The Blue Moon

Todd Young - Blue moon (water colors and
ink on paper), 2001
There is an expression you are probably familiar with, and it goes "Once in a Blue Moon". It has come to signify something that happens very rarely and I believe that it is very appropriate since the Blue Moon appears very rarely itself; more precisely, about every 2 and a half years according to one of the few definitions it has. This phase of the Moon is very important for Pagans in an energetic sense. As I have noted, we traditionally celebrate Esbats and the Blue Moon definitely falls under this category. But I will say more on this topic at the end of the post. For starters, I would like to say a few words about the origin of this term and the misunderstanding regarding its definition.

The Definitions

The Blue Moon is usually defined as the second full Moon in one calendar month. This isn't the only definition, but it is the most common one. It because popular thanks to an article in the Sky and Telescope magazine from 1946. I will dedicate a separate title to this later on in the post. The reason why the Blue Moon doesn't appear very often is because one lunar cycle lasts 28-29 (and a half) days, while calendar months last 30 or 31 days in general. When more of these "surplus" days accumulate, two full Moons appear in a certain month (one at the beginning and one at the very end of that month).

The second potential definition of the Blue Moon would be that it is the third full Moon in a season that has four full Moons. Each season consists of three calendar months, which means that there will usually be three full Moons in one season. When a fourth one appears, it's exceptional. This definition is taken as the most precise one and dates all the way back to 1937 from the Maine Farmer's Almanac around which a whole dilemma has appeared.

This year, the Blue Moon will honor us with its presence on the 21st of August (with its peak at 3:45a.m. at least where I'm from, but check for you country just in case). This is why I'm writing about it. :)

Note: the date and time of the Blue Moon vary from country to country so I recommend you check this out in time.

Is this Moon really blue?

The name "Blue Moon" would lead us to believe that this Moon is actually blue in terms of color, but that isn't necessarily true. The Moon may appear to be blue only if the particles of dust or smoke in the air are exactly the right dimensions. If they are, they create an optical illusion of the Moon being blue by reflecting blue light.

When I say that these particles have to be big enough, I really do mean it. This doesn't happen just like that. The first of a few examples of this was during the eruption of Krakatoa in Indonesia in 1883. After this catastrophe, the amount of various particles in the air caused the sunsets to turn green and the Moon to turn blue for almost a full two years. In 1927, the monsoon season was late in Indonesia. The after effect was a large amount of dust particles in the air which caused the Moon to appear blue. The last of my examples was during the large forest fires in western Canada in 1951. Smoke particles floated up into the air and reflected blue light thus causing the Moon to "turn" blue.

The Controversy around the Definition

I mentioned the Sky and Telescope Magazine a bit earlier so I would like to say a few more words about it now. While searching the web, I came across a few interesting articles from this magazine which deal with this problem.

The first article I would like to mention is entitled "Once in a Blue Moon" (author: Philip Hiscock) and is focused on the origin of the saying with while I began this post. According to the author, it can be traced all the way back to the 16th century. Of course, people were educated and intelligent enough back then to know that the Moon isn't really blue, just like it isn't made of cheese. So, when a person would say: "That's like saying the Moon is blue", it meant something along the lines of "that's absurd". A bit alter on, a new meaning appeared. What used to mean "absurd" now started to mean "never". When a person from the 18th century said "That will happen when the Moon is blue", it meant the same thing as "when pigs fly" (in modern translation). But, language has the tendency to change so this phrase change a few meanings: "absurd", "never" and finally "very rarely". The only meaning that stands out from the aforementioned ones is the poetic meaning which refers to sadness and loneliness. A good example of this meaning can be found in the song "Blue Moon" which was written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in 1934. It became popular thanks to the many covers done by famous artists such as Billie Holiday, Chris Isaak, Frank Sinatra and many others.

In 1988, the phrase "Blue Moon" started to be used a lot again due to the appearance of two full Moons in May of that year. The same thing happened in 1990 so people started to get more and more interested. The author of the aforementioned article believes this phrase was first used (with its modern meaning) in an edition of The Kids' World Almanac of Records and Facts from 1985. He found out that the authors of this almanac came across this term in an article in the Sky and Telescope magazine from May, 1946. Further roots, according to the second article I came across, were found in the Maine Farmer's Almanac from 1937. But let us get back to Hiscock's article. In it, it is said (and I quote): "But seven times in 19 years there were - and still are - 13 full moons in a year. This gives 11 months with one full moon each and one with two. This second in a month, so I interpret it, was called the Blue Moon." This quote was taken from James Hugh Pruett (an author of a number of articles in the Sky and Telescope magazine) which I will say more about at the end of the post.

The second article which I came across was written by Donald W. Olson, Richard Tresch Fienberg and Roger W. Sinnott. It is entitled "What's a Blue Moon?" (Sky and Telescope magazine, May, 1999). They claim that Hiscock's definition of the Blue Moon as "the second full Moon in a calendar month" is simply not true because this is not mentioned anywhere in this context in the Maine Farmer's Almanac to which this terms dates back to according to them. 

