River of Dreams
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Casa de la Cultura President Mar’a Eugenia Trillo

Another Side of the Story
Remembering a slain family, 50 years after the In Cold Blood murders

Hiking How-To
Here's how Jerry packs and prepares for Apacheria outings

Rabbit Moon
What did the ancient Mimbres people see in the moon?

Fellow Travelers
November brings flocks of migrating Sandhill Cranes to New Mexico

Underground Silver City
2009 Writing Contest Winner

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Editor's Note
Desert Diary

Lincoln: Self-Made President
Apache Homeland Cafe's Last Chance?
The Robots are Coming
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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.

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.

Like the Chacoans, the Mimbres Indians must also have been aware of these lunar cycles. I was amazed. It made me want to look at Mimbres pottery more closely. So I set up an appointment with Dr. Cynthia Ann Bettison, archaeologist and director of the WNMU Museum.

Before my meeting with Bettison, I wandered around the museum to look at the Mimbres rabbit bowls on display. There were four of them, including a bowl mentioned in Robbins' and Westmoreland's article. It had a double-rabbit pattern with 19 dots on one of the rabbits. I tried really hard to "see" the rabbit of the moon in these bowls, but there were too many different rabbits. In some, the rabbits' ears were up, and in others, they were back. Most of the rabbits faced left, but one faced right. The only thing in common seemed to be their black-tipped ears.

moon bowl
A Mimbres "rabbit bowl" on display at WNMU Museum. (Courtesy of Western New Mexico University Museum, Ballmer Collection 1978.1.002, Silver City, New Mexico. Photo by Nancy Gordon.)

"They're black-tailed jackrabbits," Bettison explained. "See the black tails?" That was interesting, I thought, since jackrabbits aren't really rabbits, they're hares. Bettison said she'd never seen cottontail rabbits depicted on pots. She was aware of the article I'd read, and I asked her what she thought of the idea of the Mimbres bowls depicting a rabbit — er, jackrabbit — in the moon.

"I'm a bit of a skeptic," she answered. "I like to tell the story because it sounds good, but I don't necessarily interpret it to be so." She handed me two PhD dissertations to peruse, marked at pages that mentioned the rabbit in the moon. "Archaeologists like to explore what things mean," she said. Often, they disagree.

One author, Marc Thompson, looked at photo archives of Mimbres pottery, including 75 "rabbit bowls." He supported the idea that the rabbit motif was associated with the moon and whatever it symbolized to the Mimbres people — for example, moisture, night, the feminine, and/or death. The other author, Bryan Sawyer Shaffer, debunked the claims of Thompson as well as those of Robbins and Westmoreland. He pointed out that the geometry of lunar phases was wrong to see a rabbit poised over a dark crescent, and that the correlations between Mimbres rabbit imagery and lunar numbers were very weak.

Dr. Bettison said that Mimbres pottery was created to be used — to serve from, to eat out of, and for ceremonial purposes. Burial with the dead was not the primary function of Mimbres pottery; almost all of the pottery found in burials showed wear from prior use. Like many archaeologists, she doesn't think the figurative images on bowls like rabbits are artistic impressions, but that they tell the Mimbres people something — a story, perhaps, about the universe and their place in it, about how to behave or what to believe. "What it meant to them is hard for us to determine," she said.

moon bowl
Dr. Cynthia Ann Bettison, archaeologist and director of WNMU Museum, holding a Mimbres rabbit bowl. (Courtesy of Western New Mexico University Museum, Ballmer Collection 1973.8.263, Silver City, New Mexico. Photo by Nancy Gordon.)

She picked up a stone dart point and a fossil from her desk, treasures she'd collected as a child. "Would anyone else know why I kept these, why they were important to me?" she asked. Archaeologists do the best they can to understand ancient cultures from what's left behind, she explained, yet scientists can't help but bring their own biases to that understanding, based on how they were raised and educated. "Who amongst us are Mimbres?"

Bettison went on, "I like to tell the stories. But my real interest is in trying to understand the people." Many archaeologists believe that when the Mimbreos disappeared in about AD 1140, some stayed behind and merged with desert peoples like the Salado. Today, the closest biological descendants of the Mimbres are the Tarahumara of Copper Canyon. Yet even they may not interpret the exquisite designs on Mimbres pottery in the same way as their ancestors. A rabbit might have a different meaning.

"Maybe I'll come around a corner someday and find a Mimbres village," she mused. "I dream of running into them and finding out if my ideas were right, or if someone else's were, or if we were all wrong."

I called Bettison back after our meeting to ask what she saw in the moon. She considered the question. "I don't really see a man in the moon," she said. Instead, she recalled a memory from childhood, of Neil Armstrong making the first moonwalk in 1969.

