These days, we know that most longstanding myths about the Moon aren’t real. We know it isn’t made of green cheese. We know it doesn’t transform humans into werewolves. And we know there isn’t a Man in the Moon.
Although we’re very aware of the fact that the Moon itself isn’t a giant face orbiting the Earth, the Man in the Moon remains a curiosity all the same. It does look as if there’s a face shining out from the Moon when it’s full—you don’t even need a telescope to see it.
When it comes to breaking down exactly why we perceive a face in the silver orb, we look up in the sky every night, though, it turns out there’s a lot to talk about. Here’s a look at what’s going on.
The Truth About the Man in the Moon
The Man in the Moon isn’t, of course, an actual face etched into the Moon’s surface. Instead, it’s composed of the vast dark plains on the Moon known as lunar maria. (The term maria is a bit of a misnomer; it translates from the Latin as “seas.” Early astronomers believed the dark spots they saw on the Moon were literal seas—and the name stuck.) Volcanic eruptions formed the plains themselves — they’re basaltic, made up of the kind of igneous rock created by the rapid cooling of lava near or at the celestial body’s crust.
Some researchers believe that the volcanic eruptions forming the maria that make up the Man in the Moon’s face may have been triggered by the shock waves, resulting from major asteroid impacts relatively early in the Moon’s lifespan. However, an alternate theory posits that lava flooded the lunar valley where the Man in the Moon is located, as part of a “magma irrigation system,” rather than due to asteroid impact; when this lava cooled, states this theory, it created the lunar maria visible from Earth.
No matter how they were formed, though, lunar maria stand out quite a bit from the lighter areas of the Moon’s surface, which are called highlands, even when you’re observing the Moon with the naked eye. When there’s a Full Moon, we can see all of the lunar maria that make up the Man in the Moon’s face. What’s more, the Man in the Moon always faces the Earth by dint of its orbit. So, even when the Moon isn’t full, the Man in the Moon hasn’t vanished or rotated around to the other side— it’s just hidden in shadow.
Finding Order in Chaos
Knowing what the Man in the Moon is made of doesn’t explain why we perceive it as, well, the Man in the Moon. For that, we need to look not to the Moon itself, but a psychological phenomenon: Pareidolia.
Pareidolia refers to the misperception of objects or other meaningful shapes or patterns in random or vague stimuli. The etymology of the word itself describes the phenomenon perfectly; it’s derived from the Greek word para, meaning faulty, wrong, or “instead of,” and eidolon, meaning image, form, or shape.
Pareidolia is perhaps most commonly encountered in the specific tendency to see faces in inanimate objects. There’s even an entire Twitter feed dedicated to showcasing photographs of chairs, buildings, vehicles, and other artifacts that look as if they have faces bearing particular kinds of expressions. The type of pareidolia seen in this Twitter feed is the same kind of pareidolia we see in action when we look up at the sky and point to the Man in the Moon— we’re identifying the image of a face where there isn’t one at all.
Research indicates that humans generally don’t cope well with uncertainty; as such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that, when presented with ambiguous information, we attempt to find order in it. We display this tendency in all kinds of ways. For example, when we hear random noise, we interpret it as words or messages—a phenomenon termed as auditory pareidolia, which many believe to account for the paranormal phenomenon known as EVP, or electronic voice phenomenon. When we see financial or stock market data, we find patterns that don’t exist. More broadly, we can classify pareidolia as a subset of apophenia, the tendency to draw connections between unrelated items and ideas.
The Man in the Moon’s Other Friends
Interestingly, how you perceive the Man in the Moon also depends on cultural context. It turns out that the Man in the Moon is just one of several images intrepid stargazers have spotted on the Moon’s surface throughout history. Collectively, these images are known as lunar pareidolia.
Sometimes, the figure depicted in the curves and shadows of the Moon is described not as a face, but as a whole person. In some European tales, it’s a man carrying a bundle of sticks who has been banished to the Moon for working on Sunday. In New Zealand Maori folklore, it’s a woman carrying a bunch of water gourds who was spirited away to the Moon’s surface as a punishment for insulting the Moon.
Other times, the figure isn’t even a human at all, but an animal. The Moon Rabbit, for instance, factors prominently in the folklore of many East Asian cultures. In China, the Moon Goddess Chang’ e brought the rabbit to the Moon to be her companion. In both Japan and Korea, however, the rabbit, asked in a test of faith to bring the Emperor of the Heavens food, offered himself by jumping into a fire, which prompted the Emperor to make him the guardian of the Moon.
The Man in the Moon may be nothing more than patches of rock on the surface of an even bigger rock orbiting our planet, but what we see when we look up at the sky tells us a lot about ourselves. And, the fact that we’ve believed there to be a friendly face up there looking down at us for so long is comforting, indeed.