Curious Nature: Why do we see shapes in the moon?
As Earth’s most predominant feature in the night sky, the moon has fascinated people for centuries. Throughout history, humans have spent their nights looking up into the sky and observing the moon’s complex surface.
The moon’s surface consists of lunar seas and highlands that we see from Earth as light and dark patches. The seas are hardened lava plains that are made up of volcanic rock and basalt, and were created due to the impact of comets or asteroids. These areas reflect less light and appear to us on Earth as dark spots. The highlands appear comparatively brighter and lighter as they are the topographically higher areas around the collision sites of the lunar seas.
As humans, we often interpret these light and dark patches on the moon’s landscape as familiar shapes. This tendency, to make meaning out of the shapes we see on the moon, is described as lunar pareidolia. Pareidolia is the psychological phenomenon in which our brain creates familiar images or patterns when none exist. Cultures all over the world interpret these shapes differently and therefore have different stories and myths to explain them.
In some European cultures, they observe a man carrying a bundle of sticks. A German folktale tells the story of an old man who lived alone in the woods. One Sunday, he went out to collect wood but on his way home he ran into a stranger. This stranger asked the old man why he was collecting wood on the Sabbath. The old man brushed off the stranger’s comment, claiming that all days were the same to him. As the old man said this he began to rise into the air and was banished to live life on the moon collecting sticks forever. This story was told as a warning to recognize the Sabbath.
In many Asian cultures, they observe a rabbit in the moon. In China, this rabbit is known as Yutu and was a companion to the moon goddess, Chang’e. In the image they observe the rabbit holding a mortar. The legend claims that the rabbit, Yutu, works to mix the elixir of life. In Japan and Korea, the rabbit is also seen in the moon and pounds ingredients to make rice cakes or different medicines.
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The Salish people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of America see a toad in the moon. Their story tells of a wolf who falls in love with a toad. The wolf begged the moon to help them find the toad. The moon obliged by lighting up the night sky near the pond where the toad lived. However, when the wolf finally found the toad they were frightened. In an attempt to escape the wolf, the toad jumped high into the night sky. The toad made a giant leap all the way to the moon where they remain to this day safe from the wolf.
These stories come from all over the world but some of these shapes can be observed right here in your backyard. Tonight, while you’re gazing up at the full Moon, spark your curious nature and look for these shapes or try to see your own! What stories can you create?
Alex Madden is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center and has always been fascinated by the night sky.