Yes, a story. That's what she would see.

I was becoming more mystified. Now I not only didn't know which moon-rabbit was depicted on the pottery of the Mimbres people, I didn't know if they even saw a rabbit — or jackrabbit — in the moon. Still, I felt a connection to those people. They would have observed the moon, wondered about it, and been intrigued by it, the same as I.

It made me want to watch the video "The Mystery of Chaco Canyon" again.

Archaeoastronomers studying Chaco Canyon found evidence that the ancient Chacoan people understood solar and lunar cycles. Atop nearby Fajada Butte, they discovered what appeared to be a solar and lunar calendar. A spiral petroglyph had been carved into a rock face hidden behind three large vertical slabs of sandstone. At midday, light passed through narrow gaps between the slabs, and a thin band of light or "sun dagger" fell on the underlying rock. At summer solstice, the "sun dagger" pierced the center of the spiral carving; other positions marked the equinoxes and winter solstice.

But each turn in the spiral — nine and a half of them — appeared to mark the yearly progress of the "farthest north" full moon as it moved between its minimum and maximum extremes (making 19 for a full cycle). Several of the Chaco Canyon pueblo ruins were also aligned with rising or setting positions of the "extreme" moons. Not only walls and doorways were aligned in this manner, but these "lunar buildings" were also aligned with each other — even though some were miles distant and mesas blocked the view from one to another.

What really struck me, besides being awed at how those ancient pueblo builders could perfectly align their buildings to important solar and lunar positions without compass or GPS, was listening to some of the modern-day pueblo people who had been interviewed for the video. They talked of how the ancient people of Chaco Canyon had great spiritual power, and how they didn't need sophisticated equipment or even years of observations to achieve what they had, because the knowledge was contained within their spiritual ceremonies and prayers, and in their minds.

This was getting way too mystical for me. I needed to get back to something more concrete. Geometry. Cycles. Predictability. I cracked books, watched a DVD on basic astronomy, and surfed the Internet in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the moon's orbit.

Phases of the moon, I already understood — sort of. In the time the moon makes one complete orbit around the earth, it also rotates once around its own axis. Because these motions are synchronized, the moon keeps its same face pointed towards us (actually, it "nods" up and down and sideways, giving us a view of almost 60 percent of its surface rather than half). As the moon rotates, the side lighted by the sun changes. At full moon, the side of the moon facing us is also facing the sun (earth between sun and moon). At new moon, the moon's "backside" is lit up and its face is dark (moon between sun and earth). As it waxes to full and wanes to new, the moon passes through crescent, quarter and gibbous phases and back again.

Eclipses occur when earth, sun and moon are in alignment (called "syzygy") and the earth's shadow falls on the moon (lunar eclipse) or the moon's on the earth (solar eclipse). We would get eclipses at every full moon and new moon, except that the moon's orbit is tilted about five degrees off of the earth's.

OK so far, I thought. But as I dug deeper, things started getting complicated. The moon's orbit is elliptical, meaning the moon sometimes moves faster, sometimes slower. The elliptical shape of the orbit gets stretched and flattened because of the sun's gravitational pull on the moon. The tilt of the orbit varies slightly. Perigee and apogee slowly swap places. The tilted plane of the moon's orbit also rotates, like a top slowly spinning, in the opposite direction as the moon's orbit. The time for the "top" to spin around once is 18.6 years. Aha, at least I'd seen that number before.


"Astronomical Imagery and Numbers in Mimbres Pottery," by R. Robert Robbins, and Russell B. Westmoreland. The Astronomy Quarterly, 1991, Vol. 8, pp. 65-88.

"The Mythology of Classic Period Mimbres Painted Pottery Iconology: Evaluation of the Iconographic Interpretations," by Brian Sawyer Shaffer. A dissertation submitted to Texas A&M University in partial fulfillment of PhD requirements in anthropology, 2002.

"The Mystery of Chaco Canyon" (video), produced by Anna Sofaer of the Solstice Project, 1999. Bullfrog Films, Oley, PA.

"Mimbres Iconology: Analysis and Interpretation of Figurative Motifs," by Marc Thompson. PhD thesis, Archaeology Dept., University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 1999.

Lunar cycle simulation tools website: astro.unl.edu/classaction

Perigee/apogee calculator: www.fourmilab.ch/earthview

Calculator for dates and times of moon phases: www.usno.navy.mil/USNO

In my wanderings through cyberspace, I came across a wonderful website for astronomy education developed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (astro.unl.edu/classaction) It had several different animation tools for looking at phases of the moon, the moon's elliptical orbit, and how it moves in a wobbly Hula Hoop motion in relation to the earth. But I couldn't find anything that gave me a total picture of how all these different motions worked together.

