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Tarot Deep Dive - The Moon

Every card represents an aspect of humanity that has echoed through time. In this series we are going to dive into the history of the imagery found within the tarot, the meaning of the cards and how that meaning changed over time, and the symbols present within the images of what is arguably the most well-known tarot deck of all time - the Rider-Waite (Smith) Tarot Deck. So, grab your favorite RWS deck, a cup of tea or coffee, and join me live on Sunday mornings over on YouTube as we Deep Dive into each one of the 21 Major Arcana cards continuing now with the enigmatic and mysterious Moon. A note to the reader - The Moon is a topic of such great breadth and depth that entire books have been written on the subject and would be nearly impossible to summarize in this blog. Instead we will look briefly at the art historical depiction and symbolic nature of the Moon as it pertains specifically to the Moon Card with the Tarot only. If you are interested in further readings on the moon I would highly recommend the classic book Moon Lore by Timothy Harvey.

Nebra Sky Disk, Wikimedia.
The Moon, La Lune, Ruler of Flux and Reflux

The second brightest object in the heavens, The Moon, has played a pivotal role in religions, philosophy, pop-culture, and the vary existence of life as we know it on this planet. Human beings across the globe have long gazed up at the moon and pondered its very existence as our moon is one of the most unique and mysterious heavenly bodies that we know of. In fact, the moon may be on of the first things documented in art found in South Africa and thought to be nearly 45,000 years old the Lebombo bone is a small primate bone with 29 notches carved into it thought to represent and track the lunar cycle. The first figural representation of the moon we know of dates back to the bronze age Nebra Sky Disc found in modern day Germany and was thought to document either the moon phases and stars or the sun and moon together.

Selene in a flying chariot drawn by two white horses from "Flora, seu florum...", Ferrari 1646.

Nearly all ancient civilizations venerated the moon and had deities associated with it from the Japanese lunar goddess Tsukuyomi, to the ancient Greek goddess Selene or the Aztec deity Mētztli. Often lunar deities were depicted as goddesses and this is generally thought to be because of the close association between the lunar cycles and the menstrual cycle of women. In fact, Selene's image from ancient Greece is typically the one we see most often in occult depictions of the moon. Many people often regard Artemis and Hecate as lunar goddess, and though they are associated with the moon Selene was the actual Goddess and personification of the Moon. Artemis for example was associated with the moon as she used moonlight on her hunts as she was the goddess of the hunt as she was born at night, and her twin brother Apollo was born in the day being associated with light. Artemis and Apollo became closely linked to the Sun and Moon eventually overshadowing Selene and Helios while blending respective aspects and associations together, like Artemis' bow and the crescent moon, or her association with child birth and the lunar and menstrual cycles. But it is the ancient greek depiction of Selene were many of our occult symbolic references of the moon derive from and an image we see directly referenced in the earliest Moon cards, and interestingly the associations with these images and perceived changes in the post Christian world are aspects of the cards meaning we still see echoed today.

Selene, Roman copy of Greek Original, Flickr
Sacramentary of Henry II. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm.4456, fol. 15r (Wikimedia)

With the fall of the Roman empire and change of the dominant pagan regions of the world to Christianity we see a distinct change in the depiction and use of the moon in art, iconography and symbolism. Christianity does not give significant value to the moon and thusly we see the moon relegated to the background of icons of particularly dramatic scenes such as the Crucifixion. Some have postulated this is a reference to the alchemical sacred marriage, the union of opposites, and the idea of 2=1 - Christ being both divine and mortal, the son of God and God. Though, academics debate widely on its symbolic meaning in these depictions. And the moon, with its ancient goddess associations, were correlated with darkness, deceit, and the unknown.

Jaroš Griemiller’s Rosarium Philosophorum

Interestingly though during the medieval

period as Alchemy took hold and grew in popularity we see the moon used as a symbol for hidden knowledge or power and represented the precious metal silver and was associated with the duality present in the marriage of the sun and the moon, silver and gold, Sulphur and Mercury to create the Philosopher's Stone. These occult associations also carry forward to today and are seen in many esoteric philosophies and religions.

Monogrammist I. B. Luna, one of seven plates from a suite of the seven planets. German, 1529.

We also see through alchemical and astrological art representing the moon a unification of symbols from history, the crescent moon of Selene, the spear of Diana or Artemis, the lobster associated with the zodiacal sign of cancer which comes from the myth of Karkinos in which Hercules fighting the Hydra is bit on the foot by a crab or crayfish that came to the Hydra's aid - as a reward for the crabs service the goddess Hera placed it among the stars as the constellation Cancer.


Throughout history the moon has played a pivotal role in philosophy , religion, and society. It is almost always depicted as a part of a duality be it the sun and moon themselves, ancient deities like Selene and her brother Helios, the duality required in The Great Work, or the duality of good and evil, light and darkness that we see echoed through The Bible.

