In the past few weeks, China has taken a further space-age step by successfully returning a probe – along with several space rocks – from the far side of the moon. 

This probe not only shows China's growing scientific and technological mastery and sophistication but also thrusts the moon back into the popular imagination. 

A key feature of geopolitics during the latter part of the 20th century was the Space Race, in which the Soviet Union and the United States of America battled for supremacy in space during the Cold War era. 

The race was officially won when the U.S. successfully landed humans on the moon for the first time in 1969, even though the Soviet Union had achieved most of the major milestones. The Soviets were pipped at the finish line. 

Fast forward half a century, and now three more entrants – China, the European Union, and India – have joined what appears to be a new-era space race, along with private companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX. 

All have spoken of increasing missions to our nearest space neighbor, the moon, for commercial, scientific, technological, and even political reasons. 

So then, with the world seemingly hurtling forward to a new moon-based space race, where did this fascination with the moon begin? 

We turn our gaze down to Earth and back a millennium to see what people in Viking societies thought of the moon. For them, it was not to be conquered or exploited but to be worshiped as a deity. 

In the Poetic Edda, Odin imparts knowledge about Mani's journey across the sky, his relationship with Sol, and their symbolic representation of time and natural rhythms. Illustration: The Viking Herald

What's written in the sagas? 

Like all things related to Norse mythology, we must first turn to the rich tapestry of sagas

These tales – blending mythology, cosmology, actual historical events, characters, and more than a few tall tales – are the perfect window into Viking societies. 

As Paul Acker and Carolyne Larrington wrote in their 2013 book Revisiting the Poetic Edda (available on Amazon here), one of the most important collections of Norse sagas is found in the Poetic Edda

It is believed to have been written and compiled in 13th-century Iceland and harks back to that society's glorious Viking past. 

Containing more than 31 poems, the most important is the Völuspá. This poem is a sort of Norse Book of Genesis that explains the creation of the universe, the Norse gods, humanity, and everything in between. Here, we find the first mention of the moon. 

In this poem, Odin – the mighty Norse AllFather – guides us through the creation of the universe. He recounts how the moon, personified as Mani, is the brother of the sun, Sol, and the son of Mundilfari, a shadowy figure in Norse mythology who is assumed to be some sort of deity. 

Regardless of his parentage, the fact remains that Mani, like his sister, rides high in the sky in a horse-drawn chariot. It is in these chariots that the brother and sister perform their cosmic ballet, each crossing the sky daily. 

If we look at the other sagas, there is a different reasoning for their daily dance. In the Prose Edda, a saga relates how proud Mundilfari was of his children – arrogantly naming them "sun" and "moon." 

The Norse gods, less than happy with this blatant display of hubris, then cast Mundilfari's children into the heavens as divine punishment. Ouch! 

Depressingly for Mani, the punishment does not stop here. Later on, Mani is followed by a brother and sister – Hjúki and Bil – whom he was said to have stolen from the earth when they went out to fetch a pail of water. 

For doing this, Mani's punishment would be dished out during the great apocalyptic end of times, Ragnarök

One of the harbingers of Ragnarök was that two great wolves would chase Mani through the heavens, never quite able to catch him but undoubtedly causing him severe anxiety and panic. 

"The Wolves Pursuing Sol and Mani," depicts a Norse mythology scene where wolves chase the sun and the moon. Illustration: John Charles Dollman (1851–1934)

How did Mani help tell time? 

It is worth remembering that for people in Viking societies, time was dictated by the heavens and the seasons. 

In an era before modern timekeeping devices like clocks or watches, it was the gentle rhythm of the days, months, seasons, and years that helped keep time. 

Mani's daily race across the heavens – or indeed his apocalyptic chase by the two great wolves – was said to be symbolic of the inevitable passing of time as well as the phases of the lunar cycle. 

Mani, as the personification of the moon, also played an extremely important role in the production of food and other agricultural work. 

As Símun V. Arge and his colleagues wrote in their 2005 article in the journal Human Ecology, the lunar phases were crucial for the proper timing of planting and harvesting crops. 

Despite the popular image of all people in Viking societies as vicious warriors, the historical truth is that only a small portion were engaged in raiding or warring; the vast majority were involved in agricultural work

While this reality may be disappointing for Hollywood screenwriters, it highlights the vital role Mani played in these societies, making him a source of admiration and worship. 

Yggdrasil is a colossal, mythical tree in Norse mythology that connects the nine worlds. It symbolizes the interconnectedness of all things and the cycle of life and death. Illustration: The Viking Herald

The power of the moon 

Mani, the personification of the moon, though not a Norse god, was revered for his crucial role in balancing the human and natural worlds. 

This belief was part of the cosmic outlook of adherents to the Old Norse religion, who saw the universe as intertwined and everything as connected, much like the giant world tree, Yggdrasil, which stood at the center of all nine realms in Norse cosmology. 

Mani's role in keeping time and facilitating food production made him a revered figure in Norse mythology. His contributions highlighted how, for people in Viking societies, the celestial and the earthly were closely linked. 

Although he is one of the lesser-known figures of Norse lore, Mani remains a fascinating character, representing an attempt by the Norse to understand and explain the natural world. 

For more information on how best to explore Iceland through the Norse sagas, visit Lonely Planet here

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