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Definition: Selene from Philip's Encyclopedia

In Greek mythology, goddess of the Moon, daughter of Hyperion and sister of Helios (the Sun) and Eos (the Dawn). Each night, she drove her chariot across the sky, as her brother Helios, the Sun god, had done during the day.

Summary Article: SELENE
From Gods, Goddesses, and Mythology

Selene was the Greek goddess of the moon—she was sometimes considered to be the moon itself. Her name means "she who gleams." Selene and her sister Eos (the dawn) and their brother Helios (the sun) were the children of the Titans Theia and Hyperion. In some myths Selene was the wife of Helios and in others she was his daughter. She was a descendant of Gaia (the earth) and Uranus (the heavens) and is often counted among the primary, elemental powers in the universe, along with other nature deities such as Night and Ocean.

The moon was a powerful force in ancient Greek thought: its different phases set the rhythm for nature and gave order to the Greek calendar of festivals. The Carneia, for example, a great annual festival at Sparta, always concluded under the full moon. The time of the waxing moon was thought particularly favorable to growth and to any new enterprises; the new moon therefore was believed to be the best time to get married. According to fifth-century-BC poet Empedocles, the waning moon indicated the time when women experienced the menstruation cycle. The moon was also believed to have been the cause of madness. This belief endures in the word lunacy, from the Latin word luna, which means "moon." The moon's power of control also endures in the expression moonstruck, which describes the state of a deranged person. A gem called moonstone, meanwhile, was a protection against this affliction; amulets to protect against evil were also made in the form of the moon or with one of its many names inscribed on them. Some ancient Greeks considered the moon to be the source of dew, so in various myths Herse ("dew") was the daughter of Selene. Plutarch (c. 46–120 CE) reported that moonlight threw young children into convulsions; that those who fell asleep in moonlight awoke stunned and hardly able to get up; that moonlight rotted wood; and that childbirth was easiest during the full moon—leading Selene to be worshiped as a goddess of childbirth.

Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–c. 348 BCE) asserted that all humankind bowed down to the rising and setting sun, and to the moon. However, there is little evidence that Greek worship of the moon was practiced before the Roman Empire (30 BCE–476 CE), when it became an aspect of many goddesses. This is in contrast to western Asia at that time, where moon goddesses were leading figures in pantheons. Men, the Phrygian moon goddess, for example, was worshiped in many places in Anatolia (modern Turkey).

There is a hymn dedicated to Selene in a collection known as the Homeric Hymns (scholars dispute that Homer [c. ninth–eighth century BCE] wrote these hymns, suggesting instead that they merely echoed his style). In the hymn Selene is described as a winged deity, crowned with gold, rising in her shining garments from the ocean and driving her horse-drawn chariot across the sky as "a portent and a sign to mortals." In visual art she is also frequently represented in motion, riding on a horse or sometimes on a goat (a creature traditionally associated with Hecate, goddess of magic and the underworld), or driving a chariot drawn by horses or by bulls. On the base of the great statue of Zeus at Olympia, carved by Greek sculptor Phidias (fl. c. 490–430 BCE), Selene is depicted riding on a horse opposite Helios, who is in his chariot. Selene's emblem is the crescent, which she wears most often on or behind her head; sometimes she stands upon it.

Selene's lovers

Selene was thought of as a desirable and fertile young woman, and there are a number of accounts of her sexual adventures. According to one myth, Pan, the god of shepherds, seduced Selene. He gave her a gift of a fine sheep's fleece, then he and Selene shared a cave on Mount Lycaon in Arcadia. At Nemea, home of the Nemean Games, Selene was known as the mother of the local goddess Nemea, who had created the fearsome Nemean Lion—a monster Heracles had to kill and skin for his first labor. A traditional myth in Athens recounted that Selene had a child by Zeus named Pandia. According to the genealogy of Athens, Pandia was the wife of Antiochus, a local hero who gave his name to one of the 10 Athenian tribes. Pandia was also the name of an Athenian festival held in honor of Pandia and her father, Zeus. In another myth Selene was the mother of Musaeus, a legendary Greek bard. One of two legendary seers was thought to be the father, either Eumolpus or Antiphemus.

