Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
As the Earth’s only natural satellite and the brightest object in our night sky, the Moon has long been a source of romance and mystery. Correspondingly, many ancient cultures practiced worship of the Moon. More often than not, moon gods and goddesses occupy high positions in their respective pantheons too.
With the enigmatic appearance of the Moon and its relationship with the tides and seasons, lunar deities also frequently personify time, fertility, women, and in some cases, magic. The following are 9 prominent gods and goddesses of the Moon from world mythology and ancient faiths. Though most are no longer worshipped, all continue to fascinate and inspire.
Several, such as Khonsu, are also enjoying new identities in pop culture.
9 Moon Gods and Goddesses From Around the World
Artemis is the name most frequently thought of when discussing moon goddesses from ancient times. With her numerous other portfolios as the Greek goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, nature, childbirth, chastity, etc, she is undoubtedly one of the most culturally complex too.
The child of Zeus and the Titaness Leto, Artemis is the twin brother of Sun God Apollo and was born on the island of Delos. Like her twin, the ancient Greeks envisioned her as young and beautiful. She was also described as exceptionally skilled with archery.
Interestingly, classic myths portrayed Artemis as completely chaste too; a stark contrast to many other Greek gods including Apollo. In one story, she was even murderous when her modesty was violated.
After the hunter Actaeon stumbled upon her bathing, she cursed him into the form of a stag. The hapless hunter was then torn apart by his own hunting hounds because none could recognize him.
With so many portfolios in her quiver, Artemis was one of the most widely worshipped goddesses in the Hellenic world, and here’s where things get interesting. The city of Ephesus, which worshipped the goddess as a bringer of fertility, depicted her as a standing, macabre figure full of exposed breasts. This depiction is completely separate from classical imageries of Artemis as a young huntress.
Finally, moon goddess as she might be, Artemis was not the Moon in Greek mythology. The Moon incarnate was instead, the Titaness Selene (See below). However, the popular goddess eventually absorbed many aspects of Selene.
The same happened with Apollo, who as a widely venerated solar god, progressively incorporated the characteristics of Helios, the Greek personification of the sun.
Also known as Sin or Suen, Nanna was a Mesopotamian God of the Moon who was worshipped in several ancient Near East civilizations. A major deity associated with livestock, worship of him extended from Sumer to Babylon, to Aram, to even South Arabia. Some groups during the reign of the Neo-Babylonian king Nabonidus furthermore considered him the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon.
Described as the offspring of the supreme god Enlil, Nannar himself was the father of several prominent Mesopotamian deities. For example, Utu, the God of Justice and the Sun, was his son. Inanna, the Sumerian Goddess of Love, War, Justice, and Sex, was his daughter. In her later form as Ishtar, Inanna was venerated as the “Queen of Heaven.”
Coming back to Nanna, worship of the moon god was centered in the ancient city of Ur. The Great Ziggurat of Ur was dedicated to none other than him. After the Ziggurat fell into disrepair in the Neo-Babylonian period, it was restored by King Nabonidus, a devout worshipper of the moon god. Today, the ruins of this massive temple still stand in Iraq.
Of note, the name “Nanna” is Sumerian in origin, while “Sin” and “Suen” are Akkadian. Believed to originally be separate deities, the names likely became interchangeable because of syncretization.
Various other male moon gods existed in ancient Mesopotamiatoo, Saggar and Arma being two examples. What’s culturally notable here is how depictions of these lunar deities starkly differed from the feminine personifications embraced by the later Hellenic civilization.
Thanks to the Disney+ series Moon Knight, millions worldwide now know Khonsu, or Khonshu, as the Egyptian God of the Moon. True Marvel fans will also enthusiastically describe the ancient god as a vengeful being with the skull of a bird as his head. One who’s hellbent on his brand of justice.
The historical Khonsu was, however, markedly different and far more complex. Early Egyptian texts described him as a bloodthirsty god who fed on the blood of other gods for power. By the time of the New Kingdom, though, he was regarded as a benevolent deity. One who was hailed as the “Greatest God of the Great Gods,” the governor of time and the protector of night travelers. A mighty god with the ability to bestow fertility, healing, and protection against wild beasts too.
As part of the Theban Triad, the other two gods being his parents Amun and Mut, Khonsu was also one of the most worshipped deities during the New Kingdom era. The great Karnak Temple Complex was dedicated to the Theban Triad. Anyone who has visited the majestic Temple of Khonsu within Karnak will immediately sense how popular Khonsu was among the ancient Egyptians too.
