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In Greek mythology, Selene was the Titan goddess of the moon. She was known for being the only Greek moon goddess portrayed as the embodiment of the moon by the ancient poets. Selene featured in few myths, with the most famous ones being the tales that tell of her lovers: Zeus, Pan and the mortal Endymion. Let’s take a closer look at her story.
As mentioned in Hesiod’s Theogony, Selene was the daughter of Hyperion (the Titan god of light) and Theia (also known as Euryphessa), who was his wife and also his sister. Selene’s siblings included the great Helios (the god of the sun) and Eos (the goddess of dawn). However, in other accounts, Selene is said to be the daughter of either Helios, or the Titan Pallas, son of Megamedes. Her name is derived from ‘Selas’, the Greek word meaning light and her Roman equivalent is the goddess Luna.
Selene and her brother Helios were said to have been very close siblings who worked well together as the personifications of the moon and the sun, the most significant features of the sky. They were responsible for the movement of the sun and moon across the sky, bringing forth the daylight and night.
Selene’s Consorts and Offspring
While Endymion is possibly Selene’s most famous lover, she had several other lovers aside from Endymion. According to ancient sources, Selene was also seduced by Pan, the god of the wild. Pan disguised himself with white fleece and then slept with Selene, after which he gave her a white horse (or white oxen) as a gift.
Selene had several children, including:
- With Endymion, Selene was said to have had fifty daughters, known as the ‘Menai’. They were the goddesses who presided over the fifty lunar months.
- According to Nonnus, the pair were also the parents of the stunningly handsome Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection.
- Some sources say that Selene gave birth to the Horai, the four goddesses of the seasons, by Helios.
- She also had three daughters with Zeus, including Pandia (the goddess of the full moon), Ersa, (the personification of dew) and the nymph Nemea. Nemea was the eponymous nymph of the town called Nemea where Heracles had slain the deadly Nemean Lion. It was also the place where the Nemean Games were held every two years.
- In some accounts, Selene and Zeus were said to be the parents of Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, but some say that Dionysus actual mother was Semele and that Selene’s name had been confused with hers.
- Selene also had a mortal son called Museaus, who became a legendary Greek poet.
Selene’s Role in Greek Mythology
As the goddess of the moon, Selene was responsible for controlling the movement of the moon across the sky during the night. She shone magnificent silvery light down on the Earth as she travelled in her chariot pulled by snowy white horses. She had the power to give the mortals sleep, to light up the night and control time.
Like most other deities of the Greek pantheon, Selene was revered not only as the goddess of her domain, but also as a deity for agriculture and in some cultures, fertility.
Selene and the Mortal Endymion
One of the most well-known myths in which Selene appeared was the story of herself and Endymion, a mortal shepherd who had exceptionally good looks. Endymion often tended his sheep at night and Selene happened to notice him while she was on her nightly journey across the sky. Taken by his looks, she fell in love with Endymion and wished to be with him for eternity. However, being a goddess, Selene was immortal whereas the shepherd would age over time and die.
Selene begged Zeus to help her and Zeus took pity on the goddess who was besotted by the handsome shepherd. Instead of making Endymion immortal, Zeus, with the help of Hypnos, the god of sleep, made Endymion fall into an eternal sleep from which he would never wake. The shepherd did not age from that point on, nor did he die. Endymion was placed in a cave on Mount Latmos which Selene visited every night and she continued to do so for all eternity.
In some versions of the story, Zeus woke Endymion and asked him what kind of life he would prefer to lead. Endymion had also lost his heart to the beautiful moon goddess so he asked Zeus to make him sleep forever, bathed in her warm, soft light.
The poem Endymion by John Keats, with its legendary opening lines, goes on to retell the story of Endymion.
Depictions and Symbols of Selene
The moon was of great importance to the ancient Greeks who measured the passage of time by it. A month in Ancient Greece consisted of three ten day periods which were based entirely on the different phases of the moon. It was also a common belief that the moon brought dew with it to nourish animals and plants. Therefore, as the goddess of the moon, Selene had an important place in Greek mythology.
The moon goddess was traditionally depicted as a stunningly beautiful young maiden, with slightly paler skin than usual, long black hair and a cloak billowing above her head. She was often portrayed with a crown on her head that represented the moon. Sometimes, she would be riding a bull or a silver drawn by winged horses. The chariot was her form of transport each night and like her brother Helios, she travelled across the sky bringing the moonlight with her.
There are several symbols associated with the goddess of the moon including:
- Crescent – the crescent symbolizes the moon itself. Many depictions feature a crescent on her head.
- Chariot – the chariot signifies her vehicle and mode of transportation.
- Cloak – Selen was often depicted with a billowing cloak.
- Bull – One of her symbols is the bull which she rode upon.
- Nimbus – In certain works of art, Selene is portrayed with a halo (also known as the nimbus), surrounding her head.
- Torch – During the Hellenistic period, she was pictured holding a torch.
Selene is often depicted together with Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, and Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, who were also goddess associated with the moon. However, of the three, it was Selene who was the sole moon incarnate as we know it to be today.
The story of Selene and Endymion became a popular subject for Roman artists, who depicted it in funerary art. The most famous image was that of the moon goddess holding her billowing veil over her head, descending from her silver chariot to join Endymion, her lover who lies asleep at her feet with eyes open so that he may gaze upon her beauty.
Worship of Selene
Selene was worshipped on the days of the full and new moons. The people believed that she was at the she had the ability to bring forth new life on these days and was invoked by women who wished to conceive. They prayed to the goddess and made offerings to her, asking for inspiration and fertility. However, she wasn’t known as a fertility goddess.
In Rome, there were temples dedicated to her as the Roman goddess Luna, on the Palatine and Aventine hills. However, there were no temple sites dedicated to the goddess in Greece. According to various sources, this was because she was always seen and worshipped from almost every point on Earth. The Greeks worshipped her by gazing on her magnificent beauty, offering libations to the goddess and reciting hymns and odes.
Facts About Selene
Selene is a Titaness, the pantheon of deities that existed before the Olympians.
Selene’s parents are Hyperion and Theia.
Selene’s siblings are Helions (sun) and Eos (dawn).
Selene is associated with several lovers, but her most famous consort is Endymion.
In Roman mythology, Luna was the goddess of the moon.
Selene’s symbols include the crescent, chariot, bull, cloak and torch.
Although Selene was once a famous deity in ancient Greece, her popularity has waned and she is now less well-known. However, those who know her continue to worship her whenever there is a full moon, believing the goddess is at work, traversing in her snowy chariot and lighting up the dark night sky.