The most famous of Selene's lovers, however, was Endymion. In one version of the myth he is said to have been herding cattle when Selene took him for her lover. Most versions agree that he was in an eternal sleep inside a cave, however. In some versions the youth pursued the goddess Hera, and his eternal sleep was a punishment from Zeus, who was Hera's brother and husband; in another version Zeus offered him the privilege of choosing how he was to die, and he selected eternal sleep; in another account Selene fell in love with Endymion and asked Zeus to give him immortality and eternal youth, so Zeus put him into an eternal sleep. Once Endymion was asleep, Selene occasionally visited the cave and roused him to make love. Ancient Greeks believed that when the moon was eclipsed, Selene was in the cave with Endymion. They had 50 daughters who were often interpreted as the 50 lunar months of the four-year cycle that governed many of the great festivals—for example, the Olympic Games.

Endymion was frequently represented in art, most notably as the subject of a long poem by John Keats (1795–1821) titled Endymion. The myth of Endymion inspired many 19th-century artists and is also a popular theme of modern painting and poetry.

Selene and magic

Some ancient peoples believed the moon was inhabited by spirits; neo-Platonists believed that the moon was the "other earth" where purified souls go when they die. Selene was also a patron of magic and witchcraft; magic herbs, for example, were usually collected and dried by moonlight. It was a familiar popular belief as early as the classical period that witches could bring the moon down from the sky. Selene is invoked in ancient witchcraft, particularly in love magic; Hellenistic and Roman authors associated her with the goddess of magic, Hecate. She is invoked along with Hecate at the beginning of a Hellenistic poem on love magic by Theocritus (c. 310–250 BCE) in which the refrain is: "Take thought for my love, and whence it comes, Lady Moon."

One book on magic begins: "Come to me, dear mistress, three-faced Selene." In art Selene has often been represented as part of a triad. For example, Selene, Helios, and Eos were represented in the form of a body with three heads. Another book prescribes making a magic image of Selene—from potter's clay, sulfur, and the blood of a spotted goat—as an effective love charm. In texts about magic Selene sometimes sends dreams to people in their sleep.

Selene was involved in mysteries—rites that were performed to initiate people into a cult or to explain different stages of life, such as sexual maturity, marriage, and death. Roman politician Cicero (106–43 BCE) called Selene the mother of the Orphic Dionysus, who was often celebrated in mysteries. Selene played some part in the mysteries at Eleusis, where it was recorded that a representation of Selene was given by the Eleusinian priest and placed on the altar.

Other moon goddesses

By a process called syncretism, attributes from some deities were passed on to other deities. Often this occurred when one empire defeated another and an old pantheon was replaced by a new set of gods. Deities were not usually forgotten or made entirely obsolete, but were assimilated into the new pantheon and adopted new names. Sometimes conquest was not necessary to start this process, but a cultural shift would cause one deity to be favored over another. In this way Greeks replaced Selene and worshiped Artemis as moon goddess. Likewise Romans worshiped Diana as moon goddess after Luna lost favor. Originally Luna was the equivalent of Selene.

Scholars suggest that changes in Selene's identity originated in the fifth century BCE, and they point to Aeschylus's plays as a source: in one play Selene is the child of Zeus and Leto, who were usually the parents of Artemis. Artemis also appears in some representations with the crescent on her head, a symbol that was usually associated with Selene. Mostly the changes are attributed to Greek and Roman writers during the Roman Empire who consistently refer to Artemis and Diana as moon goddesses and give little mention to Selene. Thus in the play The Golden Ass by Apuleius (c. 124–c. 170 CE), the hero prays to "the Moon goddess, sole sovereign of mankind" and begs for her help, whether she calls herself Ceres, Venus, Artemis, or Proserpina. She appears to him and tells him she is Nature, the universal mother, also known as Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods, Artemis, Aphrodite, Proserpina, Dictynna, Corn Mother, Juno, Bellona, Rhamnubia, Queen of Heaven, and in Egypt by her real name, which is Isis. Luna or Selene thus becomes one of the many names for the goddess of the moon.


Further reading
  • Aeschylus, and Philip Vellacott, trans. Prometheus Bound and Other Plays. London: Penguin, 1973.
  • Apuleius, and Joel C. Relihan, trans. The Golden Ass. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2007.
Copyright © 2012 Marshall Cavendish Corporation

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