Curious Myths of the Middle Ages/The Man in the Moon

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From L. Richter.

EVERY one knows that the moon is inhabited by a man with a bundle of sticks on his back, who has been exiled thither for many centuries, and who is so far off that he is beyond the reach of death.

He has once visited this earth, if the nursery rhyme is to be credited, when it asserts that—

“The Man in the Moon
 Came down too soon,
 And asked his way to Norwich;”

but whether he ever reached that city, the same authority does not state.

The story as told by nurses is, that this man was found by Moses gathering sticks on a Sabbath, and that, for this crime, he was doomed to reside in the moon till the end of all things; and they refer to Numbers xv. 32—36:

“And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the Sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation. And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him. And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp. And all the congregation brought him without the camp, and stoned him with stones till he died.”

Of course, in the sacred writings there is no allusion to the moon.

The German tale is as follows:—

Ages ago there went one Sunday morning an old man into the wood to hew sticks. He cut a faggot and slung it on a stout staff, cast it over his shoulder, and began to trudge home with his burden. On his way he met a handsome man in Sunday suit, walking towards the Church; this man stopped and asked the faggot-bearer, “Do you know that this is Sunday on earth, when all must rest from their labors?”

“Sunday on earth, or Monday in heaven, it is all one to me!” laughed the wood-cutter.

“Then bear your bundle forever,” answered the stranger; “and as you value not Sunday on earth, yours shall be a perpetual Moon-day in heaven; and you shall stand for eternity in the moon, a warning to all Sabbath-breakers.” Thereupon the stranger vanished, and the man was caught up with his stock and his faggot into the moon, where he stands yet.

The superstition seems to be old in Germany, for the full moon is spoken of as wadel, or wedel, a faggot. Tobler relates the story thus: “An arena mā ket alawel am Sonnti holz ufglesa. Do hedem der liebe Gott dwahl gloh, öb er lieber wött ider sonn verbrenna oder im mo verfrüra, do willer lieber inn mo ihi. Dromm siedma no jetz an ma im mo inna, wenns wedel ist. Er hed a püscheli uffem rogga[1].” That is to say, he was given the choice of burning in the sun, or of freezing in the moon; he chose the latter; and now at full moon he is to be seen seated with his bundle of fagots on his back.

In Schaumburg-lippe,[2] the story goes, that a man and a woman stand in the moon, the man because he strewed brambles and thorns on the church path, so as to hinder people from attending Mass on Sunday morning; the woman because she made butter on that day. The man carries his bundle of thorns, the woman her butter-tub. A similar tale is told in Swabia and in Marken. Fischart[3] says, that there “is to be seen in the moon a manikin who stole wood,” and Prætorius, in his description of the world[4], that “superstitious people assert that the black flecks in the moon are a man who gathered wood on a Sabbath, and is therefore turned into stone.”

At the time when wishing was of avail, say the North Frisians, a man, one Christmas eve, stole cabbages from his neighbour’s garden. When just in the act of walking off with his load, he was perceived by the people, who conjured him up into the moon. There he stands in the full moon to be seen by every body, bearing his load of cabbages to all eternity. Every Christmas eve he is said to turn round once. Others say that he stole willow bows, which he must bear for ever.

In Silt, the story goes that he was a sheep-stealer, who enticed sheep to him with a bundle of cabbages, until, as an everlasting warning to others, he was placed in the moon, where he constantly holds in his hand a bundle of these vegetables.

The people of Rantum say that he is a giant, who at the time of the flow stands in a stooping posture, because he is then taking up water, which he pours out on the earth, and thereby causes high tide; but at the time of the ebb he stands erect, and rests from his labour, when the water can subside again[5].

The Dutch household myth is, that the unhappy man was caught stealing vegetables. Dante calls him Cain:—

“… Now cloth Cain with fork of thorns confine,
 On either hemisphere, touching the wave
 Beneath the towers of Seville. Yesternight
 The moon was round.”—Hell, cant. xx.

And again,

“… Tell, I pray thee, whence the gloomy spots
 Upon this body, which below on earth
 Give rise to talk of Cain in fabling quaint?”
 Paradise, cant. ii.

