Easily one of the oldest symbols known to human beings is the crescent, and with any symbol that widely known it has as many meanings as it has uses. It is today nearly universally recognized as being the moon, sometimes called a lune or lunula, and almost as broadly, especially in the early days of civilization, as the symbol of peace, unity and creative power, called most often by countless goddess names. It remains in well known use in this respect in at least a few places today – such as the crescent beneath the feet of Mexico’s Virgin of Gaudalupe, and the one appearing at the top of numerous mosques and flags of Islamic cultures. Across the sea in China, the goddess of compassion Quan Yin reclines in her arch listening to the troubles of the world. What is interesting is that in these cases, the crescent’s appearance is not a part of the religion’s formal imagery, but a continuation of their already widespread use, a semiosis of meaning that extends to the earliest human artifacts.
The crescent is a primal symbol of choice for the divine feminine at times, worn especially by women in cultures across the world. It is a symbol of the waxing or waning moon, which is considered in most cultures to be a goddess. It changes shape each day as it arcs across the sky, as though continually swelling with pregnancy, and seems to dance with the third brightest object in the sky, the planet Venus. A little noted part of its mystery today, is that whenever the moon grows close to Venus, it happens to appear as a crescent, as though reaching out to embrace it, and whenever the moon is full, it is far away from Venus in the sky. This relationship, a matter of speed and orbits, must have been baffling to witness month after month, and is the reason the crescent and star have been associated with each other since before written history.
The crescent or arc could be said to appear in other places; the outline of every leaf of a plant can be said to include a crescent. It might resemble two arms reaching out, or the arc of a boat’s hull. Of course, during the fertile wet season, a perfectly familiar crescent radiant with color makes what we call a rainbow across the horizon. Flipped over, just like the moon’s crescent does every month from wax to wane, it is shaped like a basket for winnowing grain, or fishing, serving bread or carrying a child. And in true semiosis fashion the crescent and the arch are related in architecture and play such a strong role in stonework. The curved line can present itself as the vault of the sky, the section of a dome, the spread of a canopy. The crescent is easily translated (or hidden, consciously or unconsciously) with the graceful mark of a curving line.
While speculation towards the origins of symbols can only ever get us so far, which is to say origins are of little use in studying signs, it is fair to say that three marks have been used around the world, scratched into stone and mud, since before history, because they easily present the three most apparent mysteries of the sky: the star, the crescent, and the circle. The star symbol – usually four, five, or six pointed – has long been used to describe the dots of light that fill the night sky, whole fields of them laid out on the earliest pottery, exactly the way you see them playing upon the lenses of squinted or watery eyes. The crescent describes the moon, and essentially time itself, thanks to its fabulous ability to predictably, reliably change shape through time, waxing and waning its way through 12 months (moon-ths) a year, serving the earliest people as the first calendar. The vital counting of the moon’s calendar was essential for the beginning of human life as farmers, especially in difficult climates where a late planting could mean a year’s supply of food destroyed by the cold season. The circle or wheel of course describes the circular sun, which does not ever change its shape but day in, day out, zips across the sky, so radiant it can’t be looked at directly.
In ancient Byzantium, we find a proliferation of jewels that defined temple fashion for women, the temple pendants, crescent shaped weights that were worn to secure scarves that covered their heads to enter sacred precincts, and were a particularly elaborate and visible way to show off wealth. These go deep into Mediterranean culture, and their use persists in the form of North African Tuareg veil weights today.
To the far northeast in wealthy Viking Kiev, where jewels were becaming virtually indistinguishable from the Byzantine fashion by the 11th century, we find every shape of crescent imaginable strung together, along with hoards of crescents in the workmanship of Slavs, Scyths, and tribes from distant Siberia.
Another example where the crescent is alive, and a clue to its meaning of old, is in the surviving Celtic tribes of farthest Ireland, who managed to revive its use through the Claddagh, a symbol of friendship, loyalty, and a common choice for a wedding band.
In India where rich textual sources remain alongside the symbolism, the chandra bindu, or the crescent and dot, appear together as part of the famous Aum symbol, and in a breath we can say this symbol represents the mystery of creation. In context it is a polyseme, or a sign with multiple related meanings, as numerous as the writers or the time.
In the next part of this article, I move to a semiotic discussion of the crescent’s close relative, the double crescent, the triple symbol, the tree of life and the triratna, as some of the earliest symbols of the goddess of creation.
In the third part, I will discuss further crescent relatives: the trident, the twin snakes, and other creation related uses of the symbol.
As a side note, to reward you for reading this far: Whoever invented the Miller High Life logo (very first image) was a pretty informed cat. While the world at large figures it was just another logo, a creative coup, it was in fact a bit of culture jamming. The whole package – the whip under her arm that suggests lion taming, the witchy hat, the elaborate but cheery costume sporting hearts (all these have been removed over the years), suggests A.C. Paul, the Miller advertising manager in 1907, knew (and admired) his goddess lore. According to the legend, he was lost in the woods and had a vision that became the logo. Mighty clever Mr. Paul.