In other words, the Egyptian moon god was hardly the outcast Marvel portrays him as. Far from it. He was one of the most significant and popular gods worshipped.
Khonsu and Thoth
Khonsu was not the only ancient Egyptian god associated with the Moon. The widely worshiped scribe god Thoth was a lunar deity too. Thoth’s traditional ibis-head appearance is, curiously, much closer to Marvel’s interpretation too. However, in Marvel’s universe, the two gods are described as separate divinities.
Vedic in origin, Chandra is the Hindu God of the Moon and one of the Hindu nine planets (Navagraha). Often envisioned as riding a regal chariot drawn by an antelope, he is associated with the night, plants, and vegetation.
Chandra is also described as the brewer of Soma, an intoxicating celestial drink that imbues immortality. Because of this, the god himself is frequently called Soma too. In the Rigveda, “Soma” was used to refer to both the lunar god as well as the plant used to make his cherished drink.
Coming to imagery, Chandra/Soma is most often depicted as having white skin and wielding a mace, or holding a lotus. Within today’s South Asia, temples dedicated to him are also not plentiful but as one of the Navagraha, it is not difficult to locate shrines or murals of him.
As for Hindu myths featuring Chandra, most describe his birth, his progeny, or explain why the Moon waxes and wanes. For example, the lunar god is said to be one of the treasures that emerged during the churning of the cosmic ocean.
Another describes him as having married 27 sisters but spending most of his time with just one. The neglected then complained to their father who cursed Chandra to diminish with each day. In other words, to “wane.”
Remorseful, the moon god approached the great god Shiva for help. Though Shiva could not undo the curse, he was able to mitigate it. Chandra will diminish for 15 days before regaining strength over the same number of days. To mortal eyes, this cycle manifests as the ever-changing appearance of the Moon each night.
Many cultural articles and lists describe Chang’e as the Chinese Goddess of the Moon. While this is not entirely wrong and worship of her is not unheard of, Chang’e is more accurately, a Chinese moon fairy. Moreover, she is a prisoner of the lunar palace, rather than an embodiment of it.
The wife of mythical archer Houyi, Chang’e achieved immortality and ascended to the lunar palace * after ingesting an elixir meant for Houyi. (The reason for her swallowing the elixir varies, depending on the story version) Heartbroken by their eternal separation, Houyi then placed Chang’e’s favorite food before the full autumn moon to honor her. Over time, this led to the couple’s permanent association with the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival, and the Chinese Moon in general.
Religiously, the epithet of “Chinese Goddess of the Moon” would more accurately belong to the Taoist goddess Taiyin Zhenjun too. Taiyin means “the supreme yin” i.e. the Moon in Chinese, and in Taoist temples, the goddess is often displayed together with Taiyang Zhenjun. The latter, the Taoist God of the Sun.
Like her Western counterparts, Taiyin Zhenjun is also sometimes prayed to for love. Within classic Chinese literature, the most well-known example is a prayer scene in Romance of the Western Chamber.
* Note: After she ascended to the Moon, Chang’e took up permanent residence at Guanghan Gong, or the “Palace of Expansive Cold.” Chinese mythology, however, doesn’t explain why this resulted in her eternal separation from Houyi. After all, many Chinese immortals freely roam the mortal world.
What’s worth knowing too is that no literature or Chinese myths describe Chang’e as having miraculous powers. Thus why few Chinese would regard her as a lunar goddess.
Tsukiyomi, the Japanese God of the Moon, is one of the Mihashira no Uzuno Miko, a supreme trinity of gods in Shintoism. Like his siblings Amaterasu the Sun Goddess and Susanoo the Storm God, he was created when Shinto progenitor god Izanagi ritually cleansed himself after a tragic visit to the underworld.
In that earlier legend, Izanagi went to the underworld to retrieve his wife, who died during childbirth. However, the rotting form of his wife disgusted him so much, he fled.
Unlike his widely worshiped siblings, however, Tsukiyomi is obscure and mysterious, barely mentioned even in Shinto texts. Venerated at only a handful of shrines in Japan, even the gender of Tsukiyomi is uncertain. He is only assumed to be male.
There is also but one famous Japanese myth involving “him.” In this, Tsukiyomi supposedly slew the food goddess Ukemochi because he was disgusted by how the goddess prepared a banquet by vomiting food. Enraged, Amaterasu then swore never to face her brother. Thus why the day and night are eternally separated.
