From our vantage point on Earth, humanity has only ever seen, and will always see, one side of the moon. Our planet’s gray companion rotates on its axis at the same speed that it orbits Earth, a celestial arrangement that keeps the same side perpetually turned toward us.
The landscape has remained largely unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, but we human beings have managed to imagine all kinds of patterns in its craters, where molten lava once flowed, carved into existence by the cosmic collisions that shaped our home in the cosmos. We have turned the moon into a canvas, etching fables and fantasies across its surface in an attempt to make some earthly sense out of its mysticism.
A plethora of interpretations have emerged throughout human history. For some, the lunar features formed the silhouette of a rabbit. For others, the eyes and mouth of a human face. Or a woman and her child. Or an old man lugging firewood, perhaps with a small dog trailing after him. The interpretations arose in a myriad of disparate communities, but they share the same origin: our minds.
The human brain is built to discern familiar images and patterns in places where none exist, a psychological phenomenon known as pareidolia. “It happens because the brain is doing what it’s designed to do, which is to make inferences about what’s in the world based on very limited information,” says Pawan Sinha, a vision and computational-neuroscience professor at MIT. “If I were to see you at a distance of a hundred feet, the image of your face on my retina is going to be very small. But even using just those handful of pixels, the brain has to infer who this person might be.”
Without this processing mechanism, human beings would have a difficult time navigating the world. And usually, we’re right about what we see, Sinha says. But sometimes, like when we look at the moon—or clouds, or constellations, or a piece of toast—this strategy makes us essentially hallucinate. “It’s just an instance of us experiencing an illusion that arises from machinery that serves us well most of the time,” Sinha says.
On top of that, the human brain often automatically applies previous experiences when interpreting a new one, an effect called priming. “If you were to show me an image of a rabbit and then you were to show me soon afterwards the moon, it’s quite likely that because you have primed me with the image of the rabbit, my sensory interpretation of this somewhat ambiguous information from the moon might be biased toward seeing a rabbit,” Sinha says. “But if you had primed me with a face, I might end up seeing a face. It’s possible that the cultural artifacts that one is immersed in might be having this kind of a priming role.” If, as children, we hear tales of a face or a rabbit or a toad on the moon, we’re likely to internalize these stories and see them when we look up in the night sky.
Before we get into a lively discussion about what everyone should see—before this becomes the lunar version of yanny versus laurel—let’s explore some options.
Even though we all see the same face of the moon, the view changes in different parts of the world. The moon orbits near the Earth’s equator, so if you’re used to seeing it from the northern hemisphere, it will look upside-down to you in the southern hemisphere, and vice versa.
In the western hemisphere, and particularly in the United States, the most common interpretation is a simple human face: eyes, nose, mouth. In some European folklore, it’s an entire person. One German tale describes an old man who set out to collect firewood on a Sunday. He was greeted in the woods by a stern-looking stranger who was surprised the man would work on Sunday, a day meant for rest. The stranger decided to make an example of the man and sent him to the moon, where his silhouette would serve as a reminder to recognize the sanctity of the day.
In a Samoan tale, the figure is a woman named Sina. There was a famine, and Sina sat with her child, hungry, beating cloth into shape with an anvil. When she saw the moon rise above the fruit trees, she decided to ask the celestial body to give them some fruit. The moon, the story goes, became angry, and swept the woman, her tools, and her child to its surface.
In many cultures, particularly across Asia, the lunar surface shows the shape of a rabbit. According to Chinese lore, Chang’e, the goddess of the moon, drank an elixir meant for her and her husband. The potion transported her, along with her pet rabbit Yutu, to the moon for eternity, leaving her companion behind. The legend lives on as the namesake of China’s lunar-exploration program. In 2013, the country launched a lander called Chang’e 3 to the moon with a rover named Yutu on board.
In Japan, the rabbit hails from a different story: An old man, seeking food, approached a monkey, a fox, and a rabbit in a forest. The monkey brought him some fruit, and the fox caught him fish. The rabbit, unable to provide anything but grass, decided to sacrifice himself and prepared to jump into a fire. The man stopped him and granted the rabbit immortality on the face of the moon for his kindness.
In one story from the Cree people, one of the largest groups of native North Americans, a rabbit hitched a ride to the moon on a crane.
This collection is by no means complete, considering the creativity of the human imagination. Still others identify a toad, or two handprints, or a tree, or a grandmother sitting in a rocking chair, perhaps reading a book. The list goes on.
No matter what we see in the moon (seriously, guys, let’s not fight over this), perhaps we should take a moment to relish in the fact that we can see it with the naked eye. As far as celestial views go, the moon is probably less thrilling than another planet. But the moon is indeed another world—with its own mountains and basins, its own bits of frozen water, even the tiniest slice of an atmosphere—and we can look upon it, night after night, without the need for powerful telescopes. We can process the dreamy view on our own, and see in it what we wish.