Monday, 25 December 2017

The Moon's Companion and other Lunar Phenomena

In the Tudor period it was thought that the Moon had a small companion star that could be glimpsed occasionally usually when the Moon was in near or total darkness. This companion star was called Hecat after the Greek Deity Hekate who ruled over the dark areas of the moon. Hekate was most probably based on Heqet the ancient Egyptian goddess of fertility. The ancient Athenians served a meal to Hekate every lunar month just before the new Moon appeared which was called Hekate's Diepnon.  Hekate usually carried a one or two torches and was revered in ancient Greece. She is shown here with Zeus on an ancient Greek coin (a Greek Tetradrachma from 185-170 BCE). Plutarch around 100 CE identified a feature on the Moon that he called The Shrine of Hekate (Penetralia Hectes) which roughly corresponds to Mare Imbrium.
However, by Shakespeare's time Hecat was no longer a benevolent kindly goddess who helped heal the sick with medicinal herbs but instead she represented all that was detrimental to mankind. She is the leader of the three weird sisters in Macbeth, although it is possible her lines in the play were inserted at a later date by Thomas Myddleton to make the play more frightening and not by Shakespeare at all.  Shakespeare's King Lear speaks of " For, by the sacred radiance of the sun, the mysteries of Hecate and the night." (Act I, Scene 1). In Henry VI part one (Act III, Scene 2) Lord Talbot says "I speak not to that railing Hecate". In A Midsummer Night's Dream (Act V, Scene 1) Puck says " And we fairies, that do run,  By the triple Hecate's team, From the presence of the Sun following darkness like a dream". In modern German and Dutch the words Hexe and Heks for witch are derived from Hekate.
In Loves Labour's Lost Shakespeare mentions in passing the Moon's attendant star. In Act IV, Scene 3 Ferdinand says:
"What zeal, what fury hath inspired thee now? My love, her mistress, is a gracious moon; She an attending star, scarce seen a light".
Astronomers had often recorded seeing a light shining on the darkened area of the Moon.  This attending starlight was attributed to the light of Hekate with her burning torches. Even today it is possible to see a light spot on the darkened lunar surface. Modern science attributes this to the crater Aristarchus which has a high reflective index and reflects the reflected light from the Earth better than the surrounding areas.
Shakespeare also knew about Earthshine and mentions it in Henry IV part 2 where Falstaff says (Act IV, Scene 2)
"and I, in the clear sky of  o'ershine you as much as the full moon doth the cinders of  element, which show like pins' heads to her".
Here is a photo of the new Moon with the Earthshine clearly visible taken last year. 

In King John (Act IV, Scene 2) Shakespeare writes of a very strange event where there seem to be several moons in the sky. Hubert de Burgh says "My lord, they say five moons were seen to-night; Four fixed, and the fifth did whirl about The other four in wondrous motion"  Of course this a bad omen and the audience would not have been surprised when King John dies later on in the play after being poisoned by a Monk.  The five moons in the sky could have been one Moon and four Moon Dogs. Ice in the upper atmosphere reflects the light of the Moon and forms a halo. Sometimes two halos are formed (one at 22 degrees and the other at 46 degrees) . At the edges of the halos points of light can sometimes appear called Moon Dogs or Mock Moons.  These are caused by hexagonal ice crystals in Cirrus or Cirrostratus clouds and are very rare. I have seen Moon halos myself (see photo below) but never Moon Dogs but there are many photos on the Internet.  Two halos would each give two Moon Dogs each plus the Moon itself would give the five Moons seen by Hubert. The motion of the moons would be due to the motion of the ice crystals in the clouds.   To see such an event would have been once in a lifetime experience and either Shakespeare saw this himself or a sufficient number of his trusted colleagues did in order to convince him that this was a real astronomical event and not seen as a result of too drinking too much ale after a merrie evening in the Mermaid Tavern! 


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