Chaucer, in the “Testament of Cresside,” adverts to the man in the moon, and attributes to him the same idea of theft. Of Lady Cynthia, or the moon, he says—

“Her gite was gray and full of spottis blake,
 And on her brest a chorle painted ful even,
 Bering a bush of thornis on his backe,
 Whiche for his theft might clime so ner the heaven.”

Ritson, among his “Ancient Songs,” gives one extracted from a manuscript attributed by Mr. Wright to the period of Edward I., on the Man in the Moon, but in very obscure language. The first verse, altered into more modern orthography, runs as follows:

“Man in the Moon stand and stit,
  On his bot-fork his burden he beareth,
 It is much wonder that he do na doun slit,
  For doubt lest he fall he shudd’reth and shivereth.
* * * * *
“When the frost freezes must chill he bide,
  The thorns be keen his attire so teareth,
 Nis no wight in the world there wot when he syt,
  Ne bote it by the hedge what weeds he weareth.”

Alexander Necham, or Nequam, a writer of the twelfth century, in commenting on the dispersed shadows in the moon, thus alludes to the vulgar belief:—“Nonne novisti quid vulgus vocet rusticum in luna portantem spinas? Unde quidam vulgariter loquens ait:—

“Rusticus in Luna,
 Quem sarcina deprimit una
 Monstrat per opinas
 Nulli prodesse rapinas[6],”

which may be translated thus: “Do you know what they call the rustic in the moon, who carries the faggot of sticks? So that one vulgarly speaking says:—

“See the rustic in the Moon,
 How his bundle weighs him down;
 Thus his sticks the truth reveal,
 It never profits man to steal.”

Shakspeare refers to the same individual in his “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Quince the carpenter, giving directions for the performance of the play of “Pyramus and Thisbe,” orders: “One must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern, and say he comes in to disfigure, or to present, the person of Moonshine.” And the enacter of this part says, “All I have to say is, to tell you that the lantern is the moon; I the man in the moon; this thorn-bush my thorn-bush; and this dog my dog.”

Also “Tempest,” Act 2, Scene 2:

Cal. Hast thou not dropt from heaven?
Steph. Out o’ th’ moon, I do assure thee. I was the man in th’ moon when time was.
Cal. I have seen thee in her; and I do adore thee. My mistress showed me thee, and thy dog, and thy bush.”

The dog I have myself had pointed out to me by an old Devonshire crone. If popular superstition places a dog in the moon, it puts a lamb in the sun; for in the same county it is said that those who see the sun rise on Easter-day, may behold in the orb the lamb and flag.

I believe this idea of locating animals in the two great luminaries of heaven to be very ancient, and to be a relic of a primeval superstition of the Aryan race.

There is an ancient pictorial representation of our friend the Sabbath-breaker in Gyffyn Church, near Conway. The roof of the chancel is divided into compartments, in four of which are the Evangelistic symbols, rudely, yet effectively painted. Besides these symbols is delineated in each compartment an orb of heaven. The sun, the moon, and two stars, are placed at the feet of the Angel, the Bull, the Lion, and the Eagle. The representation of the moon is as below; in the disk is the

Curious Myths p 198 illustration 1.jpg

conventional man with his bundle of sticks, but without the dog. There is also a curious seal appended to a deed preserved in the Record Office,

Curious Myths p 198 illustration 2.jpg

dated the 9th year of Edward the Third (1335), bearing the man in the moon as its device. The deed is one of conveyance of a messuage, barn, and four acres of ground, in the parish of Kingston-on-Thames, from Walter de Grendesse, clerk, to Margaret his mother. On the seal we see the man carrying his sticks, and the moon surrounds him. There are also a couple of stars added, perhaps to show that he is in the sky. The legend on the seal reads:—

“Te Waltere docebo
 cur spinas phebo

which may be translated, “I will teach thee, Walter, why I carry thorns in the moon.”

The carved wooden sign of the “Man in the Moon,” in Wych Street, Strand, a rare example of the suspended signs now to be found built into the wall, must not pass unnoticed. Other items connected with lunar mythology must be only briefly alluded to. According to the classic tale the figure in the moon is probably Endymion, beloved of Selene, and held by her passionately to her bosom. The Egyptian representations of the moon with a figure in the disk, represent the little Horus in the womb of his mother Isis. Plutarch wrote a tract on the Face in the Moon. Clemens Alexandrinus tells us the face is that of a Sibyl[7].

