Have you ever heard the phrase – once in a blue moon. I should think so. So I delved a little deeper to find out what it really means and where it comes from
Four full moons in a season
The first definition refers to a fourth full moon in a season. The year has four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter and normally each season has 3 full moons. So that brings the yearly total to 12 full moons. The same reason why the year has 12 calendar months.
The Ancient Roman year had 12 moon cycles and then a period of rest (roughly what we now call January and February). The new year started again in March. This coincided with the start of the new military marching season, ruled by Mars, the God of war). To keep the year in sync with the seasons occasionally another moon cycle was added, which then brought the total number of full moons to 13. This meant that one season had 4 full moons instead of 3 and the 4th full moon was called ”a blue moon’. When Julius Caesar adopted the solar calendar model, he created 12 calendar months per year. (calendar comes from the Latin word for register) and abolished the13th month.
Although the sun calendar replaced the former lunar model for official duties and taxes, many pagan rituals were still celebrated in accordance with the moon cycle. When Emperor Constantin adopted Christianity as the ‘official Roman religion’ anything pagan got a bad press. The Catholic church rallied against the ancient pagan practices and the number 13 became the ‘number of witches’. It was hailed the unlucky number, especially if the combination fell on a Friday (the day of worship for Friga, the pagan fertility goddess). This lore is still alive in fairy stories. Do you remember the 12 good fairy godmothers in Sleeping Beauty and the 13th came to dinner and spoilt it all!
To give you an idea of how often this happens – The last ‘Blue Moon’ according to this definition occurred just recently on the 21st May 2016 and the next ‘blue moon’ will happen on 18th May 2019 and after that on the 22nd August 2021. So on average, a Blue Moon happens every 3 years, hence the saying ‘ once in a blue moon’, meaning an event which is very rare.
2. Two full moons in a calendar month
Another way of describing a ‘blue moon’ came later. Normally a calendar month has one New Moon and one Full Moon, but occasionally 2 of each can occur in the same month. From the 19th century onwards it became popular to call the second Full Moon in a given calendar month ‘a blue moon’. Although still rare, this event occurs more randomly than the first definition. The last time this kind of Blue Moon happened was in March 2016 and there were no Blue Moons in 2017. 2018 had a Blue Moon in January (31st), no full moon in February, and then again another Blue Moon in March (31st March). After that, the next Blue Moon happens in October 2020.
Our ancestors used the sun, the moon and the stars to measure time and form the very first calendars (meaning register). The earth orbiting the sun marks the annual year. The moon cycle was the blueprint for the month and the weeks (28 days dived by the 4 quarter of the moon cycle – 7 day week).
The Ancient Greek word for moon ‘mene’ is the root for minute, month, and even menstruation. Very early on the correlation between the timescale of the moon cycle and the female fertility cycle was well understood. Moon gods/goddesses were called upon for all kinds of fertility problems. These could be a lack of conceiving, problems with the menopause or failed harvests and food production.
The lunar month was the first properly understood time-measuring tool. It enabled hunter-gatherer societies during the Stone Age to forecast seasonal changes, schedule events/celebrations and stock up on food reserves for the winter months.
Animal bones found in the Dordogne region of France are believed to be the first moon calendars known to man. These archaeological finds date back to around 28,000 B.C. and show different patterns of notches that define the passing of time between the New Moon to the Full Moon. Find out more about the history of the lunar calendar.
The Ancient Lunar year consisted of 12 moon cycles, determined by the four cornerstones of the year, the winter solstice (21st December = the shortest day of the year), the summer solstice (21st June = the longest day of the year) and the spring and autumn equinoxes (21st March and 23 September = when the length of the day equals night).
But since 12 moon cycles fall a few days short per year (354 days), a solution had to be found. So every other year a leap year with 13th moon cycle was introduced to bring the seasons back in sync with the Ancient Lunar year. The Ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese calendars all operated this system.
When Julius Ceasar arrived in 48 B.C. in Egypt, he did not only fall in love with Cleopatra, but he also immersed himself into Egyptian science. He was particularly intrigued by the way the Egyptian calendar system worked. At the time the Egyptian calendar was the only purely solar calendar of its time. It counted 365 and 1/4 days per year. An astonishing achievement, considering it was first put in place around 4200 B.C.
