What’s the Deal With Those Faces on the Moon?

the-moon (Image: Gregory H. Revera)

On a clear night, the full moon can be bright enough to read by. For thousands of years, we’ve been fascinated by the Moon. And long before mankind ever set foot on its surface, we were seeing faces in it. From the Middle Ages to The Mighty Boosh, there’s a whole host of stories about the Man in the Moon.

Early astronomers were certain that there must be water on the moon – what else would the man drink up there? Over time, these claims became popularised in fables and folk ballads. For the ancient Greeks, the Man in the Moon was Endymion, a youth that had captured the amorous affections of the moon goddess.

the-man-in-the-moon (Image: Luc Viatour)

Related: What’s the Real Story Behind the Mysterious Face on Mars?

The theologian Clemens Alexandruis quotes an earlier story that the face on the moon once belonged to a Sibyl, one of Greece’s female oracles, blessed with the knowledge of the divine. Jewish lore suggests that the Moon reveals the face of Jacob. Another tale claims that when Moses came across a man gathering firewood on the Sabbath, he was exiled there for his crime, ever a reminder to others that the day of rest is sacred.

In a village in Germany, called Rantum, locals tell of a giant who stoops to collect water, then stands to pour it out again. This explains where our tides come from. And in Sweden, Jack and Jill of nursery rhyme fame were originally carrying their bucket to the well of Byrgir, and were placed in the Moon. Other cultures glimpse different things in the Moon’s near side, including a toad, a pair of hands, and even a tree.

various-interpretations-of-the-moon-in-the-moon (Image: D. Helber)

But with so many cultures, each with their own stories of a man in the Moon and similar interpretations of faces looking down from the heavens, it seems undeniable that something must be going on. In fact, there is something going on. It’s called pareidolia, and it’s the same reason we see shapes in the clouds. Our brains are hard-wired to recognise patterns in the most meaningless shapes – even the shadows cast by the Moon’s mountains and valleys.

Scientists have suggested that this ability may have developed due to our need to get on and prosper. Being able to organize seemingly meaningless information into something coherent is key to survival. The person who could recognize the outline of a stalking leopard against its surrounding camouflage had a greater chance of survival than one who couldn’t.

man-in-the-moon (Image: Bard Anton Zajac; the ‘Man in the Moon’)

Gradually, this ability also manifested itself in another way – storytelling and oral tradition. One of the first things that humans told stories about was the vast expanse of the night sky. When we saw ourselves up among the stars, we wanted to know how we got there.

Related: 10 Strange Optical Illusions & Atmospheric Phenomena (& Where to See Them)



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