The general superstition with regard to the spots in the moon may briefly be summed up thus: A man is located in the moon; he is a thief or Sabbath-breaker[8]; he has a pole over his shoulder, from which is suspended a bundle of sticks or thorns. In some places a woman is believed to accompany him, and she has a butter-tub with her; in other localities she is replaced by a dog.

The belief in the Moon-man seems to exist among the natives of British Columbia; for I read in one of Mr. Duncan’s letters to the Church Missionary Society:—“One very dark night I was told that there was a moon to see on the beach. On going to see, there was an illuminated disk, with the figure of a man upon it. The water was then very low, and one of the conjuring parties had lit up this disk at the water’s edge. They had made it of wax, with great exactness, and presently it was at full. It was an imposing sight. Nothing could be seen around it; but the Indians suppose that the medicine party are then holding converse with the man in the moon. … After a short time the moon waned away, and the conjuring party returned whooping to their house.”

Now let us turn to Scandinavian mythology, and see what we learn from that source.

Mâni, the moon, stole two children from their parents, and carried them up to heaven. Their names were Hjuki and Bil. They had been drawing water from the well Byrgir, in the bucket Seegr, suspended from the pole Simul, which they bore upon their shoulders. These children, pole, and bucket were placed in heaven, “where they could be seen from earth.” This refers undoubtedly to the spots in the moon, and so the Swedish peasantry explain these spots to this day, as representing a boy and a girl bearing a pail of water between them. Are we not reminded at once of our nursery rhyme—

“Jack and Jill went up a hill
   To fetch a pail of water;
 Jack fell down, and broke his crown,
   And Jill came tumbling after?”

This verse, which to us seems at first sight nonsense, I have no hesitation in saying has a high antiquity, and refers to the Eddaic Hjuki and Bil. The names indicate as much. Hjuki, in Norse, would be pronounced Juki, which would readily become Jack; and Bil, for the sake of euphony, and in order to give a female name to one of the children, would become Jill.

The fall of Jack, and the subsequent fall of Jill, simply represent the vanishing of one moon-spot after another, as the moon wanes.

But the old Norse myth had a deeper signification than merely an explanation of the moon-spots.

Hjuki is derived from the verb jakka, to heap or pile together, to assemble and increase; and Bil from bila, to break up or dissolve. Hjuki and Bil, therefore, signify nothing more than the waxing and waning of the moon, and the water they are represented as bearing signifies the fact that the rainfall depends on the phases of the moon. Waxing and waning were individualized, and the meteorological fact of the connection of the rain with the moon was represented by the children as water-bearers.

But though Jack and Jill became by degrees dissevered in the popular mind from the moon, the original myth went through a fresh phase, and exists still under a new form. The Norse superstition attributed theft to the moon and the vulgar soon began to believe that the figure they saw in the moon was the thief. The lunar specks certainly may be made to resemble one figure, but only a lively imagination can discern two. The girl soon dropped out of popular mythology, the boy oldened into a venerable man, he retained his pole, and the bucket was transformed into the thing he had stolen—sticks or vegetables. The theft was in some places exchanged for Sabbath-breaking, especially among those in Protestant countries who were acquainted with the Bible story of the stick-gatherer.

The Indian superstition is worth examining, because of the connexion existing between Indian and European mythology, on account of our belonging to the same Aryan stock.

According to a Buddhist legend, Sâkyamunni himself, in one of his earlier stages of existence, was a hare, and lived in friendship with a fox and an ape. In order to test the virtue of the Bodhisattwa, Indra came to the friends, in the form of an old man, asking for food. Hare, ape, and fox went forth in quest of victuals for their guest. The two latter returned from their foraging expedition successful, but the hare had found nothing. Then, rather than that he should treat the old man with inhospitality, the hare had a fire kindled, and cast himself into the flames, that he might himself become food for his guest. In reward for this act of self-sacrifice, Indra carried the hare to heaven, and placed him in the moon[9].

Here we have an old man and a hare in connection with the lunar planet, just as in Shakspeare we have a faggot-bearer and a dog.

The fable rests upon the name of the moon in Sanskrit, çaçin, or “that marked with the hare;” but whether the belief in the spots taking the shape of a hare gave the name çaçin to the moon, or the lunar name çaçin originated the belief, it is impossible for us to say.

