I was scrolling through my Instagram feed this morning and came across a beautiful image of a bowl full of ripe, red strawberries taken by a friend and admired writer, Caroline Eden. The strawberries were small but plump and round, with pert green calyxes and perfectly dotted achenes, arranged in a white ceramic bowl on a rustic tabletop. Two fat, bumblebee-yellow lemons edged in on the strawberries in an adjacent bowl. I could nearly smell the scene, and it felt like summer.
If we as a modern society are already disconnected from the changing of hours and seasons, being locked up in our homes these past few months has certainly exacerbated our detachment from nature. And, indeed, made us crave it even more.
Caroline’s fruit reminded me that today is also the day of the June full moon. We have a full moon every month, and occasionally – once every two or three years – a month will have two full moons. If a month happens to have two full moons, we call the second one a blue moon. That’s where we get the phrase ‘once in a blue moon’ to mean ‘rarely’ or ‘almost never’.
Our calendar system is based on the Roman (Gregorian) calendar, which itself was based on the complex Julian calendar instituted by Julius Caesar in 708, which in turn was derived from earlier calendar systems from Greece and Persia. The system doesn’t perfectly match the rotation and orbit of the Earth around the Sun and the Moon around the Earth, so we have to make small adjustments. A blue moon is an example. A leap year is another, where we add an extra day into February to ‘catch up’. The history of human calendrical systems is absolutely fascinating and deeply complex. I recommend Michael Judge’s beautifully written history, The Dance of Time: The Origins of the Calendar to anyone wanting a deeper dive here.
Caroline’s photo was a wonderful synchronicity. It reminded me immediately that tonight is the Strawberry Moon, the full moon in June. The fact that she chose to post her image this morning gave me pause, and we had a brief exchange during which she mused I should write something, and so here I am. Thanks Caroline.
All of the world events this year, and in recent years, seem to be calling to us. Certainly something within me has been urging a return to the natural world. To my physical connections to this plane of existence. My soul has been reminding me I am an embodied element of this natural system, of which we are each of us a part. “We are all one,” the planet gently whispers.
And people are feeling it.
Full ‘Strawberry’ Moon coincides with a penumbral lunar eclipse
Strawberry Moon 2020 spiritual meaning
Strawberry Full Moon 2020: What is it and how to see it
What is a Full Strawberry Moon? Everything you need to know
These are just a few of the headlines that pop up immediately on a search of ‘strawberry moon’. It seems like everybody wants to know more about the Moon, and if media headlines are anything to go by, humanity seems to have been craving connection to the sky more than ever over the past few years. They are certainly searching for it and clicking on it, or else the traffic-hungry digital publishers wouldn’t post these types of articles.
The names of the moons
The way we talk about the night sky is incredibly layered, a tapestry of mythologies and linguistics passed along from the ancients, and gently sculpted and changed over generations. Most of the online articles you readily find on the names of the monthly full moons all seem to contain one very hastily muddled together passage like:
For hundreds of years, we’ve referred to the moon by names that described the features historically associated with the Northern Hemisphere seasons. The full moon names we have today were used by North American colonists who copied them from Native American tribes.
If you’re lucky, a writer might have dived a bit deeper into this topic, maybe deigning to name-drop a specific tribe. But that’s about as far as it goes. Basically, “ancient people nicknamed the Moon this way because this is when they harvested strawberries”.
The trouble is that most celestial naming conventions were passed along orally, and modified. Likewise, we have an inherently racist way of talking about Native American (or indigenous peoples on any other continent) traditions that generalise and lump these vast and hugely diverse cultures together into one big “American Indian” group. The reality of where these names came from, and how they were used by any individual tribe, is much more nuanced and far more diverse.
Is it really a “strawberry” moon?
In my research, I came across one site put together by Brad Snowder, an astronomy and archeoastronomy lecturer at Western Washington University in the US. His bio states that he “has long had a special interest in preserving Native American and other cultural starlore.” I don’t know anything about Brad or his methodology, and would like to get in touch to learn more about how he collected his information. But as a start, he created a page that outlines the lunar names and translations for 29 Native American groups. Keep in mind that the US federal government recognises 574 Native American tribes, and we should also remember here that even this number is based on statistics collected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and that there may well be more groups that self-identify as being unique cultures of their own outside of these, but were not counted in such a way.
According to Brad’s page, only two groups reference the June full moon in relation to strawberries: the Anishinaabe (a wider Great Lakes grouping which includes the Chippewa and Ojibwe tribes) and the Sioux from the Great Plains/Nebraska/Dakotas. The Cherokee (from the southeastern mountains around Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia) have a strawberry moon in March, while the Potawatomi (Upper Mississippi River) and Shawnee (all across the Midwest) have one in May.
The June full moon is also sometimes called the Honey Moon, an obvious reference to the term for the post-marital trip that western couples take. Interestingly, the tradition of taking a honeymoon after a wedding became A Thing during the French Belle Époque in the late 19th century, and was one of the first examples of people practicing mass tourism. So do we have the June Full Moon to blame for overtourism ruining Venice? Well, maybe not exactly.
Early references to the Honey Moon come from the fact that medieval European couples drank mead (made of honey) during the period of the moon (or month) after their wedding. This may have then gotten conflated with the tradition of June being the month to get married. While on the surface it seems like maybe the June weather (or perhaps springtime “dusting out the cobwebs”? Sorry…) made this a popular time for weddings (and indeed that might still be the case today), in fact the custom may go even further back. According to Ovid, the English word ‘June’ is derived from Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage. The reasons here are far more nuanced, and even nod to the depth that the patriarchy runs.
Michael Judge talks about Ovid’s explanation, which references the fact that Juno was in a miserable marriage to Jupiter, who slept around, and she liked to punish his mistresses.
That is why, since Roman times, June has been considered a lucky month for weddings. And the full moon of June, sacred to both Juno and Venus, the silver goddess of love, was considered the luckiest time of all the year for a march down the aisle.
Perhaps people have unwittingly been getting hitched in June for generations under the threat of Juno’s wrath lest their marriages go sour.
And I guess it was Juno who also ruined Venice.
When I originally sat down to write this, I thought it was going to be a more lyrical musing on what the full moon and Strawberry Moon mean with an eclipse in June of 2020. But as my heart has centred on the issues of injustice coming up around the world right now, this is what came out. I believe we need to be more thoughtful, more precise, more engaged with the things we write and read.
The vast internet media encompasses even a blog like this that virtually no one reads, and since I am the commissioning editor, as well as the copyeditor and publisher of this piece of writing, I get to say what I think needs to be said. However romantic the idea of the moon nicknames are (and believe me, I’ve bought into the romance myself plenty), the presentation of the names as a broad-stroked ‘Native American tradition’ is frankly just lazy, lumpy cultural appropriation passed along for dozens of generations.
I have no other conclusions, but I think there is lots of research to be done in the linguistics of celestial naming conventions, and would love to find a funded PhD to dive into the topic of celestial linguistics (astrolinguistics?) on a more detailed level.
At the end of it though, the language that we as a human race use to refer to the sky is always in some way always about poetry, in any cultural tradition. If you’ve ever looked up at a really starry night, or gazed upon a particularly vivid full moon, you’ll have felt the pull of enchantment in your chest. As Carl Sagan said:
“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star-stuff.
We are a way for the universe to know itself.”