Upon his return to Rome Caesar ordered a massive Roman calendar reform and the Julian calendar was born. The newly formed Roman year had only 12 months and the starting date (previously March, named after the War God Mars and the start date of the Roman marching season) was moved to the 1st January. Ceasar named his birth month after himself, now July. His successor Augustus did the same and modestly name August after himself.
But for all the yearly time-keeping improvement that the Egyptian calendar brought, Cesar wisely kept all the lunar festivals and names of the previous months intact. Otherwise, his reform would have been too radical and confusing. Can you imagine – September (previously the seventh month) would theoretically now be the 9th and should really be called November and so on.
Had it not been for Ceasar’s enthusiasm for the Egyptian culture, he would have probably chosen the most efficient calendar system of its time. The Lunisolar Calendar as operated by the Sumerians and later Babylonians, which combined the solar and lunar cycle.
Caesar almost got it right, but there was a slight miscalculation in the Egyptian calendar when it came to leap years. The solar year actually counts precisely 365 days, 5hours, 48minutes and 45 seconds. That difference would finally add up to 10 days! In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII finally corrected this mishap and introduced another calendar reform which we still use to this day – the Gregorian Calendar.
But there was another error creeping in. The years (meaning the rotation of the earth around the sun) are slowing down – appropriately 1/2 a second per century. So in 1972, the answer was found by employing the ‘atomic clock’ and that is what all our computers, phones, alarm clocks use today for accurately measuring time. It is no longer connected to the stars, the moon and the heavens. We have disconnected ourselves from all these movements and now we follow the oscillations of atoms. This tool is called UTC – the Co-ordinated Universal Time.
I am happy to follow the UTC clock to time my zoom calls and alarm clock. But when it comes to structuring my own life, I happily revert back to the Lunisolar calendar (the calendar model the LWTM lifestyle calendar is modeled on). This calendar does not only measure time, but it also gives an insight into the ‘quality of time’, a fantastic tool to structure my life.
In the Northern Hemisphere, the night of the 20th to 21st June marks the longest day of the year. Nowadays, in a time with an all-round electricity supply, this may not seem significant. But picture a day a few hundred years ago. There were no street lights, TVs, or other artificial sources of light. In the home candles and fireplaces were the only tools to illuminate the darkness. Outside however the only light sources in the night sky were the moon and the stars.
Having longer access to daylight was so significant that our ancestors worshipped the longest day of the year. It meant that the growing season was at its peak and the countdown to the shortest day of the year (21st December) would begin. This is of course only true when you live in the Northern Hemisphere. “Down under” the opposite happens and the December Solstice is the longest day in the year.
Monuments to worship the Solstice included The Karnak temple (Luxor, Egypt), Stonehenge (UK), Angokr Wat (Cambodia), and the Serpent Mound (Ohio, US).
On Serpent Mound, believed to have been built thousands of years ago, a large serpent and head are carved into the landscape. On the 21st June, the open jaws of the serpent align with the setting sun, as if the dragon is spitting out ‘fire’. This spectacle was even further enhanced by a large crystal (showing the eye of the dragon), which was situated in the serpent’s head. Unfortunately, this large crystal was stolen during the 18th century and the solstice effect is now only half as effective.
What happens during a solstice?
As the earth moves around the sun, its path resembles more of an eclipse than that of a circle.
When the path of the sun is at its most northern point in the Northern Hemisphere (which happens every year on the 20/21st June) we see a summer solstice – the longest day of the year.
During the night of the 20/21st December however, the sun lies at its most Southern point, therefore it is the longest day in the Southern Hemisphere and the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere. On the 21st March and 23rd September, the sun forms an exact 90-degree angle, therefore days and nights are the same – everywhere.
There are so many traditions that I can’t mention them all. One of my favourite is the ritual of the Baltic sun goddess Saule. Every day this tireless goddess rides her fiery chariot across the sky, from morning to nightfall, when she retires to her castle. Saule is the goddess of fertility and the land, a similar version to Demeter in Greece.
Farmers prayed to her to have a good harvest and around the Summer Solstice, the whole community celebrated by lighting bonfires. Partly to worship her and ward off evil spirits. Young people wore wreaths of flowers, leaping over fires, singing, and dancing.
Today we are still singing and dancing – although this year we will have to dance alone at home. This is made even more powerful that this year’s solstice falls on a day of a New Moon (signifying retreat, new beginning and time alone – very poignant). And to top all this there will also be a solar eclipse happening on the 21st of June – so a monumental day in the sky!
