Musings on The Moon Card

allegoryofinconstancyAbrahamJanssens1617We go through phases of favourite cards, but there is always one that anchors us to the tarot; the card we identify with, the card whose various facets – whether upright or reversed – speak to us on any given day at any given time. There is something about the Moon card in the tarot which never fails to pulls me in, as indeed it should because that is what moons do; pull us in and subject us to tides, to cycles and rhythms. And it is nothing to do with my zodiac sign. Moons captivate (in a way that Temperance never can) and have done throughout history. So for all the talk of lunacy, there is some comfort in life to be found in the rhythms and cycles. Then there is the crayfish. What exactly is it doing there, between watch towers, between howling dogs? I’ve heard all the explanations – hard outside, soft ego inside – but still something is found wanting. I also remember reading years ago about how the crayfish moves between land and water – as we ourselves shift between states of consciousness. Then today, quite unexpectedly, I came across the above painting, An Allegory of Inconstancy (1617) by the Flemish artist Abraham Janssens, which gave me a tarot flash across the centuries. How strange to see the figure holding a moon in one hand, a crayfish in the other. How very tarot. So the crayfish must, by extension, be a symbol of fickleness and whim. It makes sense. In César Rippa’s description of inconstancy in Iconologia, he refers to the crab (not crayfish) as “an animal that walks forwards and backwards with the same inclination as those who are irresolute and love contemplation.” So do Crayfish walk backwards like crabs?


All this made me reflect on how I have seen card meanings and symbology change over the last few decades. I think of meanings I used to see in books in the 1970s, (like “false friends” for the Moon), meanings you don’t hear mentioned much nowadays. Plus the moon itself has been hijacked somewhat as a feminine force in contemporary tarot decks and I see it drifting increasingly, permanently in that direction. The fact that the figure in this allegorical painting is female is probably an extension of the age-old stereotype that women are fickle and inconstant and therefore not to be trusted with important things like politics and landowning. So maybe we should question the moon’s traditionally feminine qualities. There might be a little bit of misogyny in there somewhere. We should also remember that in some cultures, the sun is in fact feminine and the moon is masculine. In the Aryan of India, in Ancient Egyptian, Arabian, Slavonian, Latin, Lithuanian, Gothic, Teutonic, Swedish and the South American cultures, the moon was a male deity. In the English language, influenced by classical models, the moon has become more feminine so we have come to accept this as one of its chief symbolic characteristics. But it wasn’t always like this. In a Serbian song we hear a girl exclaim “O brilliant sun! I am fairer than thou, than thy brother, the bright moon” In a Slav song, we hear “‘My mother is the beauteous Sun, and my father the bright Moon.” But the moon has become associated with femininity in more modern times (and decks) perhaps because of its 28 day cycles. Whatever the reason, this painting by Abraham Janssens made me stop in my tracks and reflect a little more on the symbolism of the Moon card, how almost every Moon card from the historic decks, up to and including the Rider Waite Smith deck, has a crayfish prominantly displayed. The Vacchetta (an exception) doesn’t and has the Sun as Apollo and the Moon as Diana. The Cosmic crayfish (see below, together with The 1jj Swiss on the right and the Lasenikův on the left) is one of my favourites – the crayfish to end all crayfish. Never has a more Jurassic crayfish risen to the Moon’s spellbinding charms.


But the crayfish in the Janssens’ painting is intriguing – who is this figure sitting on billowing “inconstant” drapery (that holds no shape) and how does holding the moon in one hand and a crayfish in the other denote inconstancy? The word for crayfish in Latin is the same as crab (apparently) which links it to the moon in the zodiac. But then The Moon is linked to Pisces. I have also read that etymology links it to the scarab beetle. The word may well have the same root. I didn’t think that crayfish shed their outer casing, but certain sources say they do so they are also (invariably) a symbol of renewal. However, there is a danger of being led in more and more different directions and understanding the image less and less.


