The Myth in the Moon with Evans Lansing Smith
The moon waxes, wanes, and has a dark side. She reflects fullness and famine. She is associated with wisdom and lunacy, with life, death, and rebirth. Her gravitational pull moves our imaginations as well as our oceans. Literary scholar, Evans Lansing Smith, has had a lifelong fascination with archetypes in myths, and traces their influence from the literature and imagery of the ancient world to the Space Age and beyond. His books include The Hero Journey in Literature: Parables of Poesis and The Complete Idiot's Guide to World Mythology. We caught up with Mr. Smith at his office in Carpinteria, California, where he teaches Mythological Studies at Pacifica.
conduit: You have written extensively on the archetypal underworld journey in myth and legend. How does the moon figure into these stories?
evans lansing smith: The moon is central to mythologies of the ancient world. The Sumerian descent of Inanna to the underworld (c. 2000 BCE), for example, is initiated by the death of her sister's husband Gugalanna, who is the moon-bull. Inanna descends through the seven gates to attend the funeral rite. There she encounters her sister, Ereshkigal, who is about to give birth. Inanna thought she was going down for a funeral, yet it turned into an image of rebirth. Later Inanna is hung up on a peg for three days and three nights before creatures sent by her maternal grandfather release her, sprinkle the bread and water of life on her, and bring her back.
The lunar business there has to do with the cycles of the moon and its connection to death and rebirth. Particularly important to the mythologies of the ancient world was this idea of the three days and three nights, almost always associated with the three dark nights between the old and new moons and a symbol of death and resurrection.
conduit: This is the kind of thing that so interested Joseph Campbell.
smith: Campbell would often bring up the reversal of the genders in ancient mythology. The moon was sometimes conceived of as masculine, as with the lunar bull in the Sumerian material, and the sun was female, depicted as a lion. The image was of the lion pouncing on the bull and devouring it every month. From her womb the moon is reborn. This reversal of the genders is preserved in German language where the moon is masculine and the sun feminine.
conduit: Campbell also spoke of bullfighting as a ritual remembrance of this overcoming of the masculine moon-bull by the feminine sun-lion.
smith: Particularly in relation to the labyrinth dances associated with the Minotaur on Crete in the Minoan world where you had the bull-dance, in which they performed this acrobatic feat of jumping between the horns of the bull and somersaulting over the back of it. There is a fresco of it in the Palace of Knossos. In Egypt, Isis, sister-wife of Osiris, the dying and rising god associated with the sun, is typically depicted with a crown containing the horns of the crescent moon, and that image remained associated with her all the way up to Apuleius and The Golden Ass, where, in Book 11, Lucius falls asleep with the full moon rising over the sea and dreams of Isis in a beautiful gown that displays the heavens. So it is a rich image in pretty much all ancient mythologies.