It is popular in modern times, especially in neopagan circles, to think of the moon as representing a goddess. But what did the ancients think? Was the moon female to them?
In classical Greece and Rome, the answer to that question is clearly yes. The original Greek Moon Goddess was Selene, a Titan, or one of the gods of the generation prior to the more famous Olympians. Selene, as the moon, was the sister of Helios, the sun, and Eos, the dawn. Eos is an extremely ancient goddess, descended from an Indo-European Goddess of the Dawn, who was seen as the shining morning sun and daughter of the Sky God. In Greek myth she opened the gates of the east each morning and rode out in a chariot. Soon after, she was followed by Helios who ruled the day in a glowing chariot pulled by fiery horses.
Like her brother and sister, Selene rode a chariot across the sky. Hers was led by moon-white horses who pulled her upward from Ocean as her brother Helios finished his descent at Ocean’s western edge.
Later, Selene’s lunar traits were absorbed by Artemis, the virgin huntress, one of the 12 Olympians. Artemis was a daughter of Zeus and sister to Apollo, who absorbed the solar traits of Helios. Her mother, one of many mistresses of Zeus, gave birth to Apollo and Artemis in hiding from Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera. The story says that Artemis was born first and acted as midwife for her mother. Thus began the paradoxical idea attached to Artemis of a virgin who refused marriage and motherhood, but who was responsible for the protection of mothers and young children. When Rome conquered Greece, they identified Artemis with their own hunting goddess, Diana, and carried her story and worship throughout the western world as they grew their empire.
In late Roman times, Diana absorbed the traits of many goddesses, becoming an all encompassing divine figure. In Ephesus, in modern day Turkey, she merged with the mother goddess Cybele and became a sort of virgin-and-mother who influenced the development of the Christian Mary. Paradoxically, those who continued to worship her as Diana were eventually condemned as witches by the Catholic church. Thus the source of neopagan lunar goddess mythology may simply be Greco-Roman religion carried on in the country side (pagan meant a rural person). Just as is true today, country people tended to be conservative, which in medieval times would mean sticking to the old Roman religion.
So much for Greece and Rome, but, ancient as they were, they were hardly the first civilizations on the block. What about the really ancient cultures, the ones who emerged in the fertile crescent 5,000 years ago, creating the first cities and the first written records in history? Was the moon female to the ancient Egyptians or the Sumerians and Babylonians of Mesopotamia (Iraq)? It may surprise you to learn that the answer is no. To these very old cultures, the moon was male, a god. In Sumer this god was Nanna, in Babylon the same god was called Sin. Nanna was the father of the sun god Utu and the Queen of Heaven, Inanna (later Ishtar), who was identified with the planet Venus, known then as the morning and evening star. Nanna was the patron god of the city of Ur (from which Father Abraham left before going on to found the Jewish nation). Ancient Sumerian documents describe Nanna as “The lord [who] has burnished the heavens; he has embellished the night…When he comes forth from the turbulent mountains, he stands as Utu stands at noon.” Another description says he has “great strength inspiring awe in the Land, with the just crown and the shining sceptre, sparkling over the high mountains.”
In Egypt, the Moon God was Thoth, God of Wisdom and Magic, who was credited with the invention of writing. Thoth was depicted with the head of an ibis.
In later times, Egypt’s Queen of Heaven, Isis, would be one of several goddesses whose original solar connections would be replaced by lunar ones, but this is probably due to the fact that first the Greeks and then the Romans took over Egypt and made Isis popular throughout the Hellenized and Roman world, where she began, like Diana, to absorb other characteristics on her way to becoming a sort of uber-Goddess of everything. It’s worth noting that Diana and Isis were among Christianity’s chief rivals for popular worship in Christian Rome and both goddesses bear more than a little resemblance to the newest Queen of Heaven, Mary, who is often depicted standing on the moon.
Over time, then, in the foundational cultures of Western Civilization, the Queen of Heaven went through a metamorphosis, switching from an earlier association with Venus, the sun, and the dawn, to an identification with the moon.