The Moon Howls

“There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.” — George Carlin, Brain Droppings

The biggest and brightest full moon of the year occurred tonight courtesy of the eliptical orbit of our nearest celestial neighbor. While many of us in the greater Philadelphia area saw little to nothing thanks to overcast skies, much of the world was treated to a spectacular sight.

A big moon. Really big. Crazy big. But did it mean that all the lunatics were out in full force?

The belief that the full moon means an increase in homicides, suicides and all manner of psychotic behavior has been scientifically studied — and disproven (most notably by psychologists and astronomers conducting research for CISCOP, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, over 25 years ago). Yet culturally, moon madness is widely accepted. Ubiquitous. Worldwide. Spanning centuries.

Like the recent world banking crisis, we can blame it on the Greeks.

Detail of Selene from a Roman sarcophagus
Detail of Selene from a Roman sarcophagus

In Greek mythology, mental illness and neurological disorders were thought to be a curse visited upon those who offended the (full) moon goddess Selene; what we now know to be epilepsy was even referred to as “the Sacred Disease.”

Despite the best efforts of physicians in fifth century BC to explain such disorders as the result of biological imbalances (in works collectively now known as the Hippocratic Corpus), beliefs in moon madness were widespread in the ancient world. The moon was a source of fascination and study. As early as the second century BC, Greek sailors knew of the influence of the moon over the tides; in the first century BC, Pliny the Elder would theorize that the human brain, with its excess of moisture, was similarly affected.

Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf (engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, 1589)
Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf (engraving by Hendrik Goltzius, 1589)

Then, around 8 AD, Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, tells the story of Lycaon, the King of Arcadia who tests the omniscience of Zeus by serving the god a meal of his own dismembered son; Zeus, not fooled into an act of cannibalism, subsequently curses the king to forever take on the form of a wolf for his deception and cruelty. Thus, the western world was introduced to lycanthropy, the supernatural explanation of the inexplicable brutality of violent, senseless murder tied to wolves.

As wolves were perceived to howl more when the moon was visible (the Greek goddess of the waning moon, Hecate, was often depicted with wolves or wild dogs), so, too, did the activity of lycanthropes become tied to lunar cycles.

Werewolf, from a 16th century woodcut
Werewolf, from a 16th century woodcut

By the fifth century AD, the myth of the werewolf spread throughout Europe due in no small part to the real life horror of the berserker rage of wild, wolf-like barbarian invaders from the north.

Taking root in the European unconscious, the werewolf would finding its most fertile and bloody ground during the Middle Ages. Serial murderers like Germany’s Peter Stumpp (or Stübbe) had their atrocities attributed to lycanthropy. His 1590 trial is one of the most infamous in werewolf history. Witches, too, were accused of being able to take the form of wolves.

In England, so widespread was the fear and loathing of wolves that they were hunted to near extinction by the end of the sixteenth century.

With the dawn of the Renaissance, however, new light would be shed new light upon lycanthropy. In 1621, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy would once again assert a medical link between the myth of the werewolf and mental illness. But true strides in the treatment of mental illness and neurological disorders would wait another four centuries. In fact, as recently as the late nineteenth century, a tincture believed to be a cure for epilepsy was prescribed by quack physicians in France to be taken only when the moon was full.

It would seem that we have forever marveled at, respected, and even feared the moon. The next time it’s full, stop to think if maybe the superstitions and misconceptions surrounding the moon — from the perceived increase in lunatic behavior to the seemingly more pronounced howling of wolves — are not, in some way, more the result of our own more concentrated attention on what is quite other-worldly, but equally natural and ordinary. That the rational mind can be tricked by the imagination is no big surprise. Ironically, it would seem that hyper-attention to the details of lunar cycles can, in actuality, cloud our perception. We’re superstitious creatures, and will remain that way.

There are no need for wolves. The moon itself howls. Calling to us.