The name Astarte was variously identified with the moon, as distinguished from the sun, or with air and water, as opposed in their qualities to fire. The name of this goddess represented to the worshipper the great female parent of all animated things, variously conceived of as the moon, the earth, the watery element, primeval night, the eldest of the destinies.
– John Kenrick, (Phœnicia, 1855)
Even a collection of standard keywords/phrases is hardly sufficient to cover the range of human experience that the astrological moon entails. In the usual roll call of attributes found in astrology texts we have emotions and moods, the instincts, subconscious feelings and reactions, intuition, passivity and reflectiveness, our inherent sense of security, childhood conditioning, nurture, the past and one’s roots. Along with Venus, the moon on a male chart broadly symbolises his ‘feminine’ side; on a female chart her sense of her own femininity and the kind of mother she will make.
It even says something about our eating habits, since emotional survival is so often translated into a physical ‘need’ – witness the phenomenon of ‘comfort eating’ where people fill their stomachs with food when depressed or feeling low. (When one is in high spirits and feeling good, this doesn’t occur.) The stomach, of course, is a part of the body ‘ruled’ by Cancer, the moon’s associated sign. Here, however, I’m going to focus on only one major facet of this deceptively simple planet – the spectrum of psychological needs in a human life. For on a birth chart the moon represents that emotional landing place, that symbolic cocoon, where we can feel secure and comfortable on the journey through life.
The American astrologer Debbi Kempton Smith succinctly described the moon as the ‘things you cannot live without’. Apropos of this, Abraham Maslow, in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, presented a Hierarchy of Needs in the Psychological Review. This is often depicted graphically in pyramidal form with the largest, most basic, needs at the surface and the ‘higher’ needs (like self-actualization and self-transcendence) at the apex. Physiological needs come first – being the main requirements for physical survival, like fresh air, clean water and food plus a supportive and protective environment: clothing and shelter. Then, following on from this latter, comes Safety needs, which might entail personal and monetary security, a sense of health and well-being. However, the next category in the pyramid is Self-Esteem needs, an emotionally based dimension: the need to ward off fear, sadness, loneliness, and the eternal seeking of human happiness and fulfilment.
We need not look any higher to see that these are universal needs – the impulse towards a basic sense of security, whether physical or emotional. We all require a sense of groundedness where our feelings are concerned, a kind of container or anchor that contributes to emotional stability. In short, they are the things humans cannot get by without. Needs are what drive us, they’re what we have gotten used to, they are automatic, instinctive, the remnants or our childhood. Up until the age of about seven (the first Saturn square, incidentally) our emotional habits were being formed. And this doesn’t change much once we have attained adulthood. Of course, all of this began with our experience of Mother.
In astrology, this ‘mothering’, nurturing aspect is crucial to understanding the moon on a chart. She symbolises our experience of being cared and provided for by a force greater than ourselves. Nothing in our lives will ever be quite so powerful for us as those all imposing figures when we were infants: our parents. Here is what Eric von Neumann had to say in his seminal work The Great Mother:
‘Early man, like the child, perceives the world ‘mythologically’. That is, he experiences the world predominantly by forming archetypal images that he projects upon it. The child, for example, first experiences in his mother the archetype of the Great Mother, that is, the reality of an all powerful numinous woman on whom he is dependent in all things, and not the objective reality of his personal mother.’ ¹
Like the Great Mother, the astrological moon relates to that aspect of human nature which is receptive, instinctual, emotionally responsive and – again – needful. As Neumann indicates, in the past we have projected this need collectively on to the old Feminine deities of Myth, who embodied for us the mysterious power of procreation in nature, in symbols like the Great Womb, or Cosmic Egg and in the idea of the Matrix, the ‘receptacle’ in which an entity must grow and develop. From ‘matrix’ we derive the word ‘matter’, and finally, mother. Ancient pagan myth has lots to say about the awesome all consuming power of the Feminine, of the Great Mother Goddess.
Primitive societies, before they revered the precocious sky gods of Olympus and the boisterous idols of the Roman Empire, paid their respects to the Goddess (as evinced by ancient – pre-2500- Minoan and Balkan pottery). For these ancient farming peoples, the Goddess was present everywhere: her ‘breasts’ were the hills and mounds of the landscape; naturally formed caves and cavities her ‘vagina’, places of darkness, mystery and power.
