- a collection of essays on Neodruidic Studies
- a journal of Post-Reconstructionist Neopaganism

The Sixth Night of the Moon

                       "(The mistletoe) is gathered with much ceremony; 
                         and above all, on the sixth day of the  moon, by which 
                        these men reckon the beginnings of their months and years, 
                        and of their cycle of thirty years, because the moon has then 
                        sufficient power, yet has not reached half its size."

So says Pliny the Elder in Book 16 of his Natural History in the First Century CE. Pliny is describing the famed Mistletoe Rite, often erroneously associated with the Yule Solstice. This is perhaps the only direct view from classical times we have into the workings of an actual Druid ritual.

Also around the same time, we find the Roman historian Tacitus writing of the tribes of central Europe, telling us in chapter 11 of his work Germania:
                      "except in the case of accident or emergency, they 
                       assemble on certain particular days, either shortly 
                       after the new moon or shortly before the full moon. 
                       These they hold are the most auspicious times for 
                       embarking on any enterprise."

If these accounts are reliable, and we will consider issues of reliability a little later, we find ourselves asking "why the sixth night/first-quarter?" To consider that we should briefly review what was going on in their skies, and also right above you too, during every month of your life.

The Moon's first fortnight…

Relative to our line of sight to the Sun every month, the Moon swings around first in between us and the Sun, passing the Sun in the sky. This begins the lunar cycle and is called the "New Moon." Lost from our view in the Sun's brilliance for several days, the Moon is moving from our right to our left, passing either slightly above or below the Sun in the sky, narrowly missing it most months.

(Occasionally the Moon actually passes -over- the face of the Sun
and we have a solar eclipse; the Moon's orbit is silghtly tilted relative
to the Earth's orbit, so we dont have eclipses every month.)

In the days immediately following the New Moon, the first thin crescent can be found at sunset, closely following the Sun down yet having passed it by; now far enough to the left of the Sun's glare to be easily seen. Each night thereafter, we find the crescent further from the Sun and consequentially, the crescent is thicker and brighter. Watching for the arrival of the young crescent moon each month was usually seen as a matter of importance; perhaps in the old days it provided another opportunity to recalibrate the local calendar after many days of battling bad weather or marauding invaders. There is a nearly universal old Celtic and European tradition asserting that the first view one gets of the young Moon each month must be gotten from out-of-doors; the later instances of which are often phrased as it being unlucky to be first seen "through-glass."

The young crescent, visible by the second day after New Moon, continues to increase in form and distance from the Sun in the sky until, by around the seventh day after New, the crescent has become a perfect “D”-shaped half-disk, standing approximately due south, as the sun sets in the western sky. This phase, one week into the cycle, is known as the First Quarter Moon...

( SOUTH ) ================( SW )================= ( WEST )

In the following seven days, the Moon is found each night a little further away from the Sun in the sky at sunset and its shape continues to wax (increase) until we find it as a Full Moon’s disk, “fully” across the sky, rising in the east as the Sun sets in the west. This completes the first half of the Moon’s cycle, approximately fourteen nights (a “fortnight”) since the New Moon.

Why would the “sixth day of the Moon” be chosen as an important day? It’s true that such things could be based on some obscure traditional, magical or astrological principle but if Pliny and Tacitus are actually speaking the of same thing, we might wonder first if there was a simple, practical reason for it being such a specific yet widely distributed tradition. If so, what could it be? Well, I have a suggestion.…

The first “knowable” night of the Moon

Earlier I mentioned that in ancient times there might have been a fairly regular need to “check” and recalibrate the local calendar. Although the role of the Sun in the heavens seemed obvious to most ancient cultures, the role of the Moon has always seemed more mysterious. The common assumption made was that the Moon’s monthly cycle was a gift from the gods to mankind for the ordering of time; that, if anything, seemed obvious. How can we be sure with certainty which night of the Moon it is? Can we clearly tell one disk or crescent from another visually?

If, by carefully looking at the shape of the Moon to establish which night of its cycle it is currently, which shape would you find to be the one easiest to guess accurately? Within an error-margin of less than one day in 27? The answers to these questions are best found by simply going out and looking. I am confident you will find that the early crescents are difficult to discriminate between. Also, although the Full Moon may be the first thing that comes to mind as a cycle-marker, the Moon's disk on days just before, at, and after Full Moon are actually quite hard to discriminate between, so we could probably rule-out the Full Moon too. I believe that with even a brief amount of observational sampling that one has to agree that the half-disk "D"-shape of the First Quarter stands out as far more “knowable” than any other shape in the first half of the Moon’s cycle.

