For various reasons, I have recently had my interest piqued in mensuration and female reproductive cycles. I was particularly surprised, therefore, when I stumbled across the Australian myth of the moon man - after all, what could be more natural than to conceptualise the moon as female. Shakespeare, for example, famously has Romeo personify the moon as the beautiful Roman goddess Diana:
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon
Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou her maid art far more fair than she.
Be not her maid, since she is envious.
Her vestal livery is but sick and green,
And none but fools do wear it. Cast it off.
But apparently the Yolŋu people weren’t well versed in Shakespeare since their Ngalindi was not only male but also fat and lazy. Ray Norris:
The Moon-man, Ngalindi, was originally a fat, lazy man (corresponding to the full Moon) who expected others to feed him. His wives attacked him with their axes, making the waning Moon. He managed to escape by climbing a tall tree, but was mortally wounded and died, causing the new Moon. After 3 days he rose from the dead and gradually regained his health, giving us the waxing Moon. After 2 weeks, when he was round and fat again, his wives attacked him, and so the cycle continues to repeat every month. Until Ngalindi first died, everyone on Earth was immortal, but Ngalindi cursed humans and animals so that only he could return to life. For everyone else death would henceforth be final.
These Yolngu stories also explain the connection between the tides and the Moon. The Moon fills and empties as it rises through the horizon, raising the tides when it is full and lowering them when it is half- full.
Interestingly, the Dhuwa moiety of the Yolŋu people seem to have a different take on why the moon man’s wives were angry:
the women go out to the billabong. It’s turning dark now but they see the fish trap in the water, and they see blood. They pull the trap out of the water and see their two dead sons in there!
They cry and cry. They hit and cut themselves with a rock and stick to express their grief and anger, traditional-way. They know the Moonman has done this to their sons. [...]
Later, Moonman comes back to the hut. It is night time and he goes into the hut to sleep. The women stay up and watch him. The women wait until he is in a deep sleep and then they set fire to the hut at each of the four doors. The hut lights up and glows like a burning moon! Moonman wakes up. It’s like a furnace in there. But its too late and he too catches fire.
And it’s not just the Yolŋu, the Warlpiri people also envisage the moon as male. Ray Norris again:
Solar eclipses are explained by the Warlpiri people as the covering of the Sun-woman by the Moon-man as he makes love to her. On the other hand, a lunar eclipse occurs when the Sun-woman successfully forces her unwelcome attentions onto the Moon-man, who constantly tries to evade her by following a zigzag path through the sky.
By way of what I at least felt was a pretty big coincidence, just before I started reading about the stories of the world’s first astronomers I had written a short poem a about a woman who climbs a tree and becomes the moon. By pure happenstance the poem marked the point where two current interests, menstrual cycles and aboriginal astronomy, met. It seemed only right, therefore, to dub it Ŋalindi.
Her soft cream sinew cut on cobbled stone
spills crimson life into the starving ground.
And from her seed springs forth a dew drenched tree
that spits her sap and sweat down curling leaves.
Cold captured sunlight rages in her branches
like some small creature played with by a cat,
and Icarus, she climbs her new-born babe
and leaps from verdant spire to dusk’s last breath.
Her legs sink surely into virgin sponge;
her wings soar proudly through the burning rays;
her body, stretched, etches pastel hues;
And sparkling charcoal war-paint scars her face.
The ice kiss of the frigid firmament
rips open wounds and ignites weeping blood.
Sweet flesh is torn apart till all remains of
Diana is a monthly reborn orb.