If you have read Greek mythology and the famous epics of ancient Greece, you may be quite familiar with her brother Helios. However, hers might not be a name that is quite as well-known. Selene, one of the younger generation of Titans, was also the Greek goddess of the moon. Not only was she the goddess of the moon, but she was considered a personification of the moon itself and that was how she was portrayed by many of the old poets and writers.
Worshiped as one of the important celestial lights of the heavens, Selene was also reputedly revered as a deity of agriculture and fertility. Her name is linked with those of various other goddesses, such as Artemis and Hecate, who are also associated with the moon.
Who was Selene?
Selene was one of the daughters of the Titan gods Hyperion and Theia and the sister of the sun god Helios and the goddess of the dawn Eos. Even though she, along with her siblings, was a Titan goddess because of her parentage, the three of them became quite central to the Greek pantheon and were accepted as Greek gods themselves after the fall of the great Titans. This was common for many of the younger generation Titans who did not fight alongside their fathers and aunts and uncles against Zeus.
Significance of Being the Moon Goddess
For the people of old, natural phenomena was an important part of their worship. Thus, both the sun and the moon were seen as gods embodied in those forms. As the most important and visible features in the sky, the people of ancient Greece thought that Selene, goddess of the moon, and her brother Helios, god of the sun, were the ones responsible for the movement of the two celestial bodies across the sky. They brought night and day, shed light on the earth, were responsible for the turning of the months, and facilitated agriculture. For this the Greek gods were to be worshiped.
Selene was said to drive her moon chariot across the sky every night, from east to west, following her brother. This was the mythological explanation for the movement of the moon across the sky. Every evening, Selene ushered in nightfall and then drove her chariot through the night before giving way to dawn. And along with Selene, the moon moved as well.
The moon was also believed to bring the night dew that nourished the plants and to bring sleep and rest to humankind. All of these qualities bound Selene to the natural phenomena of time and seasons and the rejuvenation of nature as well, even apart from her ability to shed light.
Other Moon Goddesses and Lunar Deities
Selene was not the only lunar goddess of the Greeks. There were other goddesses worshiped by the Greeks who were widely associated with the moon themselves. Two of these were Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, and Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. These three lunar goddesses were all important to the Greeks in different ways but it was only Selene who was considered the moon incarnate herself.
In later times, Selene was often associated with Artemis in the same way that her brother Helios was associated with Artemis’ brother Apollo. They were even called by their names, Phoebe and Phoebus respectively, in some sources.
Moon gods and goddesses have existed in all ancient pantheistic cultures for a very long time. Many of these old communities followed the lunar calendar and that made the moon a center of their faith and worship in many ways. Other examples of lunar goddesses and gods are Selene’s Roman equivalent Luna, the Mesopotamian Sin, the Egyptian god Khonsu, the Germanic Mani, the Japanese Shinto god Tsukuyomi, the Chinese Chang’e, and the Hindu god Chandra.
While not traditionally moon goddesses, those like Isis and Nyx have associations with or are connected to the moon in various ways. Sometimes this develops in later worship as they are identified with other deities or gods. Nyx is the goddess of the night and is thus associated with the new moon.
What does ‘Selene’ mean?
In Greek, the word ‘selene’ means ‘light’ or ‘shine’ or ‘brightness’ for the moon goddess who sheds her light upon the world during the dark nights. As the daughter of the Titan god of heavenly light, it is an apt name. Her name was spelt differently in the different dialects of the Greeks but the meaning was the same.
Selene also has several other names. Mene, a name that she was also commonly known by, meant ‘the moon’ or ‘the lunar month,’ from the root ‘mens’ which meant ‘month.’ This is an attribute that she shares with her Roman equivalent Luna, where the latin ‘luna’ also means ‘moon.’
In her later identification with Artemis, Selene came to be called Phoebe or Cynthia. The Greek word ‘Phoebe’ means ‘bright’ and the word ‘Cynthia’ means ‘from Mount Cynthus’ which was said to be the birthplace of Artemis.
Descriptions of Selene, Goddess of the Moon
The first mention of the moon goddess in Greek mythology was probably in the Homeric Hymns. Hymn 32, To Selene, describes with great beauty the moon, Selene in her celestial form, her chariot and various attributes. The poem describes the radiant light that shines from her head and calls her “bright Selene.” The moon goddess is described as “white armed goddess” and “bright tressed queen” and the poem celebrates her loveliness.