Though her powers seemed to be diminished at the dawn of the Greco-Roman era (from c. 500 BC) when the sky gods of Olympus prevailed, the Mother archetype, the pagan matriarch (e.g. in Babylonian and Egyptian myth) had been an awesome things to behold. (She even resurfaced in Christian myth as Mother Mary and various in Celtic Christian Saints.) The theme of Mother Nature as primal goddess is evinced in an English herbal of the twelfth century (whose origins surely must have been earlier):
‘Earth, divine goddess, Mother Nature, who dost generate all things and bringest forth ever anew the sun which thou hast given to the nations… Thou indeed art rightly named Great Mother of the Gods; victory is in thy Divine name.’²
In the Greek tales the original Mother Nature was Gaia, the Earth who begat herself out of the primeval chaos and, in time, all of life was created from her all-embracing, all-powerful, fecund womb. (This Universal Feminine principle has inspired James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, where the earth always works to achieve and maintain a self regulated ecosystem of harmony, wholeness and balance.) As Mother Nature, then, Gaia is a force for healing, nurture and sustenance. The key is that everything on this planet is dependent on her. Again, the theme of basic archetypal needs surfaces.
And so, the moon is a planet ‘ruling’ all of those ‘feminine’ forces in the Universe which were once thought to be utterly magical – simply because they are so very ‘natural’ and instinctive. Though immensely powerful, often they occur in secret, hidden from view: we might cite as examples, human gestation in the womb prior to childbirth, the strange process of metamorphosis (such as caterpillar to butterfly) and even a child’s milk teeth that are replaced by ‘adult’ versions (at the ‘correct’ time). Even the body’s capacity for self-healing, a phenomenon usually taken for granted, is one of nature’s true wonders. I chose these examples since – despite our 21st century intellects – they are still genuine mysteries. Orthodox science can describe what happens during these recondite processes, but has no satisfactory explanation for them (without recourse to the ‘supernatural’ – which it has, of course, discarded.) Instead, we invoke a very old archetype: it’s Mother Nature, we say.
The power of the Feminine and it s resonances in myth is beautifully expressed by the nineteenth century cultural anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen.
‘The female is primary, the male is only what comes out of her. He is part of the visible but ever-changing created world; he exists only in perishable form. Woman exists from everlasting, self-subsistent, immutable; man, evolving, is subject to continual decay … When a man is born of woman’s womb, the mother herself marvels at the new apparition. For she recognizes in the form of her son, the very image of that fecundating power to which she owes her motherhood. Her eyes linger with delight upon his limbs. Man becomes her plaything, the goat is her mount, the phallus her constant companion. Cybele the Mother overshadows Attis, Virbius is dwarfed by Diana, Phaeton by Aphrodite. Everywhere the material, feminine, natural principle has the advantage; it takes the masculine principle, which is secondary and subsists only in perishable form as an ever-changing epiphenomenon, into its lap, as Demeter took the cista.’
The Moon on the chart
It is hardly surprising, then, that the moon points to the personal mother when we look at a natal chart. The astrologer can often gain a great deal of archetypal data about the client just knowing their moon sign – it is how the person, in their own idiosyncratic way, has experienced the whole business of being nurtured, all the way back to infancy. The late Donna Cunningham, in her An Astrological Guide to Self Awareness (CRCS, 1978) covers this issue with her usual acumen: ‘the moon is the type of parenting you get at the preverbal stage’. Thus, children from the same family with different moon signs will encounter the same mother somewhat differently – in their overall image of her and what she represents. Individuals with Moon in Scorpio, Moon in Pisces, or Moon in Taurus will see mother rather differently – even if they’re all siblings.
By way of example, Moon in Scorpio is one of the more complicated placings, and individuals here often feel a sense of wariness and suspicion that comes from not trusting the free flow of emotions, and (by implication) not quite trusting a mother’s love. We may guess that the individual experienced a rather authoritative mother who liked to be in control of those around her, and whose love may have been held back for various reasons. (Many moon in Scorpio individuals do indeed have a ‘tough’ upbringing, or are – at least – shown how to be emotionally self-sufficient early on, and hide their feelings.) This is in contrast, say, to an individual with moon in Pisces, who – depending on the rest of the chart – experiences the ‘flow’ of feeling and affection between mother and child in a more immediate way. This individual (unlike Moon in Scorpio) is probably never censured about being ‘too emotional’ – indeed, is encouraged in the direction of natural sensitivity, imagination, intuition, fantasy, but also empathy and charitableness. This is because – for them – their mother also possessed these attributes!
1. Eric Neumann, The Great Mother, Bollingen Foundation/Princeton University Press, 1963
2. Quoted in Witchcraft: A Mystery Tradition, Raven Grimassi, Llewellyn Publications, 2004
3. Bachofen, Urreligion und antike Symbole, Vol. 11, p. 309