By Nurgül Çelebi Director of Projects and Programs at Institut Mesopotamie de Bruxelles
Throughout history, the moon, like the sun, has been used as an important symbol by most cultures and civilizations. Both in Assyrian and Babylonian myths, the moon appears as a symbol of the god Sin and is even depicted with a lunar halo or a crescent-shaped moon around the head of the god Sin on many tablets or cylindrical seals. Thanks to Sumerian cuneiform tablets, the first surviving written sources, we can trace the origin of this god to Nanna or Suen as this god was worshiped in Sumer. From these cuneiform sources, we understand that this god is hermaphrodite. However, because it generally symbolizes fertile and abundance, we come across a symbol of the moon with feminine energy.
In ancient agricultural societies, the position of the moon and its effect on the waters is very important, because their food supply and livelihood depended on the availability of water. These early husbandry societies followed the tides and floods, caused by the different positions of the moon. The fertility of the soil was directly related to the moon and thus directly related to the god Sin. This situation elevated the belief in the moon god to an important level in Mesopotamia and also in neighboring lands. It is known that the moon cult was very important especially in Harran (Urfa/Urhoy) where it was the center of pilgrimage for the god Sin. In this regard, the human images in the monumental tombs in Soğmatar, the reliefs of the god Sin, and some Aramaic inscriptions are very important. These images show us how widespread the cult of Sin was in this region and that his name was frequently used in most tomb monuments or treaty texts.
The image of the moon, bigger and brighter than the other stars in a night sky, increased the importance attributed to the god Sin. The changing appearance of the moon over the 30-day period has been associated with the human life process: the stages of birth, life, maturity and old age and, in the end, death are imagined. Beyond that, the appearance of the moon, reminiscent of a belly that bulges day by day, strengthens the idea that the moon reflects the phases of pregnancy.
This continuous process has also suggested rebirth and reincarnation. It is possible to see the moon god associated with a bull. The two horns of the bull are depicted in the form of a crescent pointing towards the sky. Although the bull is not feminine, it was thought to represent feminine energy in most Mesopotamian beliefs.
The duality between the moon and the sun
The symbol of the moon often appears together with the sun symbol because there is task-sharing, a division of duties between the sun and the moon gods. In almost all of the Mesopotamian myths, the sun god is positioned as the child of the moon god. The appearance of the sun in the sky with the setting moon at dawn created the idea that the moon gave birth to it. We often come across the moon god and its symbol in the myths of the Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian civilizations, starting at the times of Sumer. As it is understood, the sun and the moon have a similar father-son relationship in most Mesopotamian civilizations and there is a duality structure between them.
The moon in the monotheistic religions
It is worth noting that the moon god also had an important role in the cults of the neighboring civilizations of Greece, Hittite and Mitanni and Canaan. In most of these civilizations, the moon god or goddess rules the underworld. The belief that it organizes the afterlife of people and takes on the task of judging them together with the sun god is dominant.
The monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all three originating in the Middle East, are the religions in which the moon symbol too manifests itself. There are many passages in the Old Testament that state that worshipping the moon, called ‘Yareah’, is prohibited (2 Kings 23:5, Deut. 4:9). In Christianity, we come across the association of the moon with the Virgin Mary as a luminous symbol. Here, the moon goddess, as a symbol of fertility and abundance, directly resembled the Virgin Mary. The white rose, which we often encounter as a symbol of the moon goddess, is also associated with the Virgin Mary. In some icons, we can observe that the Virgin Mary is depicted with a luminous halo around her head. In Islam, the crescent moon symbolizes happiness, joy and resurrection (The similarity between the name of the moon god Sin and the Surah Ya-sin is worth examining carefully).
It is also possible to find information in Islamic sources about the Sabians, who were known to have lived in Urfa (Urhoy) in the eleventh century and worshipped the moon god Sin. The belief of the Sabians, who ascribed holiness to the light, the moon god is very important in terms of giving us information about the last periods of the Sin cult.
The moon symbol in esotericism
It is possible to state that the moon symbol is used in every area where abundance, fertility, and illumination of darkness are emphasized. Just like the sun, the moon appears on flags, pennants and logos. It is for example known that the phases of the moon are frequently used as a symbol or image by Wicca groups. However, it is noteworthy that the crescent and full moon phases are used more frequently. This is situation probably be related to the lunar eclipse periods. Because, at times corresponding to lunar eclipse periods, it is seen that the phases of the moon with various symbols are drawn on the materials used in various Wicca rituals. The probable reason for this is hidden in ancient Mesopotamia. According to ancient beliefs, lunar eclipse and full moon periods were seen as periods when some energies were released. Especially during the full moon, the idea was widespread that the border between the underworld and the sky disappeared, and that some demonic beings were revealed. In such periods when such energies can easily circulate on earth, it is usual for some groups who want to manage these energies and benefit from their mystical powers to use the symbols of the moon goddess or god in rituals. The symbols of the Mesopotamian moon gods can also be seen in tarot cards and some teachings of theosophists.
May the moon always be the light in our darkness and nourish enlightened minds, stay in balance!
Nurgül Çelebi was born in 1985 in Istanbul. She holds a master’s degree from the Syriac Language and Culture Department at Mardin Artuklu University with her thesis on Sun and Moon Symbolism in Syriac literature. She continues her Ph.D. program in the history of religions at Ankara University with her thesis on “Sin-Shamash Duality and Its Reflection on Religions”. She is currently continuing her second Ph.D. in the Assyrian History doctorate program at ELTE University in Budapest.
Nurgül Çelebi works on Mesopotamian beliefs and mythologies and published papers on these subjects. In addition to academic studies, she has published three novels in Turkish: “Yarına Dokunmak“, “Aşka Dokunmak”, and “Tanrı Dağı”. Her stories have appeared in five anthologies: “Karanlıktaki Kadınlar”, “Hayalet Müzik”, “Eskilerin Şöleni”, “Dark Antoloji Birinci Kitap”, and “Dark Antoloji İkinci Kitap”.