The authors of this article believe that the definition regarding the seasons is a much more appropriate one, at least in comparison to what the almanac says. They found out that all the Blue Moons mentioned in this almanac fall a month before either one of the solstices or the equinoxes (in the Northern Hemisphere). It looks like the authors of the almanac based their ideas on this, but with slight alterations. In stead of taking January 1 for the beginning of the year and December 31 as the end, the used the tropic calendar which is very similar to the Pagan calendar - it begins and ends at the winter solstice i.e. Yule (December 21). According to this calendar, each month has one full Moon which carries an appropriate name according to the activities that had to be done at that time of year. As I explained, it sometimes occurs that a season has four full Moons in stead of the usual three.

The Maine Farmer's Almanac altered the length of the seasons using the following method (which is, by the way, well known): it uses the fictitious mean Sun to define the length of the seasons. This Sun is an imaginary body that evenly moves around its own orbit in order to make the seasons last equally as long. In reality, the seasons don't last equally long because the Earth travels along an elliptic orbit (not a circular one). They also based their ideas on some decisions made in 1582 during the Gregorian calendar reform. It was then defined that the ecclesiastical spring equinox must be on March 21 regardless of the Sun's position at that time. This made defining the holiday dates easier since not all of them were based on dates; some of them were based on the full Moon. The authors of this article came to the following conclusion: "Seasonal Moon names are assigned near the spring equinox in accordance with the ecclesiastical rules for determining the dates of Easter and Lent. The beginnings of summer, fall, and winter are determined by the dynamical mean Sun. When a season contains four full Moons, the third is called the Blue Moon."

Whey Precisely the Third Moon in a Season?

Logically, the fourth full Moon in a season would be the "odd one out", but in fact, the third full Moon is taken to be the additional one and is thus called the Blue Moon. As the authors of the aforementioned article say: "Only then will the names of the other full Moons, such as the Moon before Yule and the Moon after Yule, fall at the proper times relative to the solstices and equinoxes."

So where is the Mistake?

The "wrong" definition of the Blue Moon as the second full Moon in a calendar month is attributed to James Hugh Pruett which wrote an article entitled "Once in a Blue Moon" in the Sky and Telescope magazine (March, 1946). He gave this definition by misquoting a certain issue of the Maine Farmer's Almanac from March 1937. For more details on this, you can read the following article: "What's a Blue Moon?".

What is Correct, Then?

There are two definitions of the Blue Moon:

1. (according to the Sky and Telescope magazine)
The Blue Moon is the second full Moon in one calendar month.

2. (according to the Maine Farmer's Almanac)
The Blue Moon is the third full Moon in a season that has four full Moons.

In the picture just left of this text, you can see the timetable of the Blue Moons to follow according to both definitions. So, in a few days, there will be a Blue Moon according to the second definition (which I personally prefer).

I had trouble finding the issue of the Maine Farmer's Almanac in which this definition is given, but I did manage to find something that fits everything I have read up to now. You can read the quote from the Almanac from March 1937 (the issue we have been talking about the whole time) on this website.

According to everything I have rad up to now, it is too late to say that either definition is wrong, but that fact remains that the first definition came to be thanks to a misunderstanding and a misquotation. The second definition is truer to the original documents, but that doesn't mean that the Blue Moon shouldn't be celebrated whenever we have the chance for it. 

As a Pagan, I prefer the second definition to the first primarily because it is based on an original document which is, in addition to this, also the eldest of all the documents mentioned up to now. The authors of the almanac were, as the name suggest, farmers. They lived in Maine (a state in southeastern USA) and, as did all farmers, they depended on the seasons very much (and with them, on the Sun and the Moon) when it came to work.

If you have read my posts up to now, you will now understand that Pagans (and automatically Wiccans) are very similar to farmers in the sense that they also depend a lot on the Sun and the Moon and other natural forces. For us, this is a religion, while it doesn't have to be so for many modern farmers. Then again, the very term "pagan" was first used to refer to peasants/farmers; all those people who lived off the land and took care of it and automatically worshiped it in a way since it was the source of food and life for them.

This is how Pagans came to worship land and everything that affects it. Modern Pagans worship it too, just as the do the Sun and the Moon, but especially the Moon. The most revered is the full Moon. And where will you find a stronger and valued full Moon than the Blue Moon?

The Role of the Blue Moon in Paganism

In my previous post on Esbats, I explained how and why Pagans celebrate them. These celebrations are usually held on nights of the full Moon, but it has become normal to hold them simply to mark any other phase of the moon (the new Moon, crescent etc.). The Blue Moon is special because it is so rare and this is also why it is valued so much.

Some don't consider it a "surplus" full Moon, but rather take it as a gift from the Gods and a sort of luxury. In Paganism, it is often connected to love, good will, peace and protection. If you read the previous post, you will know that any full Moon is an excellent time for doing magick. This Moon is especially appropriate when it comes to this because it is energetically even stronger than your typical full Moon! This is why it is recommended to save any (to you) special magical work for the Blue Moon. Some will decide to set certain goals for themselves on this night. This is also a good opportunity to try out any magick you haven't had the chance to try out yet.

You can think of the Blue Moon as your yearly bonus so you should respect it and use it wisely. Some covens even go as far as to initiate new members only on nights of the Blue Moon!

Since we are talking about an Esbath celebration after all, I don't see any reason why the ritual itself couldn't take the form of any normal Esbath ritual, except the reason for holding the ritual should be special. I recommend you put more work into the preparations and think hard about what you want to achieve with this ritual. It also would hurt to try to carry out the ritual as best you can.

I wish you all the best of luck with this special ritual! :D
Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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