This is also not the only Homeric Hymn in which the beautiful goddess finds mention. Hymn 31, To Helios, also speaks of the two sisters of Helios where the “rich-tressed” Selene is once again alluded to. Epimenides, in the theogony that was ascribed to him, also calls her “lovely haired,” perhaps due to the Homeric Hymns themselves.
In some later accounts, she is known as the “Horned Selene,” perhaps due to the crescent moon upon the crown of her head. Synonyms of ‘bright’ or ‘shining’ or ‘silvery’ are often used in descriptions of her, as she was supposed to have a complexion of extraordinary paleness. On the other hand, her eyes and hair were believed to have been as dark as the night.
Iconography and Symbolism
Antique pottery, busts, and a lunar disk from the Hellenistic period have been found with depictions of Selene on them. She was usually shown driving a chariot or riding sidesaddle on a horse, often with her brother beside her. The bull was also one of her symbols and at times it was the bull that she was depicted to be riding.
In many paintings and sculptures, Selene is traditionally depicted with the crescent moon in her vicinity. This is at times accompanied by stars to depict the night sky, but the crescent moon was perhaps the most recognizable of Selene’s symbols. In many cases it rested on her brow or jutted out on either side of her head like a crown or horns. A variation of this symbol was the nimbus, which surrounded her head, depicting the celestial light she bestowed on the world.
Selene’s Moon Chariot
The most important of Selene’s symbols was her moon chariot. As the embodiment of the moon, Selene and the movement of her chariot across the night sky was important for the Greeks to measure time. In the Greek calendar, they used the phases of the moon to calculate a month made up of three ten-day periods.
The first depictions of Selene’s moon chariot goes back to the early 5th century BCE. Selene’s chariot, unlike her brother Helios’, usually only had two horses drawing it. Sometimes these were winged horses, although some later accounts had the chariot drawn by bulls. Different sources vary as to whether the chariot was golden or silver, but a silver chariot would seem to fit better with the goddess of the moon
Greek Myths featuring the Moon Goddess Selene
There are a number of stories about the moon goddess Selene in Greek mythology, in association with the other Greek gods, especially Zeus. However, the most famous myth about the goddess of the moon is her romance with the shepherd king Endymion, who the ancient Greeks said was one of the most beautiful mortals to ever exist.
Selene and Endymion
Selene was said to have several consorts but the man that the goddess of the moon was most linked with was the mortal Endymion. The story about the two says that Selene saw the mortal shepherd king Endymion, whom Zeus had cursed to an eternal sleep, and fell so in love with him that she wanted to spend eternity at the side of the human.
There are different versions of this story. In some versions, Zeus cursed Endymion because he fell in love with Queen Hera, wife of Zeus. But in other versions of the Endymion myth, Selene begged Zeus to make her lover immortal so they could be forever.
Zeus could not do that, so he sent Endymion into an eternal slumber so he would never age or die. In some versions of the story, the goddess abandoned her duty and left the night sky so she could be with the man she loved. Selene visited the sleeping Endymion where he lay alone in a cave everyday and had fifty daughters with him, the Menai, the personification of the Greek lunar months.
This story seems to have made its way into Roman mythology as well since many of the greatest Roman scholars, from Cicero to Seneca, have written about it. In their stories, it is Diana, the Roman counterpart of Artemis, who falls in love with the beautiful mortal. One of the most important sources of this myth is in the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata’s Dialogues of the Gods, where Aphrodite and Selene talk about the latter’s love for Endymion.
It is unclear how much of a choice Endymion himself may have had in the matter, although there are versions of the myth which say that Endymion had fallen in love with the beautiful moon goddess as well and asked Zeus to keep him in a state of eternal sleep so that he could be with her forever.
In Greek, the name ‘Endymion’ means ‘one who dives’ and Max Muller thought that the myth was a symbolic representation of how the sun set by diving into the sea and then the moon arose. Thus, Selene falling for Endymion was supposed to represent moonrise every night.
The great English Romantic poet John Keats wrote a poem about the mortal, entitled Endymion, with some of the most famous opening lines in the English language.
