(The Moon card was the first card I created for the Gaian Tarot, back in 2001. After I finished it, I wrote this essay, which turned out to be too long for the Gaian Tarot companion book. But it's a pretty juicy article about moon lore, and I think you'll like it. It was first published in Issue 57 of SageWoman as “Our Sister Moon,” Spring 2002.)
La Luna Bella! Who among us does not catch our breath in awe and pleasure at our first sight of the moon in an indigo night sky? We may see her as a new, thin crescent setting in the west just after sunset, or in all her glorious fullness as she rises over eastern mountains, or as a waning thumbnail glimpsed in the early hours before dawn.
For the Moon is constantly changing, and She is utterly faithful in Her changes.
She stirs even the uninitiated. “What a wonderful night for a moondance!” we sing, or “I’m being followed by a moonshadow . . .” We say someone is moonstruck when they behave wildly under a full moon. It's the fault of “that old devil moon,” some may say with a shake of the head. But for those of us who have loved her and studied her ways, she embodies profound mysteries of life, death and regeneration.
In this card, we see a priestess invoking the energies of the full moon, while all around her spiral the eight lunar phases. As the moon waxes, it moves from the seed of the Dark/New Moon (invisible to the eye) to the sprout of the waxing Crescent to the rooted growth of the First Quarter to the budding of the Gibbous Moon. It climaxes in the flowering of the Full, then begins its waning. It cycles through the fruit of the Disseminating Moon to the harvest of the Last Quarter to the compost of the Balsamic Moon, where the seed is planted and nurtured in the darkness. We ride the tides of growth, fullness and release as the cycle begins again.1
This pattern is repeated in a woman’s body every month in her menstrual cycle, as well as in the stages of human life: childhood, youth, maturity and old age. We see it again in the cycles of earth and sun as the seasons wax to fullness at Summer Solstice and wane to rebirth at Winter Solstice (for those who live in the northern hemisphere). The ancients saw this cycle as a model for the Underworld initiation of descent and return as seen in the stories of Persephone and Inanna.
Our moon priestess is a young, vibrant crone who has already experienced most of the moon’s phases during her lifetime and now carries the “wise blood within” as a post-menopausal wise woman. She is entranced by her inner focus as she lets the energy of the moonlight wash over her and fill her psyche. At home both in daylight, solar consciousness and in the half-light of unconsciousness, she bridges the worlds of rationality and instinct.
Moonlight floods the waters of the ocean — that great symbol of the unconscious, where our deepest fears and desires reside. The moon rules the tides of the sea just as it rules the waters of our bodies and of our emotions.
Behind the priestess we see the Paleolithic relief of the Great Goddess of Laussel, who was carved some 20,000 years ago above the entrance to a cave in France. With one hand the Lady of Laussel points to her belly (hidden behind the priestess’s head) and with the other, she holds aloft a crescent-shaped horn incised with thirteen notches, the number of lunations in a solar year.
Archeologists speculate that this image represents the first calendar, created by women who noticed the correlation between their bleeding cycles and the cycle of the moon, which both last approximately 29 days.2
Pilgrims who entered the cave protected by the Great Goddess of Laussel may have entered the darkness for rituals of rebirth. In this image we see a whirlpool instead of the entrance to a cave. It pulls us into a descent to the unconscious, the place where dreams, symbol, myth and shadows rule.
As we descend into those depths, we may find ourselves confronting our deepest fears as symbolized by the wild animals in this image. We may find the hairs on the back of our necks standing up as we hear the primal sound of a wolf howling at the moon. Or our hearts may start beating wildly as a screech-owl suddenly swoops by on its night hunt, brushing our cheeks with its wings. The terrors of the night are upon us. But with Wolf and Owl as our allies, we can confront our own Shadow — the unlovely parts of ourselves we wish to hide and deny, the places of deepest pain, anger, grief, shame and even madness.
Yet Owl and Wolf and other denizens of the night hold more for us than pain and fear. They also symbolize our instinctual, “wildish” nature without which we live dead, inauthentic lives. In her classic book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells us that La Loba — Wolf Woman — is the keeper of our soul. “Without her, we lose our shape.” she writes. “Without an open supply to her, humans are said to be soulless or damned souls. . . She is the soul-maker, the wolf-raiser, the keeper of things wild.” 3
If the gift of Wolf is to keep us wild and connected to our creative source, the gift of Owl is night-vision, the ability to find our way fearlessly through the dark.
The challenge we face as we explore the moonlit, non-rational realm is to face our fears and to integrate them, rather than to lose ourselves in fantasy, hysteria or paranoia.
At the deepest point in our Underworld journey we will experience a “dark night of the soul.” Then we turn and begin the climb back out of the depths. At this point, Kore becomes Persephone and Inanna adds the title “Queen of the Underworld” to her previously held title, Queen of Heaven and Earth. The change in name or title indicates the hard-won wisdom gained by immersion in the Underworld.
In Tarot tradition a crayfish is often seen in the Moon card, half in the water and half out, and is said to symbolize the deepest instinctual fears known to humankind. 4 In our image we see instead the Salmon of Wisdom, one of the oldest animals in Celtic tradition. In some stories, Salmon lives in a well at the bottom of the sea. Celtic storyteller Mara Freeman tells us that he “is a creature who brings the wisdom of the Underworld into our own, a messenger of two worlds.” 5 Here he leaps out of the water to guide us on our journey home.
