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Reaching for the Moon

Do you want the moon? If you want it, I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down for you.
-- George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life

When I worked a brief stint as a hospital orderly many years ago, I was sometimes dispatched to the basement early in my shift to retrieve stretchers that had been used to transport bodies overnight to the morgue. One morning I was surprised to discover twice the usual number of stretchers lining the corridor outside. Had there been some unheralded epidemic or disaster to explain the sudden spike in the mortality rate? "It's the full moon," one of my co-workers explained matter-of-factly.

This was my introduction to a belief -- common among hospital staff, police and emergency responders -- that lunar cycles exert a powerful influence on human affairs. Supposedly there are more births, deaths, psychiatric admissions, traffic accidents, violent crimes and other disturbances during the full moon -- to say nothing of what happens to werewolves. A minister's wife told me her husband would get lots of late-night calls from disturbed parishioners when the moon was full. And yet, apart from a wealth of anecdotal support, there is scant evidence for any of this that will stand up to scientific scrutiny. Nonetheless, the next time I found the corridor outside the morgue clogged with stretchers, the moon was again full.

One can speculate about how the moon came to exert such a potent influence on the human imagination, if not on our actual behavior. Before artificial light or even the controlled use of fire, the moon provided the largest and brightest source of illumination in the night sky. Ancient peoples were all careful observers of celestial phenomena, and the periodic phases of the moon were hard to miss. Bone carvings found at a Neolithic cave site in France's Dordogne Valley show the waxing and waning of the moon over a period of several months. By keeping track of lunar cycles, early farmers knew when to plant their crops. The ancient Assyrians, noting that the lunar cycle and women's menstrual cycles were approximately the same duration, concluded that "a woman is fertile according to the moon." The earliest calendars were based on lunar cycles, which still govern liturgical observances in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The object that loomed so large in the night sky lay tantalizingly beyond reach but not beyond the mind's grasp. Like other natural phenomena that exerted a powerful pull on human imagining, the moon was assumed to be a god or, more commonly, a goddess. Ancient Egyptians regarded the moon as the mother of the universe. More recently, it has become a source of inspiration for poets and lovers, if not for lunatics. Whether it brings good tidings or ill, the moon unquestionably commands the tides. And at some point in eons past the tides washed up the first amphibious creatures able to breathe the air. In time this creature's descendants walked upright, enabling them to fix their gaze toward the heavens rather than downward toward the earth. Their enlarged brains were able to contemplate the pale orb that illuminated the night sky and to wonder idly about the strange spell it cast upon them.

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