Thursday, 2 September 2010

In the moonlight

(Full moon over the bay of Molyvos)

If you live in a city, you might not realize it, but when the full moon shines in place without much less artificial light you can have dinner in the moonlight and you can walk without a torch and see where you are goling. I keep on being amazed by the brightness of the full moon and each time it appears I enjoy the blue-white light that shines on the mountains, mirrors itself in the sea and lights up white buildings, like a film set.

When you are in a magical place, like on the Acropolis in Athens, or on an archaeological site like the Temple of Messa (close to Agia Paraskevi), where the marble remains of an Ionic temple from the Aeolian era catches the moon’s rays, time seems to stop.

It is a new tradition in Greece to keep about ninety archaeological sites open for the night of the full moon in August, so visitors can enjoy the play of the moonlight on centuries old columns, stones, buildings and mosaics.

At Thermi (close to Mytilini) the evening was dedicated to Sappho and amongst others her poem about the moon was recited. Our eyes were delighted by moonlight and our ears with music and verse. I can imagine how in ancient times, when there was no artificial light on earth, the days of the full moon were even more dramatic and so Sappho could not help but write about this heavenly, silver disc.

Each culture has its own myths about the moon, or gods representing it. In Greece it was the goddess Selene (later Artemis) the sister of Helios, god of the sun, and of Eos, goddess of the dawn. Selene was a discreet goddess who features in only a handful of stories. The most popular one is how she fell desperately in love with Endymion, a shepherd or hunter (according to Pausianas he was even a king). He was so beautiful that Selene asked Zeus to give him eternal life. This way Endymion would sleep forever, without getting older and Selene could keep on enjoying his beauty. Each time the moon disappears behind the mountains Selene visits her sleeping beauty. The ancient Greeks believed that he slept in a cave on the southern slope of Mt. Latmus, a mountain at the southwest coast of modern Turkey, where there are the remains of a temple dedicated to Selene. Endymion had to be kissed to be woken, or maybe it was electric light — because there is no sign of him now.

Or maybe he woke up because Selene was unfaithful. It is said that after she slept with Zeus the Nemean lion was born. For the first of his labours as ordered by the King of Tiryns, Herakles had to kill it. There is also a rumour that Selene had an affair with Pan. Nevertheless, she supposedly gave birth to fifty offspring all sired by Endymion and each of these moon goddesses represented a phase of the moon.

With so many phases you need a machine to calculate when the full moon would appear or when an eclipse might occur. In 1901 in a sunken ship wrecked close to the island of Anti-Kythera an ancient astronomical instrument was found that for a century kept scientists busy trying to find out how it worked. It now is thought that this Antikythera Mechanism dates from 150–100 BC and is now thought to be an analogue or Moon computer.

After extended studies scientists now think that this machine is more than a planetarium. Two years ago they published a new report that says it is an analogue calculator constructed to identify phases of both moon and sun (including eclipses) and many other astronomical events.

For instance, in ancient times the Olympic games took place every four years starting at the second full moon after the summer solstice. So it would be handy to know when that was going to be and this (and many other events) is what this machine was used to predict — including marriages which Greeks liked to celebrate at full moon, especially in the month of January.

Last Tuesday (August 24) was a full moon night and even after it had started to wane for two days its light was still very bright. On Thursday night boats taking part in the Aegean Regatta slowly sailed through its silver beam, silently gliding into Molyvos harbour. For some days the meltemi had already stopped blowing so now the yachts needed every whisper of wind to get them over the finish line. On Saturday, for a local race, the blue sea between Molyvos and Petra was filled with the white of their sails catching the wind and that night festivities climaxed with music, dance and fireworks.

The moon has finished partying and shrinks a little more each day, but just as its light fades the stars twinkle more brightly. But every time the full moon shines its light on the earth, there is nothing to be done but to get poetic by moonlight.

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