Endymion: The Man Who Loved the Moon
The legend of Endymion in Greek mythology is a complicated and sometimes confusing one.
This is, in large part, because no complete narrative of the myth exists. The story as we know it today is reconstructed from fragmentary texts and brief mentions.
The confusion is also due to the fact that the story was likely pieced together in the first place, taking characters and situations from two different traditions and cultures.
Ancient sources do not agree on Endymion’s lineage, his status in the social hierarchy, or even what continent he lived on.
Some stories paint him as a Greek king, others as a shepherd in Asia Minor, and some as one of the first astronomers.
What most stories center around, however, is the love shared between Endymion and the Titan goddess of the moon, Selene.
Despite the many contradictory stories, Endymion is best remembered for being asleep. Because of his love for the moon goddess he was put into an eternal sleep by Zeus so he would remain ageless and beautiful forever.
Whether in Greece or Asia Minor, asleep or dead, the stories of Endymion show just how complicated it can be to get to the heart of Greek mythology.
One of the issues historians face in putting together the story of Endymion is that no complete telling of the myth survives today. The love story between the goddess of the moon and a handsome human is pieced together from many sources.
Those sources, however, often contradict each other.
In some versions, he was the son of Aethlius, the founder king of of the city-state of Elis. Some sources claimed that he was raised by Aethlius but was actually a son of Zeus by the king’s wife.
A few other sources agreed that he ruled in Elis, but said that he had conquered the city himself instead of inheriting the lands from his father. In these stories Elis was named by one of Endymion’s own heirs and the sleeping king of legend was the first of his line there.
Still another myth said he was the child of Zeus and Protogeneia, the daughter of Deucalion.
The differing versions of the story put Endymion in very different places. He was either the king of Elis in the northwestern part of the Greek peninsula, or he lived in Caria, on the western coast of what is now Turkey.
Some scholars suggest that this indicates two separate myths that were eventually conflated with one another. King Endymion of Elis was a Greek character, while his link to Caria points to the incorporation of an Anatolian tale into the Greek mythology.
Such a mixture of religious traditions was common in the ancient world. As Greeks came into contact with foreign cultures like the Carians, they often incorporated specific stories or gods into their existing mythology.
The Carian deity of the moon was a god, not a goddess. In translating one of his myths to a Greek context, a male lover had to be substituted for the supposed maiden of the original Carian myth.
If the Greeks incorporated a foreign legend into their own mythology in this way, they may have simply substituted a woman who was loved by a completely foreign god with an existing legendary king. Endymion, an otherwise minor character of legend, was chosen to create a connection between his descendants and kingdom and a goddess.
In this way, most of the kingdoms and city-states of the ancient world were said to be founded by the children of the gods. This claim added legitimacy to their rule and made many gods into patrons of their descendants’ home regions.
In the process, however, the story became more complicated than the Carian myth.
The Greeks seem to have been aware of this contradiction. Stories of King Endymion sometimes include a rationale for travelling to Caria in an attempt to reconcile the contradictory stories.
What the various stories agree on, however, was that Endymion spent a considerable amount of time beneath the moon. He had an occupation that required him to spend his nights outdoors.
One of the most common reasons given for his sleeping outdoors was that he was working as a shepherd.
This story again conflicts with those that presented Endymion as a king, but explained why he spent so much time under the moon. Shepherds would often spend entire seasons in the hills with their flocks, sleeping beneath the stars or in whatever crude shelter they could manage.
A few stories said that Endymion was a hunter, which would again put him outside at a night.
Endymion was sometimes credited as being the first mortal man to track the movements and cycles of the moon. Although he was a shepherd in the stories that credited him with this discovery, he spent his nights studying the moon instead of sleeping.
What all the stories of Selene and Endymion agreed upon, though, was that he drew the attention of the goddess of the moon as he lay beneath her course. Endymion was an especially handsome man and, paying such close attention to the moon that he learned to chart its cycles, Selene took notice.
The moon goddess fell deeply in love with the handsome young man who she saw beneath her.
Not only was Endymion a handsome man, but a few ancient sources claimed some sort of natural magic drew Selene to him. They mention white wool attracting her, or the effects of nighttime dew on the grass.
Most, however, claimed that Selene was simply drawn by the man’s beauty and the time he spent in her moonlight.
Selene was so enamored of the young man that she left the sky to see him. She walked as quietly as possible to avoid frightening Endymion as he slept.
The later Roman dramatist Seneca painted a picture of the goddess as so overcome with love that she abandoned her duties altogether.
The radiant goddess [Luna-Selene the Moon] of the darksome sky burned with love [for Endymion] and, forsaking the night, gave her gleaming chariot to her brother [Helios the sun] to guide in fashion other than his own. He learned to drive the team of night and to wheel in narrower circuit, while the axle groaned beneath the car’s heavier weight; nor did the nights keep their accustomed length, and with belated dawning came the day.
-Seneca, Phaedra 309 ff (trans. Miller)
The story of Selene and Endymion’s affair was most commonly said to have taken place on Mount Latmus in Caria. Endymion took shelter in a cave there, which was later a shrine to the goddess who loved him.
He is most known, however, for the story of his eternal sleep. The love of the goddess caused him to be put into a magical sleep by Zeus, although the reasons differed.
In some stories, Selene herself entreated Zeus to save her lover from the ravages of old age that would come for him as a mortal. Zeus put Endymion into an eternal sleep so the goddess could see him forever as a beautiful young man.
