Navigating by the Stars II: The Sun and Moon

In my last article we learned to find true north by using the Big Dipper (or the Big Bow and Arrow) to find the North Star.  Now we’ll learn a little more about basic navigation by the using the sun and moon.

The Good Old Sun and the Good Old Seasons

Instead of navigation, perhaps I should say celestial orientation.  Because, as well as finding your way to or from a place, any method using the sun and moon can orient you to the time of year, thus indicating wild food sources and animal habits, planting and harvest opportunities, or simply if it’s time to move up into the mountains or down into the valleys in a comfortable manner.

Needless to say (you would think) these intellectual technologies are only for the intellect.  The body itself is a microcosm of the universe, all the knowledge you need to stay comfortable in nature is encryped in the senses.  If you’re cold?  Get warm.  If you’re thirsty?  Find water.  Tired?  Sleep.  Without food and water, the animals would have no mouths or stomaches.  Without night or day we would not sleep or wake.  Like there are no flowers without bees and no bees without flowers, there is no desire in our design that can not be satisfied by the world which is our mother.  They are inseperable.  But knowing the patterns of the seasons will help to find their reflections within, so you can honor and observe with awe this universe which is you.

So, first of all let’s focus on the patterns of the sunrise and set as they correspond to the seasons.  Generally people assume the sun moves daily from east to west, but that’s only vaguely true.  The sun only rises and sets directly east to west on the spring and fall equinoxes.  (And even then, further to the north the sun will appear further south on the horizon because of the earth’s tilt.)  Then, from the spring equinox to the summer solstice, the sun rises and sets gradually further to the north on the horizon.  After the summer solstice, it starts heading south until on the fall equinox it’s again on an east/west path again.  Then it proceeds south, and on the winter solstice it rises in the southeast and sets in the southwest.  Get it?  So:

Spring equinox: rises in the east, sets in the west
Summer solstice: rises in the northeast, sets in the northwest
Fall equinox: rises in the east, sets in the west
Winter solstice: rises in the southeast, sets in the southwest

As you can see, the relation of the sun to the cardinal directions has significance in both bearing and the current season.  That’s why pagans, druids, and wiccans use the year wheel; and why Native Americans use the medicine wheel.  They combine the directions and the seasons into a single diagram.  For example, Stonehenge is a physical calender which marks the seasons and the directions.  You could easily make one using three concentric stone circles on level ground.  It would take a year of observation to make an accurate model, but after that you would have a rough almanac that would last for ages.  Here’s a basic example, so you get the idea.

Model of the Stone Calender

Now compare that sketch to the pagan wheel of the year,  the Native American medicine wheel, and the Chinese bagua compass.

Neopagan Wheel of the Year (notice the zodiac)

A Modern Native Medicine Wheel (chosen for its obvious parallels to the Wheel of the Year)

See the similarities?  The Hebrew lunar calendar also relies on a lunisolar model which centers around the seasons and cardinal directions.  Here’s a more philosophical example of this symbol’s significance, taken from the chapter “The Wisdom of Cycles” in The Wandering Taoist by Deng Ming-Dao:

Each year, you should follow the seasons.  Spring is the time for new growth, movement, exersise, and fresh activity.  Summer is the time to release your vigor fully, to work on endeavors begun.  Autumn is a time of harvest but also of preparation for the winter.  Winter is a time when nothing moves.  Everything withdraws into the earth or dies.

These rhythms parallel the seasons of one’s life from birth and youth to old age and death, and our return back into the cycle.  Interweaving the seasons and the four cardinal directions (with the individual invariably at the center) reminds us that we are a child of the whole universal dance of summer and winter, sunrise and sunset, life and death; and there isn’t one without the other.  As soon as the sun reaches its zenith, it begins its slow fall into dusk.  As soon as the winter is at its deepest, it begins its transformation into bright spring.  And as soon as we take our final breath, our hair white with old age…

The Moonths


Now, on to that big alabaster orb in the sky, the moon.  The moon is exceptionally tricky to navigate with.  In fact I’ve often heard conflicting information on the matter.  But it’s simply important to remember that there’s almost exactly thirteen full moon cycles per year (where did there thirteenth moonth go?).  Here is a table of the patterns of moonrise and moonset throughout a moon cycle (thanks to Cornell’s website).

Moon phase Moonrise Moonset
New Sunrise Sunset
1st quarter Local noon Local midnight
Full Sunset Sunrise
3rd quarter Local midnight Local noon

And here is the rather complicated table that shows the direction of the moonrise/set by season and phase of the moon.

Season Postion of Moonrise/set
NEW 1st Quarter (Waxing) FULL 3rd Quarter (Waning
Winter Southeast/Southwest East/West Northeast/Northwest East/West
Spring East/West Northeast/Northwest East/West Southeast/Southwest
Summer Northeast/Northwest East/West Southeast/Southwest East/West
Autumn East/West Southeast/Southwest East/West Northeast/Northwest

There’s no trick I can think up to make this information easier, but it’s good to know if you’ve got the patience to understand it.

There are some rough ways to use the moon, however, that require less of a headache.  If there’s a crescent moon, imagine a line running from the upper to the lower tip.  Where this line meets the horizon is roughly south.

Also, if the moon rises before sunset, its illuminated side will face west.  If it rises after midnight, its illuminated side will face east.

Considering that the moon isn’t always visible, you might have more luck guessing which patch of moss is facing north.  But as a rough guide, that old moon can be a mighty blessing.

I won’t go into all the gory myths surrounding these two monsters of space.  Golden chariots drawing our closest star out of the ocean each morning, the Egyptian’s fable of Ra the sun god eternally battling Apep, the god of darkness and chaos, Ra’s victory exploding in the blood of dawn, giving rise to each new day…  That’s a little far out for me.  Some people even think the moon is an alien spacecraft.  Maybe so.  But I prefer to believe in my eyes first and foremost, and see the sun and moon just as they are: holy baffling mysteries.  Maybe something will tell me different some day, bestow me with some unholy vision.  Until then I’ll give you this one short Yaqui legend, because it is so precious, and a couple of zen classics:

THE SUN loves the moon. She is his sweetheart. He wants her for his wife. But once the moon said to him, “I will marry you, but only on the condition that you give me a gift. Anything suits me, but it must be to my measurement.”

“What kind of a gift would you like?” asked the sun.

“It doesn’t matter, as long as it fits me.”

“Good,” said the sun. He brought her a gift, the best that there was. But he could not get the correct measurement. He never could. He would measure her carefully so that it would fit just right. Then he would bring the gift and it would be too small, or maybe too large. So it went on, and he never could fit her.

For this reason, the sun could never marry the moon. He loves her very much and also he wants her because the wealth that she owns is durable. The sun’s wealth never lasts. It disappears very quickly. This tale is very sad. LC

Solar eclipse, Sun trying to hug the Moon! Aww.

And from the zen tradition:

An eternity of empty space
a day of wind and moon.


A student of zen once asked his teacher, “What is the sharpest sword?”
His teacher replied, “The moon is not caught in the branches.”

Next we’ll look at the Zodiac constellations as they relate to the seasons, the sun, and the earth, and cap it all of with a few more tricks that will help find your way through the wilderness with no more than eyes on the sky.

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