July 17, 2009— -- You've heard them time and again. There's a man in the moon. It's made of cheese, elicits madness and inspires love.
Since the beginning of human history, civilizations around the world have been bewitched by Earth's nearest neighbor, making up myths linking the moon to everything from the human psyche to the rhythms of nature.
Even now that science has shown us that it's no more mysterious than anything else we can reach out and touch, surveys indicate that people can't shake superstition. Nurses blame a full moon for more chaos and incoming patients. Police have linked full moons to aggressive behavior.
On this 40th anniversary of the moon landing, let's consider where these beliefs and urban legends come from.
Experts point out that much of the intrigue comes from the lunar phases.
For people looking up the night sky centuries ago, the irregularity of the moon, especially compared with the constancy of the sun, was mystifying.
"The moon is regular in its cycle, but it's not so absolutely regular that it didn't take time for people to figure it out," said Erika Brady, a professor in the department of folk studies and anthropology at Western Kentucky University. "It seems to link psychologically with the nine months of the human gestation period and the woman's menstrual cycle, and that linkage has always fascinated people."
The moon's purpose was equally enigmatic.
"The sun provides heat, light, life," said Ben Radford, managing editor of The Skeptical Inquirer magazine, who has written about moon superstitions. "But what's the moon for? Because the moon doesn't have a clear, intuitive purpose, people will imagine the things that the moon does and the influences it has on us."
For the Mayans, the moon goddess brought floods and powerful storms down upon Earth through her serpentine assistants. For the Aztecs, the moon was the decapitated head of a malevolent, matricidal goddess.