Other tales said that the sleep put on Endymion was more of a punishment than a gift.
Endymion had distracted Selene from her duties and taken the moon out of the night sky. Zeus had enough sympathy for Selene to not kill Endymion outright, but he put the human man in an eternal sleep on Mount Latmus so Selene would have no further reason to descend to earth at night.
A third version of the story had Endymion himself choose an ageless sleep as opposed to living a mortal life. Even if he were sleeping, he would not be parted from the goddess he loved by death.
The contradictions in Endymion’s story were not limited to where he lived or what his profession was. His descendants were also the subjects of much confusion.
As a king, he was sometimes said to have had a wife other than Selene.
Apollodorus said that he married either a naiad or a human woman named Iphianassa. Pausanias noted in his travelogue that the Greeks gave three different names for Endymion’s mortal wife, although they all agreed on who his children were.
Pausanias was not entirely correct in this, though. There was no consensus over who Endymion’s children were or even how many he had. They included:
- Epeius – One of three sons named by Pausanias, he inherited his father’s throne as king of Elis.
- Aetolus – A brother of Epeius, he was the founder of Aetolia, a mountainous Greek state on the northern coast of the Gulf of Corinth.
- Paeon – The third brother who competed for the throne of Elis, he was so upset at his loss that he traveled as far away as he could. The region of Paeonia in Macedonia was named for him.
- Euycyda – Sometimes called Eurypyle, she became a mistress of Poseidon. Their son Eleius gave his name to his mother’s homeland, Elis.
- Naxos – More often said to be a son of Apollo, he founded the island of the same name.
- Narcissus – Arguably the most famous of Endymion’s supposed children, Narcissus was the beautiful young man who rejected the nymph Echo. His vanity led to his punishment, as he fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and was rooted to the spot as the flower that carried his name.
- Fifty unnamed daughters of Selene.
Like many marginal figures in mythology, Endymion was used to link the stories of the gods to contemporary places and events. His sons became leaders who gave their names to places Greek and Roman readers would have been familiar with.
Greek mythology, of course, was never static. Over the course of centuries, the characters and legends evolved and changed.
Sometimes, gods were even replaced.
Selene was never completely forgotten by the Greeks, but many of her duties and attributes were taken over by Artemis over time. The goddess of the hunt became associated with the moon and lunar cycles.
Often when one god supplanted another in a particular domain, the stories that involved that god were changed to reflect this. The story of Endymion, however, was not so easy to reassign to Artemis.
Artemis was one of the virgin goddesses, and her chastity played a central role in her mythology and worship. While Selene became less important as a moon goddess, the story of her lover could not be given over to a goddess who rejected the company of men.
Thus, even after Selene’s importance declined, the story of Endymion was never attached to Artemis.
The Romans continued this tradition. Their hunter goddess, Diana, was also a virginal deity so the story of Endymion was not attached to her either.
Instead, he was linked to the Roman moon goddess Luna. She was a minor goddess in the Roman pantheon, but the story of Endymion remained as one of her most famous.
The changed in the Renaissance. The figure of sleeping Endymion being visited by a beautiful goddess was a popular one in Renaissance art and the story enjoyed a revival.
Selene and Luna were less well-known goddesses in the Renaissance. Despite her position as a goddess of chastity, Diana was most often shown as the moon goddess in later depictions of the myth.
Scholars debate the nature of Endymion’s ageless eternal sleep.
Some of the myths of Endymion’s end do not include his ageless place on Mount Latmus at all.
In at least one tale of Endymion as a Greek king, he died as all mortals do.
Zeus, however, allowed the king to know that his time of death was drawing near. Endymion held games between his sons, or in some accounts sent them to compete in the Olympic Games, to determine which of them would inherit his throne.
Epeis was the victor and became king of Elis. After the races, Endymion died and was entombed by the starting line of the Olympic racecourse.
That some Greek stories have Endymion dying and being buried gives further credence to the idea that his story and that of the young man loved by the moon goddess were originally two separate tales.
But in the most common stories, the ones in which he chooses or is placed under an eternal slumber, it can still be argued that he did not truly continue to live.
The deep, uninterrupted sleep of Endymion could be interpreted as a poetic form of death. His body did not decompose, but he was also eternally young and ceased to experience anything in life.
In later years the story became more fully realized as that of a magical sleep. This was in part to avoid any negative connotations to the goddess’s continued love for him and the fact that, according to some legends, she bore fifty daughters by the sleeping man.
Because there is no text that tells the complete story of Endymion, his story has been pieced together from multiple sources. These often complicate and contradict one another.
In some tales Endymion was a Greek king who lived a mortal life. The most popular stories of Endymion, however, involve his love of the goddess of the moon, Selene.
Whether as a king, a shepherd, or a hunter, Endymion was outside at night often enough to attract the goddess’s attention. She fell deeply in love with him, so much so that she neglected her duties as the moon goddess.
Some claimed Endymion was the first man to chart the moon’s movements and cycles, making him one of the fathers of a field of astronomy.
Love between an immortal deity and a short-lived human always led to heartbreak, however. Whether to spare the lovers that pain or to keep Selene from distraction, Zeus put Endymion into an eternal, ageless sleep.
The image of the handsome young man sleeping in a mountain cave became a popular one in art and literature. Whether as Selene, the Roman Luna, or the huntress Diana, the goddess who loved him was shown as eternally devoted to her sleeping paramour.