My brain felt fried. I was beginning to understand why the moon was once thought to cause madness (the word "lunacy" was derived from luna, the Latin word for moon).

It was time to talk to an astronomer.

I paid a visit to Silver City astronomer Gary Emerson (see "Star Trek," November 2008) to see if he could help clear up my confusion.

"The moon's orbit is extremely complicated," he said. "People who get into this stuff are real wizards." That made me feel better, not being a wizard. No wonder I was befuddled.

He explained the 18-plus year cycle as the time it took for the moon at a certain phase to return to the same point with respect to the stars (for example, a full moon would be seen at the same place within a given constellation). It takes that long for sun, moon and earth to return to the same configuration in space. When the cycle repeats, the pattern of eclipses again fall close to the same calendar dates.

"One of the most incredible people," he recalled, was an Austrian astronomer named Theodor von Oppolzer (1841-1886) who in the late 1800s developed a canon of lunar and solar eclipses out to the 22nd century. "He would have had to calculate the moon's motion by longhand," Emerson said in awe. "No PCs, no calculators."

The moon's orbit is shifting gradually, Emerson added. Thousands of years from now, the full moon will rise in the north during the summer, rather than in the winter as it does now.

I mentioned Chaco Canyon and its connections to lunar cycles, and he agreed that the associations had been pretty well proven. "There's an incredible amount of moon lore and sky lore," he said. "Many cultures and tribes saw the moon as a grandmother or mother figure. The moon was always female, the sun male."

What did he personally see in the moon? He laughed at the question, having spent a year observing the moon in great detail as a student at New Mexico State University. Using state-of-the-art equipment, he and others studied the moon's surface for "transient activity" (e.g. volcanoes) in preparation for Apollo 11, the first manned flight to the moon. For him, the moon represented the beginning of his career in astronomy. Today, he continues to keep tabs on moon missions like the recent LCROSS mission, in which a rocket was crashed into a crater on the moon near its south pole in an attempt to find water in the form of ice.

Emerson said he still gets a kick out of watching the moon rise and set. At those times, "You can actually see the motion of the earth. If you can put yourself in that frame and think of yourself rotating, it's a really neat feeling."


Emerson loaned me a few more books, and I went back to studying lunar cycles. It turns out that there are several 18-to-19-year cycles. There's the Metonic 19-year cycle, over which lunar "moonths" and earth years work out evenly. There's the 18-year, 10 1/3-day cycle that Emerson described, the Saros, where sun, moon and earth come back to the same configuration in space and patterns of eclipses repeat. And there's the 18.6-year cycle of the moon's declination, within which the full moon moves from its "farthest farthest north" position to a minimum extreme and back again.

The moon's declination reached its maximum most recently in 2006, so now, only three years into the 18.6-year cycle, the moon still makes a wide swing from north to south within each "moonth." At full moon, it will be farthest north on Dec. 31. This full moon is also a "blue moon," the second one in a calendar month (the first is Dec. 2). All of December's full moons will appear large because they occur near the time when the moon's orbit brings it closest to the earth. The largest, brightest "perigee full moon" will occur on Jan. 30, 2010.

The moon's cycles were starting to make more sense to me, but I felt certain quite that I hadn't yet got it right. Scientists with computers could predict the moon's movements with enough precision to crash rockets into it or land astronauts on its surface. Ancient astronomers had aligned their buildings with lunar positions. I felt humbled by their knowledge of the moon's complexities. Mystified.

moon map

Author's rendition of a "Mimbres rabbit-man" in the setting moon.

I went back to observing the moon. I watched it as it changed phases and moved higher in the sky, then lower. I paid attention to how much later it rose each night, and to where it appeared on the horizon at moonrise. But the full moon itself proved hard to catch.

I was hoping to watch the full moon again when it was just rising, to see if the Man in the Moon had any more words of wisdom for me. I tried for several months, unsuccessfully. I'd look in the newspaper for the moonrise time and set my alarm, and the alarm wouldn't go off. When my timing was right, the rising moon was hidden behind clouds or haze. After practically sitting in my lap on that drive home from Tucson, the Man in the Moon seemed to want nothing more to do with me.

Feeling rebuffed, I turned my attention to the setting moon instead. Maybe it was from learning about all those lunar cycles, maybe it was from looking at Mimbres pottery, but I saw something totally new in the moon — a sort of Mimbres rabbit-man, in a mid-air bounce over a bicycle (see the drawing on this page). Please note that the wheels each have nine spokes.

What do you see in the moon?

What stories do you tell?


The author watches the moon from Silver City.

She is grateful to Marilyn Gendron, Dr. Cynthia Ann Bettison
and Gary Emerson for their assistance on this article.

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