The shimmering moonlight on the water creates a pathway that leads us between the two hills of an island on the horizon (a reference to the path that leads between the two towers of Tarot tradition). When we walk by moonlight, we trust our intuition and instincts rather than our rational minds.
As we leave the Underworld, we walk through the portal between two hills (sometimes perceived to be the breasts of Gaia) to the paradise of the Blessed Isle. We are ready for the next stage of our journey, as the Dark Moon gives way to the New.
When you get the Moon card in a reading, you know it’s time to raise your lunar consciousness! If you have lived your life unaware of the phases of the moon, now is the time to change. Begin to track the movement of moon in the night sky where you live. Where does she rise and where does she set on the horizon, and at what times of the day and night? Which phase is she in tonight? Think of ways to honor her when you see her — sing songs to her, offer her a bowl of crystal water, open your heart and soul to her.
You may want to start using a lunar calendar to track your own activities alongside the cycles of the moon. You could study astrology to learn how your natal moon sign reveals so much about your basic emotional response to life. You can learn where each New Moon falls in your astrological chart, with its opportunities for growth each month. When the moon moves through the same phase it was in when you were born, it is called your “lunar birthday” and is a potent time of creative power for you.
As you look at the Moon card, which lunar phase draws your eye? Which phase relates to your current situation? Have you just begun a new relationship, or are you thinking of leaving your job? The eight-fold cycle of transformation is a model for any life cycle, whether it be a relationship, a job or a creative project. Knowing your place in this cycle can help put your current issues in perspective.
Receiving the Moon card in a reading can also mean that you are opening up to psychic realms and are learning to trust your intuition. Messages from the Otherworld — in dreams, in the whisper of falling leaves, or the rattle of stones falling on the shore — have always surrounded you, but now you find that you can understand their meanings. You may want to keep a dream journal or study the arts of divination and of magic. Learn to make fetishes, talismans and medicine bundles. (Go on instinct — don’t think about it too hard!) And do not neglect the reading and the telling of your favorite stories. Tell them by heart. As you open up to the gifts of the Moon, you become “fluent in the language of dreams, passion and poetry.” 6
When the Moon turns up in a reading, it can also mean a difficult emotional journey is at hand. It may be a call to embrace your own shadow, for it is only when we love the most unlovable parts of ourselves that we can truly heal. Take comfort in knowing that at your core, you have the courage to descend to the depths and return again. You will be utterly changed by the experience and will perhaps bear a new name.
What are the gifts of the animal allies of this card? Wolf entices us to get down on all fours, to swish our tails in the brisk night air and to howl up at that luminous moon. Gather with a circle of friends next full moon, drum her up as she rises and let out a howl! Never mind what the neighbors think — you are cutting loose and peeling back the layers of your daytime, overdomesticated self. Remember that your connection to the wild is your birthright and your salvation.
Owl is our companion as we learn to navigate by our feelings, instinct and intuition. Take a walk under a moonless night sky. Close your eyes and open up your other senses. What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you feel? What do you taste? Now open your eyes wide, like Owl’s, and keep them focused on one spot as you notice all that you can see in your entire field of vision. This wilderness awareness exercise opens us up to the many wonders of the nighttime world that we normally miss. 7 It also opens up our third eye, as we learn to move out of our minds and into the instincts of our bodies.
Salmon is sacred both to the Celtic peoples and to the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest. The life cycle of the salmon echoes the cycle of the moon. They leave the pool in the forest stream where they were born and migrate towards the ocean. When they are fully grown they travel back upstream (often against great odds like waterfalls, fishermen, bears and dams), usually to the same pool where they hatched. There they spawn, creating new life before they die, and the cycle begins again. We look to Salmon for the gifts of courage and generosity, and the knowledge of the cyclical nature of life. From Celtic tradition, we learn that Salmon is the source of wisdom and poetic inspiration. Today in North America, wild salmon are endangered. Do what you can to help them survive, whether by restoring habitat or conserving water and electricity in your own home. Yes, this too will raise your lunar consciousness!
The Moon speaks to us in the language of dream, of puzzle, of poetry, of mystery. Not for her the blunt outspokenness of the Sun; no, she makes us work a bit harder to learn her secrets. We must woo her to find the key to her heart.
1. Demetra George, Mysteries of the Dark Moon, HarperSanFrancisco 1992, pg 11.
2. Hallie Iglehart Austen, The Heart of the Goddess, Berkeley, CA: Wingbow Press 1990, pg 6.
3. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run With the Wolves, NY: Ballantine Books 1992, pg 36.
4. Rachel Pollack, Seventy-Eight Degrees of Wisdom, Pt 1: The Major Arcana, San Francisco: Aquarian/Thorsons 1980, pg. 115.
5. Mara Freeman, Kindling the Celtic Spirit, HarperSanFrancisco 2000, pg 97.
6. Estes, pg 13.
7. Chris Chisholm, Wolf Journey: Skills & Stories for the Naturalist Pt 1, Bellingham WA: Wolf School of Natural Science, pg. 48
©2001 Joanna Powell Colbert. All rights reserved. First published in SageWoman Issue 57 “Our Sister Moon,” Spring 2002.