The calendar reform and introduction of leap years
In the beginning, all calendars were lunar and guided by the monthly lunar cycle. When Julius Caesar visited Egypt, he fell in love with Cleopatra and immersed himself in Egyptian culture and scientific teachings.
When he returned to Rome, he brought with him the desire to correct the then outdated Roman Calendar and replace it with a model that followed the path of the sun. In this calendar the Roman astronomers inserted leap years, but they occured on average every 3 years.
His new Roman calendar, also called the Julian Calendar was introduced in Rome on the 1st of January 45B.C. and for centuries this model stood its test of time. But during the Middle Ages, it became apparent that the Julian Calendar was no longer totally accurate.
In the early 13th century A.D. an English friar named Roger Bacon calculated that the solar year was actually 11 minutes longer than Julius Caesar’s astronomers had calculated. By 1267 this had amounted to around nine days. Bacon wrote to Pope Clement IV and asked that the church should correct the calendar. If this issue was left unfixed the months would shift to such an extent that the holy days of Easter and Christmas would fall into a completely different seasons.
Pope Clement IV was very interested and asked Bacon to send his findings to the Vatican. Over the next year Bacon set off to compose his theories in a manuscript he called Opus Maius (Major Work). In this work he set out (amongst many other topics) to prove that the current way solstices and equinoxes were calculated had gone completely out of sync with the true seasons and a calendar reform was badly needed.
Sadly for Bacon Pope Clement IV died in 1268 before he could read or evaluate this important document. His successor Gregory X was less sympathetic and Bacon’s book became largely forgotten. But the friar did not rest and kept publishing his demands for calendar reform. In 1277 these calls landed him in prison and his ‘dangerous teachings’ were deemed to be heretic and were largely suppressed by the Catholic church.
It took almost another 300 years before Roger Bacon’s demand finally got taken seriously. Around 1573 Pope Gregory XIII appointed a calendar commission to look into the lost days. By this point it had amounted to 11.5 days.
This commission was led by the mathematician Christopher Clavius who directed work on the commission, but the main author was a physician called Aloysius Lilius (sometimes referred to as Luigi Lilio) who comprehended the papal bull that Gregory would issue on 24 February 1582. Unfortunately Lilio would not see his work to fruition and passed away in 1576, leaving Clavius to credit his work and drive the commission to completion.
The final product – the still used Gregorian Calendar – has now the correct length of year which corresponds exactly with the solistices and equinoxes and the year stays in complete sync with the season. The leap year correction added a day to the shortest month of the year – February – so every 4 years now February counts for 29days instead of the customary 28.
Most of you know probably know the nursery rhyme Hey Diddle Diddle The cat and the fiddle, The cow jumped over the moon. The little dog laughed, To see such sport, And the dish ran away with the spoon.
I always pondered particularly at the line ‘ The cow jumped over the moon’, thinking it was just silly little nursery rhyme to pacify children who would not want to go to sleep. But in fact, there there is a theory that ‘the cow jumped over the moon’ related to the Ancient Goddess Hathor and was probably badly translated from Ancient Greek texts and put into a nursery rhyme.
I recently visited Knossos, the birthplace of the Minoan civilization. For all of you that have not heard much about this place, Knossos was the largest Minoan royal palace, situated in Crete.
The Minoans were the first major culture in Europe ( 2700 to 1450 B.C.) to worship only one God. They left behind palaces, advanced pieces of pottery, fantastic jewelry and many unsolved mysteries. Below you can see the throne room where ‘King Minos’ reigned in the palace that is famous for its Minotaur.
The Minoan had a lunisolar calendar
They were the first monotheist society and their god was a woman – similar to later Demeter – the Mother Earth
I undertook a tour at the famous ruins and towards the end of the tour I asked where was the famous labyrinth and the guide answered – you are standing in it – it was the palace itself. It had so many rooms that foreign visitors saw it as a labyrinth. My remaining question of course was – and where was the Minotaur?
According to legend, Minos prayed to Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull as a sign of support and as offering to the Goddess. But Minos did not slaughter the bull but kept it instead alive. So Poseidon punished him by making Minos’ wife Pasiphae fall in love with the bull and conceive an offspring called the Minotaur, half man – half bull.