A Note on the Lobster

During the popularity of the Dutch Still Life in the mid 1600s, the lobster often appeared in memento mori paintings as a symbol of both life, death, and change. While almost every depiction of a lobster appears animated and characterful, the red shell tells us that our friendly crustacean is sadly departed.

Visual Evolution

The earliest depictions of The Moon card from Visconti decks are one should instantly recognize as Selene with her crescent moon which given the significance of Greco-Roman art during the Renaissance it is no surprise we see this ancient goddess once again as the personification of the moon, in fact lunar goddess depictions were so common it was borderline cliché. In some other antique decks such as the Estensi and the Minchiate Florentine we see astrologers taking measurements with a compass, another symbol of duality from astrology and alchemy, looking up and trying to decode and understand the heavens above.

The French however take a decidedly different allegorical direction on their depiction of the card featuring a crab or crayfish crawling out of the water with two dogs on land and two towers in the distance - the symbolism of which we will delve into below as Smith and Waitedirectly reference the Marseille tradition in this card.


Evolution of Meaning
  • De Mellet (1781): The Moon. Creation of the Moon and terrestrial animals. The wolf and the dog represent wild and domesticated animals.

  • Mathers (1888): The Moon. Twilight, deception, error.

  • Golden Dawn (1896): Rulers of Flux and Reflux. Child of the Sons of the Mighty. Moon. Dissatisfaction, voluntary change (as opposed to XIII, Death).

  • Waite (1910): The Moon, Hidden enemies, danger, calumny, darkness, terror, deception, occult forces, error.

  • Crowley (1944): The Moon, partaking as she does of the highest and the lowest, and filling all the space between, is the most universal of the Planets. In her higher aspect, she occupies the place of the Link between the human and divine, as shown in Atu II. In this Trump, her lowest avatar, she joins the earthy sphere of Netzach with Malkuth, the culmination in matter of all superior forms. This is the waning moon, the moon of witchcraft and abominable deeds. She is the poisoned darkness which is the condition of the rebirth of light.

The Symbols
 

Crustacean & Pool of Water

The lobster or crayfish here is a symbol of the astrological sign of Cancer, taken directly from Greek mythology described above.

 

Two Dogs

The two dogs here are said to represent duality - wild and domestic. Though there is no indication of this on the early cards its thought to have come from the myths of Hecate and Diana and their hounds.

 

Path & Mountains

Mountains and paths are covered at length in our Symbols of the Tarot Earth Blog and video. Check them out for all the details.





 

Towers

The watch towers in the background here are often connected to the Pillars in the High Priestess, while others connect them to the Watchtowers in the Death card which I firmly believe is the intentional case. These are thought to represent dualities - East and West, Fears and Fantasies, Life and Death, the known and the unknown, etc.


 

Drops

The drops beneath the moon are thought to be dew. In the RWS they number 15 and are sometimes thought to be associated with a woman's cycle. Dew drops in the ancient world were thought to have life giving properties and came from the moon, created by the the daughter of Selene; Ersa. These also are thought to be associated with the Hebrew letter Yud.

 

The Moon (Sun?)

The moon eclipsing the sun here represents the sacred marriage and the combining of dualities. The night before dawn. In some late Medieval art, the moon is often partially or fully personified and can be seen mourning Christ’s death, which may be related to the idea of the man on the moon. The idea of the moon with a human face also was highly popular during the Renaissance Period.


 

As always be sure to check out our live discussion on this very topic over on YouTube:


 
References
  • Barbier, L. (2021). Tarot and divination cards: A visual archive. Cernunnos, 2021.

  • Butler, B. Dictionary of the Tarot. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

  • Chang, T. Susan. Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers. Llewellyn Pulbications, 2018.

  • Crowley, Aleister (aleister Crowley). Book of Thoth - (Egyptian Tarot). Red Wheel/Weiser, 2017.

  • Dean, Liz. The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: a Beginners Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot. Fair Winds Press, 2015.

  • Decker, Ronald; Dummett, Michael. A History of the Occult Tarot. London: Duckworth, 2019.

  • Fiebig, Johannes, and Evelin Burger. The Ultimate Guide to the Rider Waite Tarot. Llewellyn, 2013.

  • Katz, Marcus. Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot: the True Story of the Worlds Most Popular Tarot: with Previously Unseen Photography & Text from Waite & Smith. Llewellyn Publications, 2015.

  • Kelly, Henry Ansgar, Satan: A Biography, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

  • Place, R. M. The fool's journey: The history, art, & symbolism of the tarot. York, 2010.

  • Waite, A. E. Pictorial Key to the Tarot. Dover Publications Inc, 2005.

  • Wen, Benebell. Holistic Tarot. North Atlantic Books, 2015.

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