseback, Great Month, Little Winter-Ridge Month, Windy Month Of Crows.
Compared with these, the English language month names fall flat. We have inherited our months intact from the Roman calendar, reformed and instituted by Julius Caesar in 45 B.C. The names signify very little to us anymore, and are, as far as most of us know, totally devoid of meaningful allusions to the natural world.
Januarius, the New Year month was named for the god, Janus, who looks both backward and forward in time. Februarius was for Februus, god who oversees the cleansing of sins. Martius was for the war god, Mars, perhaps in deference to March’s stormy weather. Aprilis, from the Latin, aperire, means “to open” or “to bud.” Maius was in honor of Maia, Goddess of Green Growth. Junius, from the Latin, junores, “young people,” might refer to the fertility festivals celebrated around the summer solstice.
Julius was named for Julius Caesar, author of the calendar and Augustus was for Augustus, Caesar’s grandnephew and heir. As if the cup of inspiration had run dry after allocating the eighth name, the remaining months were given numbers, which, having once belonged to a previous and outdated calendar, weren’t even correct. The ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth months, September, October, November and December, actually mean seven, eight nine and ten! Boring.
Of all possible moonth designations, the ones which make the most sense to me living in the Northeast United States are the descriptive names given to the moonths by the Iroquois peoples – the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora – the original inhabitants of the heart of New York State from Albany to Buffalo. The seasonal changes that they describe are completely recognizable. What do I know, after all, about Julius Caesar? Let alone when the salmon spawns, the kangaroo whelps, the crocodiles lay, or when the yams are ripe?
The Wolf Moon, The Snow Moon, when the Winter is long; The Sap Moon, The Pink Moon, when Spring rises up; The Flower Moon, The Strawberry Moon, when the world is in blossom; The Buck Moon, The Sturgeon Moon, when Summer is at its strongest; The Harvest Moon, The Hunter Moon, when Autumn settles in; The Beaver Moon, The Cold Moon, during the darkest days. Yep!
There are many books that list Native American moon names. Find the original moonth names for your geographic vicinity. Most likely, they will still resonate for your bio-region. If they speak to you, use them. If not, invent your own. Just look up, look around, set your mind on the moon and open your heart to the cycle of the seasons. Meaningful names will suggest themselves.
We in the United States have, for all intents and purposes, have evolved a contemporary cultural calendar for ourselves; one that we all recognize; one that bespeaks the ways of our society. These, as I see it, are the moonths we really observe:
January – The Month When Grown Men Compete for Dominance by Fighting Over the Inflated Skin of a Pig
February – The Month When We Become Sentimental and Maudlin About Love and Work Ourselves into a Fit of Depression
March – The Month When We Stand Eggs on End in Order to Remember That We Are Part of This Planet
April – The Month When We Are Coerced into Contributing to the War Chest
May – The Month That Ends in a Three Day Shopping Frenzy in Honor of Our Dead Soldiers
June – The Month When the Children Are Set Free
July – The Month When We Applaud Bombs Bursting in Air
August – The Month When We Suddenly Remember All the Warnings About The Greenhouse Effect
September – The Month When We Buy New Notebooks and Set Off to School in the Spirit of Renewed Determination
October – The Month When We Worry About Our Children Eating Candy with Razor Blades or Poison in It
November – The Month When We Stuff Ourselves Silly
December – The Month When We Spend Too Much Money and Drink Too Much Egg Nog and Get Depressed Anyway
Are you cyclically confused? In a ceremonial quandary? Completely clueless? Wonder no more. Send your questions about seasons, cycles, and celebrations to Mama Donna at firstname.lastname@example.org