Selene and the Gigantomachy
Gaia, the primordial Titan goddess and grandmother to the Olympian gods and goddesses, was enraged when her children were defeated in the Titanomachy and imprisoned in Tartarus. Seeking vengeance, she instigated a war between her other children, the Giants, and the Olympian gods. This was known as the Gigantomachy.
Selene’s role in this war was not only to fight against the giants. Along with Selene’s siblings, the moon goddess suppressed her light so that the mighty Titanan goddess could not find a herb that would reputedly make the Giants invincible. Instead, Zeus collected all the herbs for himself.
There is a magnificent frieze in the Pergamon Altar, now kept at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, which depicts this battle between the Giants and the Olympians. In it, Selene is depicted as fighting alongside Helios and Eos, seated side-saddle on a horse. By all accounts, Selene seemed to have played a major role in this war.
Selene and Heracles
Zeus slept with the human queen Alcmene, of which encounter Heracles was born. At that time, he did not wish for the sun to rise for three days and sent instructions to Selene via Hermes so it should be so. Divine Selene watched over the earth from the sky for three days and the night lingered so that day would not dawn.
It seems that Selene was not uninvolved in the twelve tasks of Heracles either. Multiple sources say that she had a hand in the creation of the Nemean Lion, whether that was only Selene working on her own or in conjunction with Hera. Both Epimenides and the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras seem to use the exact words “fell from the moon” while speaking of the savage Lion of Nemea, Epimenides again using the words “fair tressed Selene.”
Lunar Eclipses and Witchcraft
Witchcraft has long been believed to have had a connection with the moon and it was no different in antiquity. The ancient Greeks believed that a lunar eclipse was the work of a witch, particularly the witches of Thessaly. This was called a ‘casting down’ of the moon, or in the case of a solar eclipse, of the sun. There were some witches who people thought could make the moon or the sun disappear from the sky at a specified time, although it is more likely that such people, if they did exist, simply had the ability to predict when an eclipse was going to happen.
We learn of Selene’s family, her parents and siblings and the children that she went on to have, from various different sources and Greek myths. The name of the moon goddess is surrounded by accounts of the consorts she had and their children. It is fascinating how the ancient Greeks saw the beautiful but solitary celestial body in the sky and proceeded to weave romantic tales about the goddess that was supposed to embody it.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Selene was born of Hyperion and Theia. Two of the original twelve Titans descended from Uranus and Gaia, Hyperion was the Titan god of heavenly light while Theia was the Titan goddess of vision and the aether. The brother and sister married each other and had three children: Eos (the goddess of the dawn), Helios (the sun god), and Selene (the moon goddess).
The three children have become much more well-known in general Greek literature than their parents, especially after the fall from grace of Hyperion, who stood by his brother Cronus in the latter’s war against Zeus and was banished to Tartarus for it. Selene’s siblings and Selene herself carried on their father’s legacy by shining light from the heavens upon the earth. Hyperion’s role is not fully known today, but given that he was the god of heavenly light in all its forms, it may be assumed that his children, powerful as they were in their individual capacities, only held a fraction of the might of their Titan father.
Selene, like her siblings, was a Titan goddess because of her birth but they were no less important to the Greeks. Having risen to power in the generation of Zeus, they were universally revered and worshiped. The Homeric Hymn 31 sings praises to all the children of Hyperion, referring to Eos as “rosy armed Eos” and to Helios as “tireless Helios.”
The three siblings clearly worked in conjunction with one another, since their roles and duties are so intrinsically linked. Without Selene giving way to Eos, Helios could not bring the sun back to the world. And if Selene and Helios did not work together, as the personifications of the moon and the sun, there would be absolute chaos in the world. Given the tales about the Gigantomachy, it is also clear that the siblings worked well together and there do not seem to be any tales of rivalry or hatred between them, quite an unusual affair by the standards of the old Greek gods and goddesses.
While Selene’s best known consort may have been Endymion and the mythic romance between the moon goddess and the mortal has been documented in many places, he was not the only person that she was involved with.
Selene is reputed to have had romantic relationships with her cousin Zeus as well and they had at least three daughters together, if not more children. Selene had a relationship with the god Pan, according to Virgil. Pan, the god of the wild, supposedly seduced Selene while dressed in a sheepskin. Finally, although this account is more in doubt, some stories say that Selene and her brother Helios together birthed one of the generations of the Horae, the goddesses of the seasons.
