Selene and Endymion. Ceiling at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
Selene loved the mortal prince Endymion, Who was given immortality and eternal youth by Zeus on the condition that He be eternally asleep, though some say Selene Herself requested that He be always asleep, so that no other might have Him. She would visit Him faithfully every night.
“From her immortal head a radiance is shown from heaven and embraces earth; and great is the beauty that arises from her shining light.” (Homeric Hymn to Selene 2).
The Greek goddess of the Moon is the virgin Artemis, twin sister to Apollo. Children of Zeus and Leto (one of the six female Titans), Artemis and Apollo were born on the island of Delos while Leto was avoiding Zeus’ wife Hera. Artemis was said to ride her silver chariot across the sky, shooting her arrows of silver moonlight to the Earth below. She was the Lady of Wild Things and the goddess of the hunt. She loved hunting lions, panther, stag and deer, roaming the mountain forests and uncultivated land with her nymphs. Her favorite method of capture was her fleetness of foot and her silver bow and arrows. Together with Hestia and Athene she was one of the only three maiden goddesses immune to Aphrodite’s enchantments. Artemis was also a friend to mortals, dancing through the countryside in silver sandals and giving her divine protection to wild beasts and the very young. The Greeks sometimes called her Cynthia (Greek Kynthia) after her birthplace on Mt. Kynthos on Delos. In the Odyssey (15.403) Odysseus is told a story of a wondrous island, Syria, where neither hunger nor old age exists. When the inhabitants of this island had reached the end of their lives as decreed by the Fates, Artemis and Apollo would fly down and painlessly kill them with their silver bows.
Diana, Latin for “goddess,” was the Roman version of Artemis. Originally a goddess of fertility worshipped by women as the giver of fertility and easy births, she was also the goddess of nature portrayed as a huntress accompanied by a deer. Her name may have been derived from “diviana,” the shining one.
The Romans later associated Diana with Selene, the goddess of the Moon. (From Selene we get the metal Selenium, the electrical conductivity of which varies with the intensity of the light, like the changing phases of the Moon.) Selene was the daughter of Hyperion and Theia, sister of Helios the Sun and Eos the Dawn. Unlike Diana, Selene was not known for her chastity. She bore three daughters to Zeus, and was seduced by Pan for a piece of fleece. According to legend, when Selene saw Endymion, a beautiful young shepherd, she fell deeply in love with him and seduced him (see Poynter’s beautiful painting above). Each night she kissed him to sleep, a lovely metaphor for moonlight falling on the fertile land. Wanting to embrace him forever, she begged Zeus to grant Endymion eternal life. In another version the handsome Endymion wanted to keep his good looks forever, and asked Zeus to let him sleep forever without aging. In either case, Zeus agreed and placed him in eternal sleep. Every night Selene visits Endymion on Mt. Latmus in Asia Minor, where the Greeks believed he was buried. Selene and Endymion had 50 daughters together.
As Phoebus was the Sun, Selene was Phoebe, the Moon. As such she represented the evening and the night, carrying a torch and wearing long robes and a veil on the back of her head. Both Phoebe/Selene and her sister Helios were Titans of the older gods, whereas Artemis was of the next generation.
Selene was also called Luna, depicted with a crescent Moon on her head driving a two-horse chariot. The following passage from a fifth century AD Greek Epic shows her face as the goddess of lunacy: “. . . the frenzied reckless fury of distracting Selene joining in displayed many a phantom shape to maddened Pentheus [who became lunatic or Moon-struck], and made the dread son of Ekhion forget his earlier intent, while she deafened his confused ears with the bray of her divine avenging trumpet, and she terrified the man.” Later poets identified Artemis as Hecate: goddess of the dark of the Moon and black nights when the Moon is hidden. In this form she was associated with acts done in darkness, and was known as the “Goddess of the Crossways,” thought to be places of ghosts and evil magic.
The Moon is “the goddess with three forms”:
Selene in the sky, Artemis on Earth, and Hecate in the lower world, the world above cloaked in darkness. The Moon’s phases reflect these forms. As the new Moon she is the maiden-goddess Artemis, always new and virginal, reborn and ready for the hunt. As the waxing Moon, increasing in fullness, she is the fertile mother-goddess, pregnant with life. And as she wanes to darkness, she is the wise crone or witch Hecate, knowing the magical arts, with the power to heal or transform. The many faces of woman and of the changing Moon are displayed through Artemis, Diana, Cynthia, Selene, Luna, Phoebe and Hecate.