The fact is, the Moon card is perhaps the most mysterious in the tarot deck. For me it has always had connotations of weirdness and the crayfish only adds to it (especially when on a dinner plate such as in the Ancient Italian/1880 Serravalle Sesia Tarot and Soprafino decks – see image above). I rather like the meanings that nobody gives it anymore – lunacy, deceit, illusions and, of course, false friends, none of which are probably inferred by the crayfish. We have now tamed it to mean anything to do with the unconscious. But it seems in most cases to be the “safe”, gentle unconscious,  not the unconscious of compulsion and derangement and murder. New ageness wants it to mean intuition, not dangerous urges. When I first started buying tarot cards, this was the card that summed up everything mysterious about tarot cards. In the Soprafino decks it has – for me – the perfect amount of twilight eeriness. Something wrong. For me, that’s what a good moon card should have. Something is wrong in the half light. The Lasenikův is more explicitly spookier but then the whole deck is. The 1jj Swiss Moon card is another peculiar one; the man serenading (must be lunacy – why else would you possibly love?) but then there is the peculiar composition. Why is the crayfish set apart in a different picture plane? There is no water in this image, no towers, so why the need of a crayish? It isn’t moving between water and land. It is framed like something on the wall of a collector’s cabinet. It must be the inconstancy theme again. The inconstancy of the lover.

Looking at Janssens’ allegorical painting, I wonder why it wasn’t used in Kat Black’s Touchstone Tarot since it is from the same period as most of the other images as well as having all the required symbolism and being consistent with the overall atmosphere. I love the Moon card so much that it is rare for me to find a Moon card which I get nothing from. There is so much in it that speaks to me, so many layers that some of its symbolism will always be covered. It is the card with which I never draw a blank during readings. And yet, the Moon card in the Lenormand deck always leaves me a little stumped in comparison. I have to repress my tarot meaning for it. I have to force myself to think differently about it; it is reputation, it is work (why?) But in the tarot it is all the magic and strangeness and danger I desire in a deck compressed into one single image. I feel comforted when this card comes up in readings. A brief, illuminating flash of all that inner self to explore. It can be a prism for weirdness, shorthand for urges, compulsions, things we know are wrong but do them anyway; anarchy, irrationality. Surely there is still space in our overworked, regimented, hurried lives for just a little of this?

New Moon By Albert Aublet


About Le Fanu

Tarot collector in a far off land; loves ghost stories, magick, tarot, wistfulness, spookiness, Victorian spiritism, ectoplasm...
This entry was posted in Random Reflections, Tarot Cards and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Musings on The Moon Card

  1. Adana Wtn. says:

    Lovely post. The painting is gorgeous, something I’ve never seen before.

    Reading your thoughts on the card made me think of the Moon as a spotlight in a dramatic production. It draws you in and pulls your attention to one spot, but it also shrouds the background in darkness, so you don’t really see what’s going on. Kind of makes me think…

    As for the crayfish, I never really understood why it’s a part of The Moon. I’ve always heard that it represented our emerging from our subconscious to consciousness, but seeing that I’m from the South, it just reminds me of food. 🙂

    • Le Fanu says:

      Thank you – what a lovely analogy – the spotlight. Yes, it definitely pulls us in. I tend to think of that crayfish as moving in and out of the water as we ourselves move from the outer real world of the land and terra firma and then the inner watery world of feeling.

  2. Lotus Padma says:

    It is my understanding that the moon was regarded as feminine in Celt/pre-medieval times, and represented the Goddess Ceridwen. I think because the moon had three phases (well, 4 really, if you consider void of course) but the Moon goddess was considered to be (as you must already know!) Maiden, Matron, and Crone – as depicted by new moon, mid-phase moon (3/4), and full – or alternatively, one could say, new moon as maiden, full moon as matron, and void of course as Crone. *shrug* however you look at it, the triplicate phases and face of the Celt goddesses are stamped there…also, the moon, being tied to the phases of the female menses and the tides, were hence related to women…and the feminine…interesting to think of the moon as a male and the sun female, never thought of it that way!