Selene, the moon goddess, was reputed to have had many children by various fathers. In some cases, it is debated whether she indeed was the mother. But in the case of her daughters with Endymion, it is widely known that Selene gave birth to the fifty daughters known as the Menai. The fifty daughters of Selene and Endymion mark the fifty lunar months of the four year Olympiad Cycle. That was a basic unit of how the Greeks measured time in the old days. The pair could also have been the parents of the beautiful and vain Narcissus, for whom the Narcissus flower is named, according to Nonnus, the Greek epic poet of the Roman era.
According to the Homeric Hymn 32, Selene and Zeus together had a daughter named Pandia. Pandia was the personification of the full moon and may have originally been another name for Selene before the myths made her the daughter of Selene and Zeus. There was an Athenian festival named the Pandia, held in honor of Zeus, which was perhaps celebrated on a full moon night. The two other daughters that Selene and Zeus had together was Nemea, the nymph of the town that the Nemean Lion was from, and Ersa, the personified version of dew.
Selene and Helios together were said to be the parents of the four Horae, the goddesses of the seasons. These were Eiar, Theros, Cheimon, and Phthinoporon, — Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Although in most myths, the Horae appear to be triads born of Zeus and Themis, in this particular incarnation they were the daughters of Selene and Helios. Their names differed from the other triads of Horae and they were considered to be the personifications of the four seasons itself.
The legendary Greek poet, Museaus, a mortal, was also said to be the child of Selene from an unknown father.
The Worship of the Greek Goddess Selene
Most of the important Greek gods and goddesses had temple sites of their own. However, Selene was not one of them. The goddess of the moon does not seem to have been the object of much ritual worship in the early Greek period. Indeed, the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes said in the 5th century BCE that the worship of the moon was a sign of barbarian communities and not to be emulated by the Greeks. It was only later, when Selene began to be conflated with other lunar goddesses, that she was openly worshiped.
The altars to Selene were few and far between. There existed an oracular sanctuary for her in Laconia, near Thalamai. It was devoted to Selene, under the name Pasiphae, and to Helios. She also had a statue, alongside Helios, in the public marketplace of Elis. Selene had an altar at Pergamon, at the sanctuary of Demeter, the goddess of spring. This she shared with her siblings and other goddesses like Nyx.
The moon, in the ancient world, was heavily associated with certain kinds of ‘womanly’ issues, fertility, and healing. The menstrual cycles were known as ‘moon cycles’ in many cultures of the world, measured as they were by the monthly lunar calendar. Many people believed that labor and childbirth was easiest during the full moon and prayed to Selene for aid. This eventually led to the identification of Selene with Artemis, also associated with fertility and the moon in various ways.
Mystery Cults and Love Magic
Selene was, while not worshiped openly, apparently the object of many spells and invocations addressed to her by young women. Both Theocritus in his second Idyll and Pindar write about how young women would pray to or invoke spells in the name of the moon goddess for help with their love lives. This might have had a role in the later identification of Selene with Hecate, who was, after all, the goddess of witchcraft and spells.
The Legacy of Selene in the Modern World
Even now, this moon goddess of the ancient world has not quite gone out of our lives and her presence can be felt in small but subtle reminders. Her presence is felt in something as simple as the names of the days of the week. Monday, which the ancient Greeks named after the moon in honor of the moon goddess Selene, is still called that today, even though we might have forgotten the origins.
Selene has a minor planet named after her, called 580 Selene. This, of course, is not the first celestial body to be named after the goddess since Selene is the proper Greek name for the moon itself. Selene also has a chemical element named after her, Selenium. The scientist Jons Jacob Berzelius named it such since the element was very similar in nature to tellurium, which was named after the Earth, whose Greek name is Tellus.
Selene does not appear in modern adaptations of Greek myths, since she is not exactly one of the major Greek gods like Zeus or Aphrodite. However, in the science fiction book The First Men on the Moon by H.G. Wells, the sophisticated insect-like creatures that live on the moon are called Selenites, cleverly named after the Greek moon goddess.
And unlike Hera or Aphrodite or Artemis, Selene is still quite a common first name in the English-speaking world, which is perhaps the moon goddess’s own form of sweet justice over a civilization where she was only worshiped in secret by young women and expectant mothers for fear of being considered ‘barbarians.’