Its “terminator”, the boundary line between the illuminated portion of the moon’s face and the unilluminated part, stands as a perfectly straight, vertical line, only on the night closest to the First Quarter. But isn’t the First Quarter the seventh night? Yes, it’s the seventh night since the New Moon (just try to visually guess, which day is the New Moon!-- unless there’s an eclipse…). The First Quarter is simply the sixth day that the moon could be seen by anyone, allowing for perfect observing conditions; the sixth night that the Moon has been “back in the sky.”

So, going with Occam and assuming that the simplest solution is usually the correct one, this simple, practical reason for choosing the sixth day seems right. So, even if it seems reasonable for them to have done so, still, should we believe that the Druids did really hold a special reverence for the “sixth day”?


The fact that a description of an event or custom exists somewhere in the ancient record still may not be enough for us to accept it as factual, undistorted and generally “believable.” Do you believe everything you read in the contemporary media? Of course not; and therefore when assessing today’s news, or, as historians looking into the ancient past, whenever possible we seek to corroborate the statements of one writer with those of another to add credence. Single citations can be completely erroneous, distorted, or even completely correct, but without physical evidence or multiple sources to reference we are always uncertain at best.

Not that multiple sources are above circumspection either! For example, in Britain during World War I, multiple sources were exchanging stories claiming the Germans were eating babies, while lo and behold, later we find that virtually identical stories were simultaneously being circulated in Germany about the baby-eating Brits! The line between news reporting and folklore is always fuzzy and we are best to never lose sight of the fact. Those of us who were unfortunate enough to see the Geraldo Rivera television special on Satanism have witnessed the horrific vitality of a well placed lie launched into the media. The politics of propaganda is another important dynamic to be taken into account when evaluating the ancient record. Remember: it seems the Celts never wrote about themselves, we only hear about the Celts from their neighbors, neighbors with whom they were not always on the best of terms. Knowledgeable historians assume that much of the negative slant in Caesar’s description of the Druids is tied up in his need to justify the Roman campaign for Gaul as a triumph of civilization over savagery.

The Sixth Day Moon and Neodruidic Customs

We have seen that, although we cannot be certain, there is reason to assume that the sixth day custom may be a good piece of information about how the ancient Druids practiced. How can we adopt this for our own use in our Neodruidic practice? We know so little about their ancient ways and so much of our modern paganism is based on our contemporary world-view and cultural conditioning. What is the value of selecting a piece of ancient lore and attaching an admittedly “new” expression to it? Hopefully that we may be somehow striking “close” to the ancient intentions and thereby perhaps are able to activate some fragment of its lost or hidden wisdom? Of course. It’s what we are about. I believe that it is part of our “calling” to be perpetually sifting through the numinous rubble of the centuries, searching for patterns, truths, wisdom and guidance from the Old Ways and to then try to incorporate them in our lives in a fashion that is hopefully consistent with their intentions, yet relevant to our modern sensibilities.

Sixth Night Moots

In keeping with this ancient tradition, some Neodruidic groups schedule a meeting or an actual monthly ritual on the sixth night of the Moon. The intention and pattern of a sixth night ritual can be selected to address various other functions not often covered in the rites constructed for the High Days of the Wheel. Magical workings, trance-journeying, ritualized lore-readings or simply an abbreviated version of the ADF liturgy can be used to provide social and spiritual continuity for a grove during the six-week gaps between the primary rites of the Wheel. These meetings or “moots”, a revived archaism now popular in British Neopaganism, can also be referred to as “The Druid Moon” observance. As an inner tradition within our grove, we have kept up a regular monthly Druid Moon observance for many years now. Mainly an activity reserved for members, if you are interested in attending one, a grove member can arrange to sponsor you as a "visitor" at one of our upcoming Druid Moons.

- Earrach, July ‘01 © 2001,2006 Earrach of Pittsburgh

 **((Click here for my Moon-Phase Cheatsheet))
my apologies to our friends far-south of 
the equator in the South Temperate Zone, 
The crescents there will seem opposite
to those shown on guides based on the
view from the Northern Hemisphere 
since we each consider the other as 
"upside-down, standing on one's head"! - e.


1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! Thanks for this and for the Moon Cheat Sheet. :-)