    Great image in the top of the post – funny you said Touchstone (Kat Black) as I immediately placed it there, though I own the deck and had never seen the image! Very much the same style as that deck… I am sure the painter must certainly have been echoing the Tarot on purpose – Moon and crayfish seldom appear together except for in tarot…that crescent moon in her hand is, I think, one of the loveliest I have ever seen in the genre of anthropomorphism of the moon. Awesome find! 😀 Thanks for another memorable post!

    PS wasn’t the crayfish supposed to be symbolic of the subconscious, coming forward and linking to the conscious…?

  3. wite wave says:

    me too – there must be a world of commentary in that crayfish. So I thought I’d push myself beyond mere drifting of thoughts into an arena of crayfish clarity. I pose questions more than answers..and tid bits to follow the trail on….
    First of all, why do we call it a crayfish, not a lobster? I may return to that question.
    My first port of call, when wanting to explore more deeply such a tantalizing wondering, is my Shipley’s Discursive Dictionary, wherein he comments on the etymology of words. Here we learn that crayfish has morphed from crevisse (the french for this creature is still ecrevisse…which once was escrevisse (Old French)); and is begat from ‘gerbh’: scratch, carve. This origin also extends to the Greek graphein: incise; and to the Greek gramma: letter. From there Shipley talks about anagrams, and rearrangement (and games like Scrabble). Shipley takes us also to the root ‘kar’: hard, strong, powerful. From there to the Greek kharkhinos: hard-shelled creature, the crab. I am ALWAYS amazed when I find wafer thin and perfect crab shells lying on the beach: how improbable – I have many I’ve found on different beaches, some placed in baskets amongst shells I’ve found worldover, and some hidden on beds of cotton in boxes.
    Back to Shipley: From its clutching bite, carcinogen, carcinoma. Amongst others, he throws in the words: grope, crawl, scrawl, crabby, hardship.
    My French is not good enough to swear by the following relation, but is the Old French escrevisse composed of the idea of “putting the screw on” (serrer la vis a)? The verb visser means ‘to screw’ (on, in, up or down); se visser can be used in the familiar sense of ‘attaching oneself firmly’ (se visser sur sa chaise, for instance, is to sit tight on one’s chair).
    I’m getting the impression “hang on to your hats!!! the moon is going to take us for a ride”: be prepared for the rollercoaster.
    As for the first bit..escre….can it be related to escrimer ‘to fence’? Escrime: fencing; sword play, swordsmanship. You’ve watched a live lobster with it’s claw dance, no? The colloquial use of escrimer implies straining, “to work with might and main” it says in my French dictionary. Funnily enough the word under this in the dictionary is escroquer, to swindle.
    One reason we may say crayfish, not lobster, is that numerologically, crayfish is 44/8: a number which speaks of doubled containment (44) and generated power (8), whereas lobster is 28/10, and is more aligned then with a card like the Wheel of Fortune.
    Last but not least, I always like to check what the homeopaths say about any substance. We do have crayfish in the books, but I have more in depth on lobster: Homarus gammarus, to be specific (European Lobster). I will simply list the entries which catch my eye as relevant from a very beautiful work by Jo Evans, SEA REMEDIES, with the subtitle, Evolution of the Senses.

    Main Polarity: Dominate, angry OR Surrender, timid, cannot act.
    Fear of pain and illness.
    Fear of being laughed at, of ridicule.
    Dreams, sexual
    Dreams, of being tricked.
    Nervous feeling, but dread of moving.
    Delusion of being unable to move, obstructed in life.
    Aggravated by authoritarianism, being in a lower position, being taken advantage of; the unpredictable; being laughed at or teased.

