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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009

Hunting the Rabbit in the Moon

What did the ancient Mimbres people see in the moon? What do you see?

By Nancy Gordon



I have become a moon watcher. It all started with a two-moon trip to Tucson in November of last year. Early that morning, as I drove out of the Burro Mountains on Hwy. 90, the moon was just setting west of the Lordsburg playas. Pale and wan, it faded from view behind clouds tinted pink from the sunrise. I thought no more of it that day. Then, on my way home, I was driving back up into the Burros just after nightfall when it returned, refreshed and recharged to full strength.

Moonrise
Photo by David Cortner

The moon rose from the eastern skyline, orange and immense, engulfing the trees and mountains. The road turned, putting the moon directly in my path; I felt as if I were driving right up into it. In a flash of insight, I understood why moths are drawn to moonlight. Like a great gold watch, the full moon was hypnotic. I could see the Man in the Moon. His eyes locked with mine.

Suddenly, headlights in the other lane broke the trance. I forced myself to look at the road, with only brief glances at the moon. The effect was stroboscopic. To my mind's eye, it looked as if the Man in the Moon's mouth was moving. A smile, then a weird scrunched-up "O," as if he were mouthing, "Wah-wooo, woo-waah." I yearned to know what he was saying.

The road shifted north and the moon went out of view. But I was left with a profound sense of mystery and awe.

The next day, I happened to tell local artist Marilyn Gendron about my encounter with the Man in the Moon. When I was finished with my tale, she asked, "Have you ever seen the rabbit in the moon?" Well, no, I hadn't. She said that in many Native American cultures, children are taught to see a rabbit rather than a man in the moon, and that the rabbit in the moon may be depicted on Mimbres pottery.

moon msp
Rabbits in the moon: a "rising moon rabbit," seen
by some East Asian cultures.

To help me out, Marilyn gave me a drawing from an article on astronomical imagery in Mimbres pottery, with the rabbit traced out next to an image of the full moon. It didn't help. I still couldn't see a rabbit in the moon.

The moon waned and waxed and I tried again. December's full moon occurred near perigee, when the moon's elliptical orbit brings it closest to the earth. At perigee, the moon looks 14% larger and 30% brighter than at apogee, when it is farthest away from the earth.

In fact, the full moon of Dec. 12, 2008, was extra-extra large. It not only came at perigee, but it also occurred when the Earth was closer to the sun in its own orbit ("perihelion" presently falls on Jan. 2), and the sun's extra pull on the full moon drew it in even closer to the earth. So I had no excuse for not being able to see the rabbit in that extra-large, extra-bright full moon.

I held up the line drawing next to the rising moon, looked back and forth, but no luck. The moon image was all scrunched up. It didn't look like a rabbit at all.

Maybe I'm too left-brained, I thought. Maybe you have to be an artist to see it. When January's full moon arrived, nearly as big and bright as December's, I asked my science-teacher husband if he could see the rabbit in the moon.

"Sure," he replied.

"Huh?" There went my right brain-left brain excuse.

"Tilt your head sideways," he said. "It's going up to the left." Suddenly, it was obvious. Why, yes. Of course. There it was.

But was it the same rabbit as the one the Mimbres Indians saw?



The dark-colored areas on the moon that many of us perceive as a Man in the Moon — and that other cultures may perceive as a woman, rabbit or hare, frog, crab or forest of trees — are the "maria," large flat valleys filled with volcanic lava. Ancient astronomers thought these dark areas were oceans of water (mare means "sea" in Latin), and even though we now know differently, the label stuck. Individual maria have been given names; for example, the rabbit's head, as my husband and I saw it, is called Mare Tranquillitatis or "Sea of Tranquility."

Binoculars are helpful for reading the moon's face, but higher-power magnification destroys the illusion; the shapes disappear into a mass of details — craters, mountains, streaks and starbursts. For some reason, humans have a tendency to perceive something meaningful in the vague outlines of mountains, clouds and maria on the moon. Like a Rorschach inkblot test, our interpretation of the moon's face tells us something about ourselves. We see what we've learned to see.

The rabbit that my husband and I saw in the rising moon was similar to the one depicted in legends of Japanese and other East Asian cultures, which looks something like the picture on this page. In these cultures, the rabbit is pounding something in a mortar: drugs or mochi (a type of rice) or perhaps the elixir of life. Its ears are up and forward.

The drawing from the article on Mimbres pottery, however, was based on a setting moon. As the moon crosses the sky, it rotates — the rabbit's ears that we saw in the rising moon became feet in the setting moon, as in the second picture. This rabbit has its ears back.

moon map
A "setting moon rabbit," as interpreted by authors of an article on astronomical imagery in Mimbres pottery.

The authors of that article, R. Robert Robbins and Russell B. Westmoreland, had examined some 800 bowls from the Galaz site on the Mimbres River as well as the collection of Mimbres pottery at Western New Mexico University's Museum. Many bowls had a rabbit motif. On those bowls, the authors noted that rabbits were frequently portrayed above a crescent moon shape, indicating their association with the moon.

"The rabbit in the moon" was part of the mythology of the Maya and other groups in Meso-America and the Southwest. Robbins and Westmoreland believed that the Mimbres people probably traded with the prehistoric Puebloans (Anasazi) of Chaco Canyon as well as Indian groups in Mexico, and may have shared their concepts of astronomy. In their studies of Mimbres "rabbit bowls," the authors found that many repeating patterns — like hatch marks or dots on a rabbit's body, encircling feather designs, and rim bands — occurred in numbers related to lunar motions like 14, 19, 27 and 29.



Fourteen days is approximately the time from new moon to full moon. The complete cycle from one full moon to the next, however, is not 28 days but 29.53 days. This is sometimes called a "lunar month." Because 12 lunar months or "moonths" don't quite make an earth year, our calendar months are adjusted to fit. But "moonths" and earth (solar) years do work out evenly at 19 years — the basis for some early calendars. Lunar months are actually measured in several different ways. For example, it takes only 27.32 days for the moon to complete one full orbit as seen against the stars; other lunar months are based on passages through certain points in the moon's orbit, like perigee to perigee (27.55 days).

I remembered watching a fascinating video at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park that described the solar and lunar alignments of Chacoan buildings. At the time, I hadn't realized that the moon swings north and south within each monthly cycle, rising in a different spot each day. The full moon is farthest north in the winter, around the time of the winter solstice when the sun is farthest south. From the Chaco video, I remembered that the full moon migrates to a "farthest farthest north" extreme about every 19 years (actually 18.6 years) — another possible meaning of the "19" mentioned by Robbins and Westmoreland.



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