A lot of things have brought my old favorite TV show Sailor Moon to mind again recently, from the recent anime reboot Sailor Moon Crystal, to the re-release of the original anime in uncut and subtitled form. Even though some are disappointed with Crystal, the fandom has in fact seen a resurgence.
A lot of people, new and old fans alike, may be wondering how Sailor Moon relates to Greco-Roman mythology, since after all, it uses the names of the planets, most of which were given the Roman names of Greek gods. It turns out that Greco-Roman mythology was definitely an inspiration for many aspects of the series, though understandably there are a lot of differences as well. Spoilers for both anime and the manga in my explication below!
Let’s start with Sailor Moon herself. Is she based on any particular god or goddess? This is the easiest question to answer, as the Moon goddess Selene is the only one of the gods to be explicitly mentioned and even prayed to, though only in Crystal and the manga. Selene seems to be the source of Sailor Moon’s and the Silver Crystal’s power. And, in fact, Serenity, the name given to all three members of the Moon Dynasty (i.e., Queen Serenity, Princess Serenity/Usagi, and Chibiusa/Usagi, Small Lady Serenity) sounds similar to Selene, especially if you take into account the Japanese equivalency between “r” and “l”. Selene was in fact the goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology; her Roman name was Luna (another important name in the series)! In both Greek and Latin, the goddess’s name is also the name of the Moon itself.
Is there any basis for the personification of the Moon to be the leader of the gods, the way Sailor Moon is the leader of the Sailor Senshi? Well, no, not really. As is well known, the king of the gods in Greek and Roman mythology is Zeus/Jupiter. Selene was not a very important goddess in Greek mythology. Sometimes she was identified with Artemis, a much more important goddess who was actually one of the Twelve Olympians (yes, unlike the male Artemis in Sailor Moon, the original ancient Greek Artemis was female). But mostly Selene had just one job: driving a chariot pulling the Moon across the sky every night. She also was often depicted as wearing a crescent Moon symbol as either a tiara above her forehead or as horns, so that is somewhat familiar as well! Clearly Selene acted as inspiration for Sailor Moon, but the series definitely expanded on our limited knowledge of this goddess and assigned more importance to the Moon than the Greeks and Romans originally did.
Above: Selene’s Crescent vs. Princess Serenity’s Crescent.
Selene was also famous for something else: her love affair with the mortal man Endymion. In Sailor Moon, Endymion was the name of the Prince of Earth with whom Princess Serenity fell in love, and who was reborn as Chiba Mamoru/Tuxedo Mask. The original story of Selene and Endymion is a little more problematic than that. In it, Endymion was not a prince (well… in some accounts he was a king; dear Greek mythology, always contradicting itself!) but a beautiful shepherd boy (or astronomer) who slept in the fields at night. Selene fell in love with him while watching him sleep. At this point, the myth is a little unclear. Somehow, Endymion fell into an eternal sleep. Some sources say that Selene went to Zeus and asked him to make Endymion immortal, which Zeus did by putting Endymion to sleep for all eternity. In some accounts, Zeus gave Endymion a choice, and he chose to sleep forever in order to preserve his beauty. Sometimes it was another god who was said to have put Endymion to sleep, such as Hypnos, the god of sleep, or Selene herself. In any case, there is little doubt that Selene had sex with the sleeping Endymion, which is pretty rapey any way you cut it, even if Endymion chose his eternal slumber. Some accounts say that fifty daughters were born of this union.
Of course, Sailor Moon does not preserve Endymion’s eternal sleep, even though the long-lived Princess of the Moon still falls in love with the shorter-lived ordinary human Prince of Earth. So, by making the relationship between Serenity and Endymion healthier, consensual, and not based solely on appearance, Sailor Moon has given the Selene/Endymion myth a much-needed modern update. And Serenity still gets to maintain her higher status and greater power, just as Selene was more powerful than Endymion in the myth! But for Serenity as Sailor Moon, her greater power is not a reason to freeze the life of her lover and remove all his agency, but rather is her motivation to fight to protect the ones she loves.
