In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle considers the various symbolic meanings of the moon over the centuries
The moon has been a powerful symbol in religion, literature, and art for centuries – indeed, for millennia. But delving into the history of moon-symbolism reveals some surprising things about how poets, philosophers, and religious writers have viewed the moon.
From a symbol imbued with divine power to a feminine object denoting love (and lovesickness), the moon has been one of the most popular poetic symbols for … as long as there has been poetry and literature.
Why is the moon often gendered as feminine? There are several reasons for this. First, its passivity, as Hans Biedermann discusses in his excellent The Wordsworth Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons and the Meanings Behind Them (Wordsworth Reference): the moon borrows its light from the (male) sun. Shakespeare memorably put this in somewhat blunter terms in his Timon of Athens:
The moon’s an arrant thief,
And her pale fire she snatches from the sun.
Her, note: even though the moon is a thief, Timon figures it as female, just as he had (in the previous lines) gendered the sun as male.
Second, there is the moon’s longstanding association with menstrual cycles: both the lunar month and the menstrual cycle run on the same period (no pun intended). In his 1915 poem ‘London’, the imagist poet Richard Aldington likened the moon to ‘a pregnant woman’ who is walking ‘cautiously over the slippery heavens’.
As well as the roundedness of the full moon and the expectant mother’s belly, there is, buried within Aldington’s striking metaphor, this association between female fertility and the moon.
Third, there is the pallor of the moon, and its corresponding (perceived) coolness next to the sun’s powerful fire. In Western art, of course, female beauty has often been equated with pale, alabaster skin. In a poem from his sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella, written in the early 1580s, Sir Philip Sidney addressed the moon directly, seeing it as a kindred spirit in his lovelorn state:
With how sad steps, O moon, thou climb’st the skies;
How silently, and with how wan a face.
What, may it be that even in heavenly place
That busy archer his sharp arrows tries?
The ‘busy archer’ is Cupid, of course, loosing his arrow at the unfortunate lover. But there are other associations between the moon and the arrows of the hunter: Artemis in Greek mythology was the goddess of the hunt but also of the moon, as was her Roman counterpart Diana. Indeed, the term ‘Hunter’s Moon’ is traditionally used to refer to the full moon that appears during October.
So it is that in major mythologies around the world, the moon is female while the sun is male. The Greeks had Selene, Artemis, and Hecate; the Romans had Diana and Luna (and Hecate again, whose name they didn’t bother to change).
The Aztecs had the goddesses Coyolxauhqui and Metztli. Some belief-systems also had male deities associated with the moon, such as in Norse legend, but there is a general trend which identifies the moon as female and feminine.
The author Robert Graves took this idea even further. The White Goddess, his 1948 ‘grammar’ of poetic myth, argued that all Western poetry was inspired by the figure of the Triple Goddess, a female deity associated with the moon.
For Graves, comparing different religious and mythical structures from around Europe and Asia, this White Goddess figure is tripartite: she is the maiden (the virgin huntress associated with the colour white); the mother (the pregnant woman associated with the colour red, for the body and especially menstruation; linked to the full moon), and the old hag (associated with the colour black, and linked to the waning moon).
This connection is also found in Christianity, where the Virgin Mary has sometimes been linked with the moon: in Christian iconography, Mary has been portrayed as standing on top of the moon (in its crescent form), in a depiction probably inspired by a passage in the Book of Revelation 12:1: ‘a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet’.
As Biedermann notes, this symbolises victory over hostile forces. The moon, then, is often viewed with suspicion, perhaps because of its borrowed light from the sun, or because it comes out at night.
This link perhaps inspired Sylvia Plath in her poem, ‘The Moon and the Yew Tree’ (1961), to refer to the moon in the sky as her mother, and to contrast her with the Mother of the Church, Mary. Certainly Plath, like her husband Ted Hughes, was an avid devotee of Graves’s White Goddess theory. The moon can therefore represent pagan, natural, elemental forces which lie outside of the strictures and traditions of organised religion.
And, of course, the moon has often been viewed as a symbol of wild, uncontrollable forces: men turning into werewolves on a full moon, for instance. The moon was also thought to influence human behaviour and psychology, hence the terms ‘lunacy’ and ‘lunatic’, derived from the Latin luna, ‘moon’.
Because it has been such a popular and common feature in literature and art, by the time we got to the early twentieth century and modernism, poets were keen to view the way we viewed this distant and mysterious celestial companion to our planet. T. E. Hulme, in one of the first modernist poems written in English, brought us – and the moon – down from the dizzy romantic heights of the past in order to view it in a much plainer, more matter-of-fact manner:
A touch of cold in the Autumn night –
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
You can read Hulme’s poem in full, and my analysis of it, here. In another of his poems from around the same time (1908-9), Hulme’s speaker mistakes ‘a child’s balloon, forgotten after play’ for the moon. And another modernist, T. S. Eliot, taking his cue from the nineteenth-century Symbolist poet Jules Laforgue, spoke of the moon, our ‘sentimental friend’, as being ‘Prester John’s balloon’ or ‘an old battered lantern’. The moon, in twentieth-century poetry, had been brought down to earth.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.