Donna Kim-Brand   

If you listen carefully in the dark of night, you may hear the wolves howling in the distance, as the annual Harvest Moon is upon us this year on September 8th in the Americas or September 9th in Asia. Ancient peoples, who lived and worked outdoors more than most of us do nowadays, relied on the moon cycles for planning their daily and monthly schedules. They were more aware of the moon patterns and what that meant for their very survival. Today, most of us treat the moon as incidental and only occasionally pay much attention to it. Sometimes, it nearly demands we turn our gaze toward the heavens. This week of the Harvest Moon is one such time.

The Harvest Moon is named as such since it’s the full moon nearest the Autumnal Equinox, when the orbital path takes a shortcut around the narrow end of the circuit, causing a shorter time frame than usual between moon risings. Instead of the moon arising on the horizon 50 minutes later each day as usual, it takes only 30 or 35 minutes.  As a result, the day’s moonshine is slightly longer, and it also gives the appearance that a full moon is on display for more than one night. This phenomenon thus allows farmers a slightly longer period of bright moonlight each night over a few days during which to bring in the autumn harvest. Hence, the moniker.

While not necessarily the biggest or brightest moon of the year, you get the impression is it larger and more brilliantly orange when coupled with the ‘Moon Illusion’ or sunset horizon effect. This happens when you see the rising moon through the thicker atmosphere at the horizon line, as opposed to high in the sky. Blue light is scattered but red light passes through, causing the red or orange tint.

Interestingly, the Harvest Moon this year appears one month after the biggest full moon of 2014, which was in August – called a ‘supermoon’ due to the brightness based on the moon’s location on its elliptical path. This year there are three ‘supermoons’ in a row: July, August and also the September Harvest Moon. Combine a supermoon with the ‘Moon Illusion’, and this Harvest Moon will likely be particularly awe-inspiring if the sky is clear of clouds.

So what of hairy wolves, and how are they connected to the moon and werewolves? There is imagery through the ages depicting wolf-like creatures howling, in silhouette, under the light of a full moon. Some will say the phenomenon is coincidental – that wolves are simply social animals whose communication method is more visible by moonlight. They raise their heads to howl in order to take advantage of better acoustics in marking their turf, conveying danger, scaring off enemies, signaling a desire to attract a mate, indicating their location or otherwise informing pack-mates.

Add in stories about humans transforming into werewolves during full moons and you have multiple layers of folklore to unravel. A werewolf is said to be a transmorphed, or maybe mythological human with the ability to shapeshift into a mean, fast, uncontrollable hairy wolf-like creature during times of a full moon.

Supposedly, if a person were bitten by a wolf or werewolf, particularly with the light of a full moon on their face, they would grow hairy and become a wild werewolf themselves during all subsequent full moons. There is a Greek word for this transformative process: lycanthropy. Also, from Anglo-Saxon, ‘wer’ means man and ‘wolf’ means, you guessed it, wolf!

While historical records of werewolf activity do exist back to Greek times, it was during the medieval times in Europe when more reports of werewolf attacks surfaced, and again during the witch hunts in subsequent centuries. Was this because of the harrowing ravages of plagues, rampant superstitions or irrational fears that skewed peoples’ thinking? Or did some form of human mutation actually occur during full moon activity, or become more visible in moonlight? It’s only more recently, the early 1900’s, that the medical world has tried to corroborate actual symptoms with full moons to notice a correlation with historical reports.

After all, humans are over 80% water and said to be tied to the gravitational pull of the moon, which can affect our moods as well as our physiology. We refer to the supposed craziness that seems to erupt during full moons as ‘lunacy’. From erratic behavior requiring mental health support to physical pain or quirky uprisings and incidents, the full moon is blamed for many things. One interesting old theory connecting the full moon and lunacy derives from lack of sleep due to the bright moonlight, and the negative effects of sleep deprivation.

Summing it all up, is all this science or the stuff of science fiction? The jury is still out, but as we can notice from recent successful books and movies featuring hairy werewolves, the fascination still lingers. My own version is that lunar gravity does affect certain people in different ways; one way makes them anti-social, and over a few days, less inclined to shave or observe social graces. Thus, in simple terms, they appear hairy, gnarly and mysterious to the rest of us. Or, another effect of full moons might stimulate a romantic streak emerging, with hormones raging and spunky kinkiness coming alive. Which effect is less exuberant or threatening?  Not always easy to say!

Whatever your views as you bask in the Harvest Moonlight this week, stay alert, be curious, and have a howling good time enjoying the power and beauty of nature. And maybe staying clean-shaven is a good idea, just in case!

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