Last night I was lying in bed thinking about the Moon (as one does) and reflecting on the current Moon phase. We are in the last couple days before the New Moon, which is often called the Balsamic Moon phase in astrology. Cue: jokes about salad dressing.
I’ve idly wondered where the term “balsamic” comes from, as it seems a little odd and it’s always super distracting when you’re talking to non-astrologers. Inevitably, they always stop you mid-sentence and say, ‘Wait, like balsamic vinegar?’ or something to that effect.
This term seems limited to astrology – in astronomy discussions, “waning crescent” is usually used to describe this phase.
During this phase, the light of the Moon is fading down to a little sliver. This is a dark, restful period of time where energy levels tend to be lower. It’s a period where you are shedding things that grew and accumulated during the waxing phase, letting go of that which no longer serves. It’s a time of reflection and quiet, where you are coming to terms with that which has come before, releasing, and beginning to prepare yourself for what comes next, what seeds you want to plant at the next New Moon.
In secondary progressions, the Balsamic Moon phase is when these energies are writ large over a three-and-a-half-year period. For a few years, you may feel a sense of turning inward, becoming more withdrawn and more focused on your inner self. Introverts may enjoy this period, but extroverts can sometimes wonder what the hell is going on. You might feel a sense of growing impatience at your lack of progress or forward momentum. Ultimately, you should focus on releasing the things that you’ve outgrown, or which you just don’t need going forward, and not worry about any lack of progress or lack of direction – it will come in time.
So where did the name “balsamic” come from and why was it applied to this phase of the Moon?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “balsamic” dates back to the 1600s and means “pertaining to balsam” or “yielding balsam” as well as “health-giving.”
“Balsam” originally referred to an aromatic tree that was used for various medicinal preparations, dating back thousands of years. The name comes from the word “balm” which is related to Balm of Gilead – a medicinal perfume referenced in the Hebrew Bible.
Balm is a general term to describe any healing substance derived from plants, again going back many thousands of years. The Online Etymology Dictionary says balm is an “oily, resinous aromatic substance exuding naturally from shrubs of the genus Commiphora.” Balm derives from the Latin term balsamum, the Greek balsamon, and the Hewbrew basam (“spice”) – which is related to the Aramaic busma and Arabic basham meaning “balsam, spice, perfume.”
Commiphora is a genus of flowering plants in the frankincense and myrrh family. So, the connection to ancient, holy perfumes and incense is obvious. Over time, the word balm/balsam has been applied to many aromatic trees and plants, as well as to various aromatic preparations derived from said plants and used for healing wounds, or in perfumes and anointing. Lip balm is a good modern example of this.
I speculate that this is also how the term came to be applied to balsamic vinegar, as it is very aromatic and has also been used medicinally as well as culinarily.
I’m familiar with balsam poplar, which is a tree common to my local bioregion. I make my own version of a Balm of Gilead tincture by gathering up the sticky poplar buds in early spring, before they burst open into flower. The tincture has a nice clearing effect on both an energetic and physical level – because I use vodka as the tincture base, it’s naturally disinfecting anyway, especially for fabrics and carpets.
I’ve also used a beeswax-based poplar bud salve which is very lovely, as the resin is naturally antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, soothing and pain-relieving. It also smells like spring to me on such a visceral, primal level that one whiff has me swooning every time.
I think it’s entirely possible that one of the reasons “balsamic” came to be applied to this Moon phase is related to rituals or ceremonies performed in honour of the Moon. The Orphic hymn to Selene (the Hellenistic Moon goddess) calls for incense of aromatic herbs. Perhaps this term references the plant material or incense that was used in rituals during this particular phase of the Moon. I haven’t found any historical evidence of this, but humans have been burning aromatic plant material as offerings to the gods for as long as we’ve been around, so I’m willing to take that one on faith!
As far as I can tell, referring to the last phase of the Moon as Balsamic is a modern invention. I did a quick search through some of the ancient astrological texts (Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblos, Vettius Valens’ Anthologies, and the Picatrix) but didn’t find any reference to “balsamic.”
In Christian Astrology, William Lilly attributes a flower called balsam to Jupiter – but he gives the name “costmary” as a secondary name for this flower. Costmary was referred to by Nicolas Culpeper as “the balsam herb.” This is an example of the word balsam being applied to an aromatic plant – but there’s no mention of it in relation to the Moon.
It seems like twentieth-century astrologer Dane Rudhyar was the first to use this term widely. In his 1967 book The Lunation Cycle, Rudhyar uses the term balsamic to refer to the last phase of the Moon, but simply states that its “derivation appears unknown.”
In that same book, Rudhyar describes the balsamic phase in a way that incorporates knowledge of the world’s etymology. He describes this phase as one where the Moon is about to enter the sanctuary of the solar realm. Describing the Moon, he writes:
“She is the penitent asking for mercy, the nun offering her prayers for the sake of humanity lost in sin. She is the incense (‘balsam’?) or prayer rising to the sun, calling for a new revelation, a new Messiah, a new outpouring of spirit and light through a new lunar structure – a new body, a new image of reality, a new concept to resolve man’s ever-recurrent doubts and uncertainties.”
I love this image of incense rising in prayer as the essence of the Balsamic Moon phase. It perfectly captures the mood inherent in that phase, and I also think it gives some hints as to the origin of that term being applied to this phase.
It’s unclear where Rudhyar got this term from initially and he doesn’t cite any sources for it. Modern astrologers who came after him reinforced Rudhyar as the progenitor of the term. In his 2013 book The Book of the Moon, Steven Forrest writes:
“Dane Rudhyar refers to this eighth phase as the ‘Balsamic’ Moon. It is a reference to incense – balsam – rising up from the altar to the realm of the gods and goddesses. Smoking balsam is a beautiful, diaphanous metaphor that nicely captures the transcendent feeling of this last lunar phase – and also to the possibility of a simple ‘smoky’ loss of focus.”
So, even though Rudhyar himself states that the term “balsamic” is of unknown origin – and therefore we can assume he didn’t invent it, otherwise he wouldn’t have commented on its origin – popular modern astrologers like Forrest reinforced the idea that Rudhyar coined the term. They also reinforced its association with balsam as incense as a metaphor for the Balsamic Moon phase.
I will continue doing some more research into where Rudhyar may have gotten this term from. To summarize what I’ve found so far: balsamic derives from the word balsam, which is used to describe various aromatic plants and resins commonly used for healing in herbal medicine and burning as incense. Even though it’s a mystery where Rudhyar got the idea to apply this term to the final Moon phase, he popularized its usage and this term continues to be widely used by astrologers today.
If you have any tips or information on where balsamic came from in reference to the Moon phase, please drop me a line and let me know!