How about the other Sailor Senshi? Most of them have powers that make a lot of sense when compared to the gods or goddesses that their planets were named after. Sailor Venus’s powers often involve “love and beauty” as well as heart shapes, hearkening back to Aphrodite/Venus, the goddess of love and beauty. Sailor Jupiter uses thunder and lightning, which makes sense because Zeus/Jupiter was the god of thunder. Sailor Neptune’s water powers relate very clearly to Poseidon/Neptune’s dominion as god of the sea. Sailor Saturn is the senshi of destruction, just as Cronus/Saturn represented destruction in Greco-Roman mythology, because he was a chaotic force who devoured his own children and made war with them. (Thankfully Sailor Saturn does not retain the god’s personality!) Cronus was even symbolized by the scythe, similar to Sailor Saturn’s glaive, though he used it to castrate his father Uranus (there is a very rude joke in there somewhere…). Even Sailor Mars’s fire-based attacks make sense, since Mars/Ares was the god of war and had a fiery temper just as she does—though admittedly her personality is not as fiery in the manga or in Crystal.
The others are a little harder to explain. In Greco-Roman mythology, Hermes/Mercury was, according to Wikipedia, “Messenger of the gods, god of trade, thieves, travelers, sports, athletes, and border crossings, guide to the Underworld.” What does any of this have to do with Ami/Sailor Mercury, who is the smartest of the Senshi, and whose powers include mist and ice? There are a couple possibilities. Hermes was often known as a trickster god, so Sailor Mercury’s mist-related attacks, which confuse enemies, could be inspired by Hermes’s tricks. Later in the series, Sailor Mercury gains an attack that involves playing a harp; similarly, Hermes is credited with inventing the harp-like lyre. In addition, Hermes was known as a guide for travelers and souls, and Sailor Mercury often guides the Senshi with her intelligence and with data from her computer scans.
I can only assume that Takeuchi Naoko, the creator of Sailor Moon, got a bit confused when she assigned powers to Sailor Uranus. In Greek mythology, Uranus was the god of the sky—“Father Sky”—who had many children with Gaia, “Mother Earth.” For Sailor Uranus to have earthquake-based powers is kind of opposite the god Uranus’s nature (interestingly enough, this is the only planet given a Greek rather than a Roman name. Uranus’ Roman name was Caelus). I don’t know why Takeuchi gave Sailor Uranus those kinds of powers; maybe she thought “Uranus” denoted earth instead of sky?
As for Pluto, I’m having a hard time finding a reason that Takeuchi assigned time-related powers to Sailor Pluto. In mythology, Hades/Pluto was the god of the underworld, who ruled over the realm where souls went after they died. Unlike in the Disney movie Hercules, the Greeks and Romans never viewed Hades as evil or villainous—at least not any more than any other god. But none of this has anything to do with time. If anything, time was associated with Cronus due to the similarity between Cronus’ name and Chronos, the Greek word for time and its personification. However, Sailor Pluto’s attack “Dead Scream” is related to the god Pluto’s reign over the dead. And, possibly, time could be associated with death because in time, all things die.
There are lots of other mythological connections and inspirations that can be found throughout Sailor Moon. I’ve only highlighted the most prominent ones, some of which might have surprised you. But despite the differences between Greco-Roman mythology and Sailor Moon’s references to it, this just goes to show how ancient stories can continue to inspire new stories and new creativity. By making those ancient connections, it only strengthens the new stories, bringing familiarity, resonance, and symbolism that would not be possible if we did not have a collective cultural memory of the ancient stories. Similarly, it only enriches the new stories when we dive more deeply into the old ones and find these connections! In your comments, feel free to offer explanations of points that I can’t explain, fill in some of the gaps I left, or discuss anything else you may wish!