The Light in the Underworld: “The Moon” by the Brothers Grimm

“In days gone by there was a land where the nights were always dark, and the sky spread over it like a black cloth, for there the moon never rose, and no star shone in the obscurity.”

So begins the Brothers Grimm “The Moon,” a cosmological story of how the moon came to be. Four young travelers leave this land of night-darkness and, entering another kingdom, discover “a shining globe was placed on an oak-tree, which shed a soft light far and wide” (Grimm 713). They covet the light for their own kingdom, steal it in a cart, and hang it in their own oak tree at home.

The fact that it hangs from an oak tree is significant. Oaks are important in many European mythologies. It is the archetype of the World Tree for some European peoples, including the Balts. Brittanica.com notes of the Baltic cosmological tree that it “grows at the edge of the path of Saule [the sun goddess], and the setting sun…hangs her belt on the tree in preparation for rest.” It is also associated with Indo-European thunder deities: Germanic Thor, Slavic and Baltic Perun/Perkunas, Greek Zeus, and Celtic Taranis. If the oak symbolizes the World Tree, the moon would naturally hang from its branches.

The Banality of the Otherworld

What is the nature of the other kingdom? It has familiar features: an oak, oil-fueled lantern, thalers (old European silver coinage) for currency, and a mayor responsible for collecting taxes for the upkeep of public property. In fact, nothing suggests that this kingdom is anything other than ordinary. Yet, in stories like this in which powerful objects are stolen to benefit the living, the object is usually stolen from the otherworld, its place of origin. This trope underscores the concept that all things begin in spirit.

It’s worth noting that for our ancestors, there was no real division between what we think of as “this world” and the “otherworld,” aside from a very real forest, river, or well. The magical and spiritual could be, and often were, just as physical as the living. The dead were not diaphanous and transparent but flesh-and-blood: they could physically attack the living, and could in turn be dismembered, stabbed through the heart, or set afire (typical treatments against the vengeful dead). Claude Lecouteux asserts: “In northern Europe, the dead that manifested in places other than dreams were therefore not ectoplasms, reflections, images, or illusions” (87). It was the same for other types of spirits — spirits of the forest, waters, mountains, houses, and so on. Benjamin Thorpe writes of a kobold that rearranges the positions of sleepers in their beds at night — a physical act rather than an illusion (84).

And why not? Emma Restall Orr, in her book The Wakeful World, rejects the concept of dualism — the belief in a distinction between body and spirit — and proposes that both body and spirit are different aspects of the true basic element of the universe: interaction. In other words, it’s the network of subjects and objects that creates reality, rather than the subjects and objects themselves, which are predicated upon interactions (data, she calls them, using our modern lexicon).

“Nature’s primary state is darkness. In stillness, formless, in the darkness, nature is whole. Yet, nature is minded: it exists with a wakefulness of its own being. Aware of itself, nature turns within itself in self-reflection. This essential movement of nature is the breath of existence, the sacred wind of being. As movement moves against movement, this motion of self-reflection provokes edges within the unity…a myriad of verses aris[e] within the universal flow of awareness… [Spirit] is the raw data of action…the pattern created by the crucial moments of interaction” (Orr 174-175).

Her vision is both animistic, in that everything in the universe is acknowledged to have wakefulness (i.e. awareness, or prehension), and pantheistic, in that we are all part of one wakeful whole, flitting in and out of various forms but all essentially of the same cloth. In this context, whether the travelers in “The Moon” remain in this world or the otherworld is virtually irrelevant.

Waking the Dead

When the four travelers die, each in their own time, they take a quarter of the moon with them to their graves. This is an important aspect of Indo-European burial customs: burying the dead with their most-treasured belongings so that they may use them in their afterlife. Lecouteux writes that “the departed had a right to keep one-third of his wealth, which originally should have permitted him to lead a decent life beyond the tomb” (40). As the quarters of the moon are carved out over time, the kingdom becomes darker and darker at night, eventually returning to its original state.

However, in the underworld of the dead, the moon gradually grows into completion again: first a waxing crescent, then a half moon, then a waxing gibbous, and finally a full moon. The light wakes the dead, who are accustomed to utter darkness, and they pick up their lives where they left off:

“They rose up and were merry, and fell into their former ways of living. Some of them went to the play and to dance, others hastened to the public-houses, where they asked for wine, got drunk, brawled, quarrelled, and at last took up cudgels, and belaboured each other”(715).

This concept, which is quite beautiful and powerful, may be pre-Christian in origin: when the moon wanes, the “lost” light goes to the dead, who rise during the new moon.

Saint Peter’s arrival at the end of the story feels anachronistic, tacked on to give an otherwise pagan story a Christian resolution. The saint leaves heaven’s gates once he realizes that the ruckus isn’t Satan with his infernal army rising up to battle the angels, and he descends into the underworld of the dead — which, significantly, isn’t the Christian Hell. He compels the dead to lie back into their graves and takes the moon with him when he returns to heaven, hanging it there, where it has since remained. It’s possible that St. Peter has replaced an earlier figure — perhaps Thor, the Germanic deity of agriculture and the champion of peasants; or Freyr, deity of fertility and wealth, which are connected intimately to the chthonic realm; or even Heimdall, who fulfills the same guardian function for Asgard as St. Peter does for Heaven and who governs order in many respects (including an ancient social hierarchy). This is, of course, all conjecture. We may never know what predated this version of the story.

One question remains: if the moon is now in heaven to keep the dead in their graves, why does it continue to wax and wane? Perhaps the spirit of the moon still passes between the worlds, waking the dead from their dark sleep for brief periods. Perhaps we can more easily speak to the dead on new moon nights, when they rise under its pale silver light.

Works Cited

The Brothers Grimm. “The Moon.” The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Trans. James Stern. Pantheon, 1972.

Lecouteux, Claude. The Return of the Dead: Ghosts, Ancestors, and the Transparent Veil of the Pagan Mind. Inner Traditions, 2009.

Orr, Emma Restall. The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature. Moon Books, 2012.

Thorpe, Benjamin. Northern Mythology. Vol. 2, Lumley, 1851.

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