    Some not so trivial trivia (from her book):
    In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the lobster’s rostrum (spiky, nose-like protuberance) was roasted, triturated and dissolved in wine, and then used as a remedy for a variety of urinary diseases (my aside: urine is about flow, and filtering what to keep and recirculate, and what to let go of as waste, as rejectable) (another aside: as watery flow, it is obviously connected to the moon; AND any woman will tell you that the menstrual cycle and pregnancy are connected to the urine flow), including kidney stones. Lobster meat was used as a diuretic, as was the broth made from boiling lobsters, etc.
    AGGRESSION: Fight or Flight: the lobster is noted for its aggressive behaviour. Its freshwater cousin, the crayfish, has been the subject of scientific studies relating to understanding the action of serotonin and the bases of aggression in humans.
    SIGNATURE AND SYMBOL: My Space: shell, home, territory: Until mature, lobsters spend almost all their time hidden in tunnels and crevices (speaking of anagrams!), rarely venturing out, and living in fear of their lives. This behaviour pattern appears to persist into adulthood, although aggressive behaviour is adopted in compensation for the fear. Even when large and armoured, lobsters mostly only venture out at night. Their behaviour is described as belligerent, territorial and secretive. From an anthropomorphic point of view, there is an aggressive, hormone -soaked, adolescent feel to lobster behaviour, even in mature adults.
    The following character sketch (still quoting from Jo’s book here) is from Maurizio Italiano’s clinical experience of prescribing crustacean remedies: It’s me against the world. I am vulnerable. I am suspicious.
    Leading to either: Anger, fits of rage, destructive thoughts and acts, and Pain; explosive, spasmodic
    OR: Retreat: building shelter,mental and physical stiffness and either loquacity and lies or silence.
    In both cases ending in: a sensation of isolation.
    (This to me describes well a certain type of bi-polar, manic depressive mental unwellness I am only too familiar with in one of my family members – who happens to have Cancer rising).
    Cure comes from an adjustment of perspective. When they are able to feel more connected to others and to society as a whole, the aloneness and need to rebel or fight is diminished.

    A lobster will often seek a small hiding place when it is time to moult, while the shell is loosening. The process occurs around 25 times it its first 5 years of life, so the animal inevitably spends much of its time alone and vulnerable. Because the body is always growing, whilst the shell stays the same size, the shell must be shed to allow for a new, more accommodating coat of armour. To escape its old shell the lobster has to burst its seams and be temporarily defenceless while the new and roomier shell hardens.

    There is a great deal more…..but she (and I) ends with the observation that Crustaceans as anthropods have more in common with insects than they do sea creatures. Jo makes this comment about Insects: Insects are generally social creatures, living in colonies, working for the good of the whole with carefully delineated, cooperative roles. Looking at the insect remedies in homeopathy, the group theme is of a personal metamorphosis involving separation from the group identity; the process involves finding one’s own freedom and individuality, in particular so that the individual is no longer enslaved or dominated.

    Well – there you have it – one almost last comment….I am reading a wonderful book about the history of Melbourne’s Yarra River… which the author mentions that the indigenous peoples of the Kulin nation had tales of she the Sun and he the Moon.

    The last comment: as a member of the Tarot Guild, Melbourne, Australia, and one of a growing number fascinated by the Lenormand (we had Caitlin Matthews come out last year to our Conference..what a treat!) I was MOST pleasantly pleased, at 3 am this morning, to somehow find myself at your blog. Thank you, and I hope you find any of the above stimulating viz your interest in that crayfish. I love that card you show….of the ijj Swiss Moon… certainly leaves no doubt that the crayfish is far from arbitrary in choice!

    • wite wave says:

      and here is the belated short version!! Apparently in Sumero-Babylonian astrology, the word for the Constellation/Sign Cancer was “crayfish”!!!!!

  4. Lovely post. Thank you for your amazing personal insight. That painting would have made a PHENOMENAL moon card in the Kat Black deck! Here’s my take on the moon with a little tcm thrown in 🙂 I love your website!

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