Heritage Full Moons

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Project code: MOON001ZAF20F

Project leader: Edward Foster

Description: To identify popular names for the Full Moons in a month, in order to bring to the public’s attention aspects of South Africa’s cultural and astronomical heritage.

Purpose: To promote South Africa’s heritage.

Current status: Completed and Active.

Why this project? The Full Moon is a prominent celestial body, attractive and easy to observe, and from time to time is spectacularly eclipsed.

A recent (at least c.200 years) popular phenomenon is to associate particular Full Moons with concepts rich in symbolism, such as Wolf Moon and Snow Moon. This custom most likely originates from North America and may be associated with certain American Indian traditions.

More recently, due in part to the ease of access to information of varying quality via the Internet, some South Africans (including members of the public, journalists, and science communicators) have been confused by these Full Moon names since wolves never roamed the South African shores and it does not snow in February.

Not only are these names irrelevant in the South African context, but an opportunity to celebrate what is iconic and proudly South African is lost with each setting Full Moon.

To this end, a workgroup within the Centre was established, led by Edward Foster, and tasked to identify 23 concepts (one for each first Full Moon in a calendar month plus one for a possible second Full Moon) representing essential cognates to “South Africa”.

A rationally determined set of primary factors was devised, from which second-order factors were deduced. These second-order factors were instantiated and then assigned to specific months as determined by South African conditions (e.g. seasons, human activities, animal behaviours). The outcome is a list of 23 names for the Full Moons. These names are specifically (and in some cases uniquely) South African, thereby creating the opportunity to promote our nation’s diverse yet inclusive cultural heritage and our connection with the Universe.

The procedure: One of the foundational principles guiding the identification of suitable Full Moon names was inclusivity. Inclusivity (which equates to comprehensiveness) requires that all concepts that can be identified as “South African” be identified.

This philosophical process started with deconstructing “South Africa” into three broad conceptual categories, or primary factors: the people, the environment, and the interaction between people and environment.

Each primary factor was then further refined:

primary factorsecond-order factors
peoplethe human condition; wisdom; religion; science
environmentsky; earth; climate; plants; animals
interactionhunting; gathering; farming; economy; technology; culture

This framework was then used to identify meaningful names, within our uniquely South African context, that matched one or more of the second-order factors, ensuring that all second-order factors were represented at least once.

second-order factorcorresponding Full Moon
being humanDusty, Eland, Gold, Leopard, Ochre, Peace, Sisters
knowledgeDiamond, Fire, Gold, Meerkat, Milk, Wool
skySisters, Meerkat
earthDiamond, Gold, Ochre
climateDusty, Fire, Frost, Spring, Whale
animalsBlue Crane, Dassie, Eland, Elephant, Leopard, Mantis, Meerkat, Springbok, Whale
hunting/gatheringDassie, Eland, Elephant, Harvest, Honey, Springbok, Whale
agricultureHarvest, Milk, Spring, Wool
economyDiamond, Gold, Harvest, Meerkat, Milk, Ochre, Spring, Whale, Wool
technologyMeerkat, Milk, Ochre, Wool
cultureBlue Crane, Dassie, Eland, Fire, Gold, Leopard, Mantis, Milk, Ochre, Protea, Sisters, Spring, Springbok

During the early stages of this project, we thought of using only words from the no-longer-spoken /Xam language, in which our national motto appears on the South African coat of arms. For a variety of reasons this proved not to be practical. We nevertheless intended to give as much prominence as possible to the /Xam, San, and Khoi cultures, in view of what we consider to be their legitimate claim to first nation status. However, we broadened our search to other South African languages and indigenous cultures looking for names of periods in the year that corresponded roughly to the western calendar months now in use. This produced lists with terms corresponding to the usage in pre-colonial times, both in the official languages of South Africa as well as languages that are no longer spoken or only spoken by a few of the descendants of the Khoi/San groups that originally inhabited the greater part of South Africa. We then had a look at the correlation between the languages in assigning shared meanings to times of the year corresponding as closely as possible to our current months. The next step was to determine how representative our names were of other aspects that we considered to be characteristic of South Africa such as the national symbols , wild animals, plants, agriculture, mining, technology, traditional knowledge, religious beliefs and several other categories, to see how many of these we could tie in with our first list, drawn purely from the various language groups. We also had to consider the fact that most months in certain years have two full moons , the so-called blue moon , so two lists comprising 12 names each were required. The need for a second list actually gave us the opportunity to use more of the names and terms we had identified. However, it proved quite a challenge deciding which terms should be on the main list, to be used every year, and which should be relegated to the list for irregular use whenever a second full moon occurred in a particular month.

The result: Visit the Heritage Full Moons section of this website to explore the names and meanings of South Africa’s Full Moons.

Books and articles consulted

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  • Bank, A. (2006) Bushmen in a Victorian world. The remarkable story of the Bleek-Lloyd Collection of Bushman Folklore. Double Storey Books.
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  • Jackson, W.P.U. (1990) Origins and Meanings of Names of South African Plant Genera. Ecolab, University of Cape Town.
  • Koopman, A (2017) Isithwalandwe: The wearing of the crane feather. Natalia, 47, 43–46.
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  • Rourke, J.P. (1980) Die Proteas van Suider Afrika. Tafelberg-Uitgewers Beperk, Kaapstad.
  • Rusch, N. & Low, C. (eds) (2017) Bushman Stories. Volumes 1-4. Gideon Retief von Wielligh. !Khwa ttu & Mantis Books, Cape Town.
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  • Skead, C.J. (1989) Historical Mammal Incidence in the Cape Province. Vol. 1. The Western and Northern Cape. The Department of Nature and Environmental Conservation of the Provincial Administration of the Cape of Good Hope.
  • Skotnes, P. (2007) Claim To The Country. The Archive of Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek. Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
  • Smithers, R. H. N. (1983) Die Soogdiere van die Suider-Afrikaanse Substreek. Universiteit van Pretoria.
  • Snedegar, K. (1998) First Fruits Celebrations Among The Nguni Peoples of Southern Africa: An Ethno-astronomical Interpretation. Journal for the History of Astronomy, 29(23), S31-S38.
  • Stuart, C. & Stuart, T. (1995) Veldgids tot die Soogdiere van Suider-Afrika. Struik Uitgewers.
  • Van Huyssteen, J. F. (1962) The Sheep and Wool Industry in South Africa. Agrekon, 1(2), 28-34.
  • Van Wyk, B. E., van Oudtshoorn, B. & Gericke, N. (1997) Medicinal Plants of South Africa. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
  • Viljoen, O. (2016) Communal Solution. Twist, 2016 November, 37.
  • Wildenboer, N. (2015 February 16) Blue crane massacre. Diamond Fields Advertiser.

Web pages consulted

For internal use only: Working Document

Protecting South Africa’s astronomical heritage

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