To a Greek person, the word “August” brings two things to mind. One is the August moon. Captivating and erotic, we observe it with awe as it spreads its glow on the dark sea waters. It keeps on striking a chord. Strange? Not at all since the moon is a powerful archetypal symbol. Myths, which speak the language of the soul, adore it. Almost all peoples and cultures have created traditions and beliefs related to it.
Though it might be easy to reject lunar lore as mere superstition, we cannot deny that the moon captures our imagination. My own relationship with it is deeply personal. My pseudonym, Meenee, is a variant of mene, an ancient Greek word for the moon. It is also another name for Selene, the Moon Goddess. “Taurokeros (Bull-horned) Mene” she is called in the Orphic Hymn 9, which sings her praises: “Mother of time, bringer of fruit … all-seeing … jewel of the night, leader of stars, with your long mantle you travel in spirals, all-wise maiden…”
I’ve spent endless hours studying the symbolism of the moon, and yet it still seems to hide many secrets. Perhaps it’s because of its associations with the three greatest mysteries of life: birth, love and death. The moon “is born” and “dies” again each month, following a never-ending cycle: waxing, full moon, and waning. For a night it completely disappears from the sky and then it pops up again in the form of a thin crescent.
One could hardly find a more apt symbol of rebirth. The earth’s satellite teaches something that we all too often forget: everything in life comes full circle and ends, but after that happens, something new arrives to takes the place of the old. Death is often followed by new birth. Maybe that’s why the moon became associated with goddesses who protect childbirth, like Artemis, as well as with figures connected to the Underworld, such as Hekate.
Furthermore, lunar symbolism often accompanies Mother Goddesses, such as Isis and Artemis Ephesia. It’s not surprising if you think that the monthly journey of the moon lasts 29.5 days, approximately as much as a menstrual cycle. That’s why it was connected with the concepts of fertility and motherhood.
Interestingly, anthropologists who traveled to remote places discovered that such beliefs had survived until recent years. For example, Greenlanders as well as some of the people in Nigeria attributed to the moon the power to cause pregnancy. The same was believed by the Buryats of Western Mongolia. Similarly, the Maori, natives of New Zealand, thought that the real husband of a woman is the moon.
The Moon in Christianity and Islam
Up to this day, the role of the moon remain alive in many traditions. For example, the crescent adorns Muslim mosques. Let’s not forget that this shape, often accompanied by a star, was a symbol of Hekate and of the ancient city of Byzantium, whose protectress she was. The Roman Emperor Constantine made Byzantium into his new capital, renaming it Constantinople, after himself. Thus, the symbol of the crescent moon was passed on to the Christianized empire that historians call Byzantine. We can see this symbol on coins, as well as in churches and on icons. Sometimes the accompanying star has been changed into a cross.
Yet the crescent moon is a very ancient symbol, used not just by Greeks but also by many other peoples, such as the Babylonians, Persians and Phoenicians. The combination of crescent and star also appears on pre-Islamic coins of South Arabia. Moreover, it was used by Pre-Islamic Turkic nations such as the Göktürks, who lived in medieval Inner Asia. When the Ottoman Empire succeeded the Byzantine, the Turks made the crescent its central emblem. It didn’t take a big leap for it to become the symbol of Islam, which has been called “Religion of the Crescent Moon.”
Christianity did not altogether abandon this age-old symbol. In the biblical Book of Revelation we encounter a mysterious figure: “A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (XII, I) The Catholic Church identifies this cosmic being with the Virgin Mary, the “Queen of Heaven,” who is sometimes depicted standing on a crescent. Interestingly, in 2011, Catholic residents of Goa in India claimed that they could see an apparition of hers with baby Jesus on the moon. That caused them to panic, thinking that the vision was a bad omen signaling the end of the world!
The Church had to adopt Pagan symbols in order to become more palatable to the people it conquered. I was raised as a Christian Orthodox, yet I never felt much of an affinity for this religion. As a child and teenager, I kept turning my eyes towards the Hellenic goddesses and gods I saw in books and museums. As an adult, I was fascinated to discover the many ancient elements incorporated into what was supposed to be the “one and only true religion.”
I saw how in Eastern Orthodoxy Mary had clearly become a Christianized version of the Divine Mother. Naturally, she had also taken on the mysterious glow of the moon. During the Great Saturday (Easter Eve) service, she is called tekousa selene, the moon that gave birth to the “Savior, the sun of justice.” Orthodox images associating her with the crescent are rare, but they do exist. One example is the Galaktotrophousa, the Nursing Madonna, painted by the Cretan artist Emmanuel Tzanfournaris in the 16th century. Painted in Byzantine style, it depicts Mary sitting on a large crescent.
Another interesting icon, which has become very popular because it is considered miraculous, is Our Lady of the Gate of Dawn. The original image, also known as the Virgin Mary of Ostrobramska, is located in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. She appears to emerge from a large silver crescent; it was not a part of the original painting but was added at a later stage when the icon was covered with precious metals. Today this powerful image is regarded one of the symbols of Vilnius. Many copies of it have been made and are venerated by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians alike in different countries, such as Poland, Ukraine, and Greece.
At the beginning of this article, I wrote that the word “August” brings two things to the Greek mind, one of them being the moon. The other one is the Dormition of the Mother of God, one of the great feasts of the Eastern Orthodox Church that takes place in August, 15. The term “Dormition” (Greek Koímēsis or Kimisis, “falling asleep”) is used instead of the word “death.” The Catholics prefer to call it “the Assumption of Mary.” Paradoxically, the Bible does not say a thing about how she passed away, but that did not stop the Church Fathers from creating the tradition that she bodily ascended to heaven. Some medieval, Byzantine icons show the adult Jesus holding her soul in the form of an infant, an image that seems to indicate rebirth more than anything else.
Perhaps Mary appears reborn or resurrected after her death because archetypal figures cannot really die. Even if that happens, their death does not last for long. You see, the moon insists on traveling endlessly in its celestial cycles. Much like Mary, it temporarily “dies” only to make a powerful comeback in our lives…
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Nair, Manoj R. “Jesus on moon sparks doomsday fears in Mumbai,” DNA, 22 January 2011, http://www.dnaindia.com/mumbai/report-jesus-on-moon-sparks-doomsday-fears-in-mumbai-1497961