The Mysterious Moon has long been contemplated and admired by millions of men and women over thousands of years. From prehistoric tribal leaders to 21rst century philosophers and scientists, it has been the source of curiosity, legends, and storytelling. The full moon inspires myth and mystery, music and madness. But what you see on the face of it, and the stories inspired by it differ by region and culture, depending on where in the world a storyteller views the moon...
The "Man in the Moon" can refer to mythological characters that live on or in the moon, but are not necessarily represented by markings on the moon such as the Chinese legend of Yue Laou, or Yue Lao. Literally translated Yue Lao means old man under the moon. As the legend goes, a young man named Wei Gu was unsuccessfully searching for a wife. During one of these searches in Song City he sees an old man sitting under the moon, reading a book. Wei Gu asks the old man what he is reading, and the man answers that it is the book of marriages, and that he needs to tie a red ribbon between a man and a woman joining them together to marry them. Wei Gu then asks the old man to show him his future wife. The old man shows him an old woman with a 3 year old child. Angry, Wei Gu tries to kill the child, but doesn't succeed. Years later, a high official offers the hand of his daughter to Wei Gu in marriage. Happily, Wei Gu accepts, but after the ceremony he notices a scar on the forehead of his new wife. He asks her about it, and she tells him that someone tried to murder her in Song City when she was a small child. Wei Gu realizes that he was the one who tried to murder her. This story spread and soon people were praying to the old man for concerns regarding marriage. Since he didn't have a name, he was simply called "The Old Man Under the Moon", or Yue Lao. Temples and celebrations were, and are, dedicated to this diety. Today, Chinese marriage ceremonies incorporate the tradition of tying a red ribbon between the bride and the groom.
To most of us, the Man in the Moon refers to any of several pareidolic images of a human face, head, or body that certain traditions recognize in the disc of the full moon. Planetary geologist Cassandra Runyun says these images are actually composed of dark areas of lunar maria, or "seas" of basaltic plains formed by ancient lava flows from volcanic eruptions and meteorite impacts, and the lighter, or anorthosite, highlands of the lunar surface. When we see them, an innate form of pattern recognition---or invention---kicks in. Most of us see something. Why? Because of this phenomena called "lunar pareidolia"---a cosmic Rorschach test in which we perceive illusory images based on the moon's surface features. Various cultures recognize other examples of lunar pareidolia such as women, rabbits, and dogs.
In the Northern Hemisphere one common perception of the face is that the figure's eyes are Mares Imbrium and Serenitatio, the nose is Sirius Aestuum, and the open mouth is Mares Nubium and Cognitum. Older European tradition sees a figure of a man (Maria Serenitatis, Tranquilitatis, Fecunditatis and Nectaris) carrying a wide burden or a bundle of sticks on his back (Mare Vaporum, and Lacus Somniorum), accompanied by a small dog (Mare Crisium).
In Europe the man was banished to the moon for some crime. To some he is an old man caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath. German culture tells of a man stealing from a neighbor's hedgerow (a closely planted row of trees, bushes or hedges to form a boundary) to repair his own. Roman legend holds that he is a sheep thief. In medieval times it is Cain doomed to circle the earth for eternity as punishment for killing his brother, Abel. Talmudic tradition tells us the image is of Jacob engraved on the face of the moon. In the English middle ages, and during the Renaissance, the moon was the god and protector of drunkards. Indeed the "Man in the Moon" enjoys drink, especially Claret! There were at least 3 English Taverns at the time named "The Man in the Moone"
In India, they identify "handprints". Astangi Mata, mother of all living things, sent her twins into the sky to become the sun and the moon. Her hands brushed Chanda's cheek in a poignant farewell.
In Norse mythology, Mani (meaning "moon") crosses the sky in a horse and carriage continually pursued by "the Great Wolf who catches up with him at Ragnarok. Ragnarok is a Norse legend telling of a devastating series of events, including a great battle in which several prominent figures die, including the gods Odin, Thor, and Loki. The earth then undergoes a number of natural disasters, and is finally completely flooded. Earth re-emerges fresh and new, the surviving and returning gods meet, and the earth is repopulated by two surviving human beings.
Chinese myth has it that the Goddess Chang'e is stranded on the moon after accidentally consuming a double dose of immortality potion. She is accompanied by a small group of rabbits. In Japan, moon gazers see a rabbit making rice cakes with a mortar and pestle. They see the rabbit in China and Korea, too, except he is mixing an immortality elixir. Moon rabbits also appear in Mesoamerican myths. Mesoamerica was the complex of aboriginal cultures that developed in parts of Mexico and Central America prior to the Spanish invasion of the 16th century. It is the New World's counterpart to the civilizations of Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China with its refinement of intellectual pursuits, its sophisticated monuments and cities, and the organization of its kingdoms and empires.
Haida, the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest coast, the indigenous natives to Haida Gwaii, or the Queen Charlotte Islands, tell us that a boy gathering sticks is taken from Earth as punishment for disrespecting his elders.
The "Tree in the Moon" can be seen in Hawaii. A woman called Hina uses this banyan tree to make cloth for the gods. Mahina, the Hawaiian word for "moon" is derived from her name.
Not to be left out, the "Woman in the Moon" of New Zealand is Rona. She is a maiden who disrespected the moon, and so must spend eternity there as penance.
Thanks to the human knack of this pattern recognition, we are helping NASA analyze new moon data. The Lunar Science Institute's Brian Day says that as detailed photos emerge, computers struggle to ID what they see on the variable lunar terrain. Citizen scientists can easily count craters (at moonzoo.org, and CosmoQuest.org). The most pocked parts of the moon are the oldest, so their tallies are key to surface dating. Day says that picking out patterns on the moon is a capacity we've used for eons. Now, it has a 21st century application!