Interestingly, the enigmatic Tsukiyomi has recently found new life in Japanese pop culture, under circumstances not too unlike those of Khonsu. The Shinto moon god appeared several times in the popular Shin Megami Tensei video game series as a key ally/antagonist. Manga and light novel series such as Tsukimichi: Moonlit Fantasy have also featured him as a supporting or main character.
The irony here, naturally, is that there is now way more trivia about the Shinto moon god in Japanese pop culture than in religion. Outside of Japan, he might even be more famous than most other Shinto gods.
Although Artemis is the Greek name most commonly associated with moon goddesses in modern times, it is still worth mentioning Selene, the actual Greek personification of the Moon.
The daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Theia, Selene drives a beautiful chariot across the night sky every evening, much like how her brother Helios does so in the daytime. Described as “bright” and “white-armed” in the Homeric Hymns, Selene notably had several lovers in Greek mythology too.
Among these affairs, she is most famous for her infatuation with the young shepherd Endymion. In some versions of the myth, her intense adoration resulted in her begging Zeus to grant Endymion eternal youth. In others, she was so enamored with the beauty of the youth as he slept, she asked the King of the Gods to preserve him that way.
Whichever the case, Zeus ultimately placed the youth into an eternal slumber.
As mentioned above, several aspects of Selene were syncretized with Artemis over time, although the two goddesses remained distinct. Together with Hecate, they formed a triad of lunar goddesses. Beliefs that childbirth was easiest during the full moon also led to the strong association of Selene with Hera, the Greek Queen of the Gods and Goddess of Women.
Finally, in her Roman form of Luna, Selene was recognized as an important agricultural deity. In literature, she was honored by Virgil as one of the “clearest sources of light.” A temple dedicated to her is believed to have existed on Palatine Hill too.
As is obvious from the above entries, several ancient civilizations envisioned the Sun and Moon as “chariots” driven across the skies by divine beings. Germanic and Norse mythologies embrace this imagery too, although for the people of the north, the associated myth is far more sinister.
As detailed by the Prose Edda, a man called Mundilfari named his beautiful children Sól and Máni. (The names literally mean Sun and Moon) Offended by the man’s arrogance, the gods took away the boy and girl, and sentenced them to forever guide the actual Sun and Moon across the sky each day.
Máni, the boy, then kidnapped another pair of human siblings, Hjúki and Bil, to attend to himself.
More frighteningly, the journeys are never leisurely. because they are chases. Máni’s chariot is incessantly pursued by a wolf. The same for his sister’s sun chariot.
When lunar eclipses happen, that means the wolf is close to devouring Máni whole. Dangerously close.
And when both Sól and Máni are finally eaten, Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods, descends. With that, the world as we know it will come to an end. The Norse gods themselves will also perish in battle.
Coyolxāuhqui is the Aztec Goddess of the Moon. But unlike her counterparts in the Eastern Hemisphere, she neither drives a chariot across the night sky nor protects women.
She isn’t even whole. In Aztec mythology, the Goddess of the Moon was decapitated by the Sun/War God Huītzilōpōchtli. The Moon that we see each night is literally Coyolxāuhqui’s head moving across the sky.
As for the reason behind the goddess’ grim fate, there are two myths. In one, Huītzilōpōchtli is her son and was angered by her insistence to remain at the sacred mountain of Coatepec when he wanted to shift to a new city. He then resolved the disagreement the quick way by beheading his mother and eating her heart. (The severed head was presumably thrown into the night sky)
In the other version, the moon goddess was the daughter of Coatlicue, the Aztec progenitor of the celestial bodies. When Coatlicue miraculously became pregnant with Huītzilōpōchtli, Coyolxāuhqui suspected her mother of dishonor and in her fury, gathered her other brothers to slay her. The plot, however, utterly failed for the War God sprang from Coatlicue’s womb to slaughter everyone. Coyolxāuhqui’s head was subsequently thrown into the sky to become the Moon.
Culturally, these gruesome myths could be metaphorical celebrations of Huītzilōpōchtli’s might. As mentioned, the War God was also a solar deity. As the Aztecs’ tribal god and the god of their capital Tenochtitlan, the beheading of the Moon possibly symbolizes victory over the night. Needless to say, Aztec military might too.
Alternatively, the tales could be stern warnings to enemies. The Aztecs, as Huītzilōpōchtli, will slaughter any foe without hesitation. Even a lunar goddess cannot withstand their/his fury.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ced Yong