Grounded upon this myth is the curious story of “The Hare and the Elephant,” in the “Pantschatantra,” an ancient collection of Sanskrit fables. It will be found as the first tale in the third book. I have room only for an outline of the story.


In a certain forest lived a mighty elephant, king of a herd, Toothy by name. On a certain occasion there was a long drought, so that pools, tanks, swamps, and lakes were dried up. Then the elephants sent out exploring parties in search of water. A young one discovered an extensive lake surrounded with trees, and teeming with water-fowl. It went by the name of the Moon-lake. The elephants, delighted at the prospect of having an inexhaustible supply of water, marched off to the spot, and found their most sanguine hopes realized. Round about the lake, in the sandy soil, were innumerable hare warrens, and as the herd of elephants trampled on the ground, the hares were severely injured, their homes broken down, their heads, legs, and backs crushed beneath the ponderous feet of the monsters of the forest. As soon as the herd had withdrawn, the hares assembled, some halting, some dripping with blood, some bearing the corpses of their cherished infants, some with piteous tales of ruination in their houses, all with tears streaming from their eyes, and wailing forth, “Alas, we are lost! The elephant-herd will return, for there is no water elsewhere, and that will be the death of all of us.”

But the wise and prudent Longear volunteered to drive the herd away; and he succeeded in this manner: Longear went to the elephants, and having singled out their king, he addressed him as follows:—

“Ha, ha! bad elephant! what brings you with such thoughtless frivolity to this strange lake? back with you at once!”

When the king of the elephants heard this, he asked in astonishment, “Pray, who are you?”

“I,” replied Longear, “I am Vidschajadatta by name, the hare who resides in the Moon. Now am I sent by his Excellency the Moon as an ambassador to you. I speak to you in the name of the Moon.”

“Ahem! Hare,” said the elephant, somewhat staggered, “and what message have you brought me from his Excellency the Moon?”

“You have this day injured several hares. Are you not aware that they are the subjects of me? If you value your life, venture not near the lake again. Break my command, and I shall withdraw my beams from you at night, and your bodies will be consumed with perpetual sun.”

The elephant, after a short meditation, said, “Friend! it is true that I have acted against the rights of the excellent Majesty of the Moon. I should wish to make an apology; how can I do so?”

The hare replied, “Come along with me, and I will show you.”

The elephant asked, “Where is his Excellency at present?”

The other replied, “He is now in the lake, hearing the complaints of the maimed hares.”

“If that be the case,” said the elephant humbly, “bring me to my lord, that I may tender him my submission.”

So the hare conducted the king of the elephants to the edge of the lake, and showed him the reflection of the moon in the water, saying, “There stands our lord in the midst of the water, plunged in meditation; reverence him with devotion, and then depart with speed.”

Thereupon the elephant poked his proboscis into the water, and muttered a fervent prayer. By so doing he set the water in agitation, so that the reflection of the moon was all of a quiver.

“Look!” exclaimed the hare; “his Majesty is trembling with rage at you!”

“Why is his supreme Excellency enraged with me?” asked the elephant.

“Because you have set the water in motion. Worship him, and then be off!”

The elephant let his ears droop, bowed his great head to the earth, and after having expressed in suitable terms his regret for having annoyed the Moon, and the hare dwelling in it, he vowed never to trouble the Moon-lake again. Then he departed, and the hares have ever since lived there unmolested.

Original footnotes[edit]

  1. Tobler, Appenz. Sprachsbuch, 20.
  2. Wolf, Zeitschrift für Deut. Myth. i. 168.
  3. Fischart, Garg. 130.
  4. Prætorius, i. 447.
  5. Thorpe’s “Mythology and Popular Traditions,” vol. iii. p. 57.
  6. Alex. Neckam, De Naturis Rerum. Ed. Wright, p. xviii.
  7. Clemens Alex. Strom. I.
  8. Hebel, in his charming poem on the Man in the Moon, in “Allemanische Gedichte,” makes him both thief and Sabbath-breaker.
  9. “Mémoires … par Hjouen Thsang, traduits du Chinois par Stanislas Julien,” i. 375. Upham, “Sacred Books of Ceylon,” iii. 309.