The bull was always very connected to the Minoan culture. There are still frescos preserved which show young athletes, male and female, jump over a bull. But why would a bull jump over the moon?
Babylonian calendar records exist that points to a very possible Minoan connection and suggest that the existence of the lunisolar calendar and solar and lunar phenomena were recorded more than a thousand years before the Babylonians and came from the Minoans in Crete.
A rich and seafaring civilization such as the Minoans would have had a calendar system of sorts and would have traded with Egypt, the Phoenicians and Sumerians. Furthermore, King Minos was not one person, but a title, such as Ceasar or Pharoah. So there were many King Minos and their time in office was limited to one big lunisolar cycle, lasting around 8 years. Then a new King Minos would come into office. The most likely explanation is the octagonal cycle that occurs every 8 years when Venus completes her cycle and returns in its original position at the same point in the sky. As no firm calendar records survive we can only speculate.
But it would totally correspond with the practices of other cultures, including the Mayans. They also used the Venus cycle (when the path of Venus, the Earth and the sun align) together with the lunar phases to calculate the synodic period of Venus (584 days). The ratio of the earth cycle to Venus is 8:5. So 5 Venus years and 8 Earth years coincide, making this a marker when the sky resets to its original position. This is quite significant in a time when there were no other ways of recording precise timings.
So coming back to the cow and the moon. The Minotaur most likely represented the worship of the sun and the moon. The mother goddess = nature, represented by the 8-year cycle where the Sun, the Earth and Venus perfectly aligned again – and the Moon God (represented by a bull with 2 horns showing the Waxing and the Waning Moon and the moon cycle). The monster Minotaur was most probably a ritual involving bulls and sacrifices in the palace of Knossos. This was followed by sporting events, a sort of blueprint of the later Olympic Games.
But why is the cow jumping over the moon and not the other way round? The bull-jumping has certainly something to do with it. We know that the Minoans build their palaces to align with the solstices and the winter solstice seems to have had a particular significance, as it symbolized the rebirth of the sun.
The star Orion, ‘the bull of the sky’, is visible in the Northern Hemisphere between November and February and rises over the crescent of the winter moons. Could that be the cow jumping over the moon?
The moon has been the Earth’s nocturnal companion for around 4.5 billion years. There are a few theories about how the moon was formed. The most convincing one to date is the Theia impact theory. Around 4.5 billion years ago the new earth collided with an astronomical body the size of Mars. This impact was so great that a lot of debris flew off and formed the current moon. In contrast to the earth, the moon has a lower density than the earth and a relatively small iron core.
Today the moon is responsible to keep the earth axes to a stable, 23.4 degrees. This provides us with a fairly mild weather pattern throughout the year and a temperate climate. Mars, for example, has no stabilizing moon and the weather is totally unpredictable. One day could be very hot and the next very cold. Without the moon, there would be no seasons and regulated day and night. In short, the moon’s stabilizing influence makes life on earth possible.
Lunar gravitation is greater on the side facing the moon and that creates the tides. The moon rotates around the earth and the gravitational pull travels with it forming on average 2 high and 2 low tides per day.
Additionally, this tidal friction slows the earth rotation down and keeps it to a 24-hour rhythm.
Here is a time-line and some interesting facts about this fascinating celestial body:
4.5 billion years ago the moon was formed
The similar time scale of the human fertility cycle and moon cycle did not go unnoticed. The first primitive moon calendars appeared around 30,000 B.C. usually carved into wooden pieces and animal bones.
The horn (symbolizing the lunar crescent) has always been a fertility symbol.
Most cultures portrayed the moon as ‘female’ as it is connected to water (the tides), night and fertility.
People carved little statues of a moon goddess and prayed to it. The most commonly known ones were Isis (Egypt), Selene, Artemis, Hekate (Greece) and Luna in Rome.
The goddess Luna was celebrated on the night of a Full Moon. Then predominately women got together and ate moon-shaped cakes.
Statues of moon goddesses were found the world over. From Central Africa, Egypt, Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and finally they came to Europe. Many churches, especially those dedicated to Mary, are usually built on ancient pagan shrines, all honoring the moon goddess – Artemis, Diana, Luna, Isis, Kybele and whatever else she was called.
In the Middle Ages, herb women still practiced pagan health care rituals and herbal lore. Many providing basic healthcare and delivered babies.