Goddess of the Week: Selene (Luna), the Moon

George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), Endymion (1872), oil on canvas, 65 × 52 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The daily journey of the sun chariot across the heavens is well-known, as are the myths surrounding it. Both classical Greek and Roman mythology had a matching moon chariot, driven by Selene (Greek Σελήνη), or in Latin Luna, a personification of the moon and descendant of Titans.

Selene is the daughter of Hyperion and Theia, making her the sun god’s sister, as might be expected. Her attributes are a crescent moon, torch, and billowing cloak as she hurtles through the sky in her chariot. However, the crescent moon is a source of confusion, because of its association with Artemis (Diana), the huntress. And just to add to that confusion, Selene is sometimes seen with both Artemis and Hecate, with their lunar tendencies.

Pietro della Vecchia, 1603-1678; Selene
Pietro della Vecchia (1602/1603–1678), Selene (date not known), oil on canvas, 152.5 x 84 cm, Kingston Lacy, Wimborne Minster, England. Wikimedia Commons.

Pietro della Vecchia’s Selene from the early seventeenth century is a simple depiction which relies on the crescent moon above her head for its reading.

Albert Aublet (1851–1938), Selene (1880), oil on canvas, 144.1 x 115.5 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

In the nineteenth century, some artists used the distinctive form of a nude woman curved to form a crescent moon inside a circle. This is shown well in Albert Aublet’s atmospheric Selene from 1880.

Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919), The Sleeping Earth and Wakening Moon (1905-10), oil on canvas, 46.4 x 36.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Evelyn De Morgan adopts a similar device in her painting of the complements of The Sleeping Earth and Wakening Moon from 1905-10. There is of course a slightly inconvenient physical problem: at dusk, the time when you might consider the earth to be going to sleep and the moon waking, the only phase of the moon in which these occur simultaneously is when the moon is full, which counters the crescent illusion.

Selene is the subject of several myths concerning her lovers.

Hans von Aachen (1552–1615), Pan and Selene (1600-05), oil on panel, 40 x 49.2 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

A couple of sources, including Virgil’s Georgics, tell of Pan and Selene as a couple, shown in Hans von Aachen’s Pan and Selene from 1600-05. Pan apparently seduced her with a ‘snowy bribe of wool’, and others suggest he may have worn a sheepskin to aid his seduction.

The best-known myth, though, has confounded Selene with Artemis/Diana in her affair with the beautiful mortal herdsman Endymion. He apparently lived in a cave to which she was repeatedly drawn. For one reason or another, this resulted in Endymion going to sleep for ever, which preserved his ageless beauty. There are even claims that in his sleep he was able to father fifty daughters.

Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), Selene and Endymion (1630), oil on canvas, 122 x 169 cm, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI. Wikimedia Commons.

Nicolas Poussin’s Selene and Endymion from 1630 tells this story using multiplex narrative. On the left, Endymion and Selene fall in love, while behind he is fast asleep and she’s driving the moon chariot across the sky. At the right, the figure drawing the fabric of darkness across is probably Nyx, goddess of the night.

Ubaldo Gandolfi (1728–1781), Selene and Endymion (c 1770), oil on canvas, 227.3 × 146 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

In Ubaldo Gandolfi’s Selene and Endymion from about 1770 the narrative is far simpler. Selene, with Eros armed beside her, gazes longingly at the sleeping Endymion, as her cloak billows behind towards the crescent moon.

George Frederic Watts (1817–1904), Endymion (1872), oil on canvas, 65 × 52 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

I don’t know whether George Frederic Watts’ painting of Endymion (1872) refers to the original Greek myth or to John Keats’ reinterpretation in his 1818 poem Endymion. It shows Endymion making love with Selene or ‘Cynthia’, as Keats named her. This is one of Watts’ most painterly works, and appears to have come straight from his emotions. This also marks his transition from painting Pre-Raphaelite staples such as mediaeval knights and legends, to his later works which were more allegorical and even frankly symbolist.

Walter Crane (1845–1915), Diana and Endymion (1883), watercolor and gouache, 55.2 × 78.1 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Walter Crane’s beautiful pastoral watercolour of Diana and Endymion (1883) shows the story fully transferred to Artemis, who is seen in her role as huntress with her dogs, bow and arrows, and references to the moon and Selene have been lost.

Poynter Vision of Endymion
Edward Poynter (1836–1919), The Vision of Endymion (1902), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 38.1 cm, Manchester Art Gallery, Manchester, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The classical scholar Edward Poynter avoided making any such commitment in The Vision of Endymion from 1902, where it could be either Selene or Artemis who is about to fall in love with the somnolent shepherd, who is surrounded by flowers of sleep-inducing poppy.

That must have been quite a dream too, for her to conceive fifty daughters.