Our tendency to make meaning out of the shapes we see on the moon can be ascribed to pareidolia—a psychological phenomenon in which our brain creates familiar images or patterns when none exist. In the western hemisphere, the shape in the moon is traditionally a man—either just the face, or a man carrying a large bundle on his back and sometimes accompanied by a little dog. Other cultures see a moon rabbit, moon maiden, or moon frog. Here are nine folk tales from different cultures around the world to explain the shapes we see in the moon.
1. MAN IN THE MOON // GERMANY
When looking up at the moon from the northern hemisphere, many people say they see the face of a man made up from the dark spot, Oceanus Procellarum. However, in some traditional European folklore the man in the moon is in the shape of a figure carrying a bundle of wood over his shoulder.
A German folk tale recounts the story of an old man who lived in the woods and one Sunday went out to collect firewood. On his journey home, he met a stranger who asked him why he was collecting wood on the Sabbath. The old man laughed and said every day was the same to him. As soon as he said this, he began to rise into the air and found himself forever at work carrying wood on the moon as a lesson to all who refuse to recognize the Sabbath.
2. MOON RABBIT // CHINA
In Asian cultures they refer to the moon rabbit, believing they can see an image of a rabbit bending over a pestle and mortar. This gave rise to a Chinese story in which the moon rabbit works for the moon goddess, Chang’e, and pounds the elixir of life with its pestle and mortar (incidentally, in Japanese and Korean cultures, where they also see a rabbit in the moon, they believe the creature is making rice cakes).
Astronauts about to land on the moon in 1969 were told to watch out for Chang’e and the rabbit.
3. MOON RABBIT // AZTECS
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When the Aztec gods were creating the world, they asked for two volunteers to make the sun and the moon. They chose the rich and handsome god Tezcuciztecatl and the ugly, pimple-covered Nanahuatzin. When it was time to create the sun, the gods were supposed to throw themselves into a fire. Four times Tezcuciztecatl tried to fling himself into the flames, but at the last moment held back. Ugly Nanahuatzin, however, threw himself straight in and immediately began to shine. Ashamed, Tezcuciztecatl followed him into the fire, becoming a second sun. The gods were not pleased, as they did not want two suns of equal brightness, so they threw a rabbit into the face of the second sun to forever mark it and diminish its brightness—thus creating the moon.
4. MOON RABBIT // JAPAN
In Japan, the story of how the rabbit came to be in the moon is told like this: a monkey, a rabbit, and a fox all lived together in the forest, and one day they were approached by an old man asking for food. The monkey gathered some fruit for the man and the fox caught some fish. But the rabbit, who ate only grass, had nothing to offer the hungry old man. The rabbit asked his friends to make a fire, and was just about to jump into the fire to offer himself for the old man to eat, when the man stopped him. Humble with gratitude, the old man (who of course actually turned out to be the Man in the Moon in disguise), gifted the rabbit immortality for his kindness by placing him forever in the moon.
5. MOON RABBIT // CREE PEOPLE OF CANADA
The Cree tell a tale of a rabbit that really wanted to visit the moon. He asked birds to help fly him there, but they all claimed to be busy. The crane, however, offered to fly the rabbit to the moon, and told him to hold onto his legs. It was a long hard flight, and by holding hard onto the crane’s legs the rabbit elongated them and bloodied his paws. When they arrived at the moon the rabbit patted the crane on the head to thank him, leaving a red mark, which cranes still bear to this day.
6. MOON TOAD // PACIFIC NORTHWEST
A Salish story tells of a toad who lives in the moon. One day a wolf fell passionately in love with a toad, and he asked the moon if it would help him to find her. The moon obliged and shone brightly that night, lighting up the forest and the pond where the toad lived. The toad was dismayed, since she feared the wolf and did not trust him at all, so she hid as best she could, but with the bright moonlight the wolf kept discovering her hiding place. The toad looked up at the moon and asked why it was helping the wolf, and the moon replied that it liked to help all creatures. The toad remembered this as she tired and the wolf came ever closer. With her last energy reserves she jumped high into the sky, all the way to the moon, and there she stays to this day, safe from the love of the wolf.
7. MOON TOAD // CHINA
The Chinese also have a folktale that explains the image of a toad in the moon. It is said that Chang’e, the moon goddess, stole the elixir of immortality (which the moon rabbit makes with his pestle and mortar) from her husband and drank it. Once she had taken the potion, she was afraid her husband would be angry, so she hid in the moon in the shape of a toad.
8. MOON FROG // ANGOLA
A young man was desperate to marry Sky Maiden, the daughter of the Sun Chief, so he wrote her a letter asking for her hand and pleaded with the animals to deliver the message, but none knew how. The frog lived by the well where every day the serving girls of the Sun Chief descended from heaven on a spider’s web and took water from the well. The frog jumped in their bucket and delivered the marriage proposal letter. The marriage was agreed but next the frog had to take a dowry and then fetch the bride as the young man could not do it himself. When the Sky Maiden met the frog and found all the effort he had put in to win her hand for another, she decided to marry the hard-working frog instead. So she took him back to the moon where they happily lived out their days together.
9. LADY IN THE MOON // NEW ZEALAND
Maori folk legends tell of a maiden, Rona, in the moon. Rona is said to have lived with her husband but he did not treat her very well, and one night they quarreled. Rona stormed off into the night but as she went into the bushes a cloud passed over the moon and it was so dark she stumbled and fell. Rona called out in anger to Marama (the moon) for hiding his bright face. Marama warned Rona not to be so rude, but she grew angrier and yelled yet more insults. In his fury Marama grabbed Rona, and she held onto a tree, but he was stronger and dragged her back to the moon with him. To Rona’s surprise Marama treated her kindly and she fell in love with him. When he asked her if she wanted to go back to Earth Rona declined, and as a reward Marama gave her a cloak of stars and let her be in charge of the tides.
All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise noted.