'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

15 November 2010

Gay Astronomy

Written and supplied by Denton P. Walter of Astronomy & Space Magazine, the monthly journal of Astronomy Ireland.  
 All around the world during the month of June the so-called Freedom Flag, with its striking rainbow design, will fly as gay communities celebrate various 'gay pride' events, so this month I shall be looking at the subject of Gay Astronomy.  "But", I hear you say, 'I've never heard of such a thing!'  You haven't, and with good reason. This aspect is always ignored by other publications.  I have never, for example, seen the correct mythological story of Aquila the Eagle, and what Ganymede was really doing on Olympus, given in any astronomy book or magazine, save for my own writings in this one, and indeed a few years ago Astronomy & Space Magazine became the first astronomy magazine in the world, as far as I know, to publish an article on gay astronomy (a version of this one), since we do try to fill gaps left blank by other publications whenever possible. 
Astronomy isn't as straight as you think, at least in its mythological and historical connections. In Greek mythology there were 9 minor goddesses called Muses, and one of these, Urania, was the Muse of Astronomy, her name later being used to refer to anything connected with it; for example Johann Bayer's star catalogue of 1603, entitled Uranometria, or Johannes Hewelcke's Uranographia of 1690, and the great 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe called his observatory the Uraniborg.  But Urania had another role, for she was also the protector of homosexual love (Of the concept that is, for the modern word 'homosexual', first used in 1869, would have meant nothing to an ancient Greek), and, during the 19th century, the word Uranian was widely used to describe homosexuals, giving us yet another connection with the Muse of Astronomy. 

Jupiter, the largest planet of our Solar System, is surrounded by a considerable number of moons, the four largest of which, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, were discovered in 1610 by Galileo, using the then newly invented telescope, and are known as the 'Galilean Moons', easily visible with binoculars, the planet-sized Ganymede being the largest of the quartet.  In Greek mythology, the bi-sexual king of the gods, Zeus (Ζεύζ), fell in love with Ganymedes (Γανυμήδηζ), a young man of great physical beauty, being a Phrygian shepherd-boy in some versions of the tale, and a prince, son of King Tros of Phrygia in others.  As it happened Zeus was in need of a cupbearer at the time, since the former holder of that job, Hebe, had tripped and fallen while performing her duties.  Having a few cups of golden nectar dumped over him didn't do a whole lot for Zeus, and he decided to combine business with pleasure and offer the job to the handsome young man who had just caught his divine eye, sending his messenger, a giant eagle, to carry Ganymedes to Olympus.  Young Ganymedes saw this as a good career move – barman to the gods, live-in all expenses paid on Mount Olympus, plus a great fringe benefit: lover to the king of the gods – and so he took the offered employment.  Not that he had much choice of course, the eagle of Zeus didn't take 'no' for an answer. Zeus was so pleased with his young lover that he declared the eagle that had brought him to Olympus to be the greatest of birds, placing it in the heavens as a reward for its homosexual matchmaking services, where it became the constellation known to the Greeks as Aetos, 'The Eagle', and to the Romans as Ganymedes Raptrix, 'The Huntress of Ganymedes', which we know as Aquila. All this gives us a gay moon, and, since Jupiter is the Roman name for Zeus, we also have a bi-sexual planet, with the king of the gods, mighty Jupiter, still attended by his lover, now called Ganymede, as they travel around the Solar System together.
 Another version of the story has Zeus turning himself into that flying job-recruitment agency, the eagle.  Zeus frequently did that sort of thing in his straighter moments of desire – and he had many – the constellations of Cygnus and Taurus representing two of these escapades and giving us a couple of bi-sexual stargroups in the process, the former being the time he became a swan to visit Queen Leda of Sparta, and the latter commemorating his transformation into a white bull to abduct Princess Europa of Canaan, who still keeps him company, like Ganymede, as a moon. 
 On Ganymede there are two craters named Gilgamesh and Enkidu, characters in the world's oldest surviving piece of literature, the great Babylonian story 'The Epic of Gilgamesh', preserved on clay tablets dating from the 3rd millennium B.C.  It tells of the part-mortal part-god King Gilgamesh of Uruk, and his friend, the hero Enkidu, who he loved 'as a woman,' taking him as he would a wife, though the king also had female lovers. (Gilgamesh was based on an historical king, who lived around 2,700 B.C., though the tablets recording his embroidered exploits date from c. 2,000 B.C.) This is the first recorded mention of a gay relationship and, since it is some 5,000 years old, it is perhaps the best answer to those who seem to think homosexuality was invented during the 19th century by Oscar Wilde.  How fitting that our fictional Babylonian lovers should be found together on a gay moon.

On our own Moon, the dark areas that produce the 'Man in the Moon’'effect are known as Mare, from the Latin for 'sea’' though there is no liquid water on the Moon and these areas are really large plains composed of dried lava flows, easily visible in any binoculars.  One of these is the Mare Humboltianum, 'Humboldt's Sea', named for the great German botanist, naturalist, zoologist, artist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, 1769-1859, who explored the Orinoco and Amazon rivers of South America, returning with an amazing 60,000 plant specimens, as well as making numerous astronomical observations.  He explored and collected so much in fact that it took him over 20 years to write an account of his travels.
 Among the named craters on the Moon we find quite a few gay names, among them Zeno, for the 5th century BCE Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea, who you probably never even heard of, and Da Vinci, for that amazing painter, inventor, musician, engineer, astronomer and general all-round genius, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519, who everyone has heard of.  It was he incidentally who first suggested that the Mare might be water, and he may have invented an astronomical telescope of some kind, though no records of it survive, apart from a vague reference in one of his diaries.  We also find the crater Julius Caesar, whose famous remark 'I came, I saw, I conquered' applied not only to a number of countries but to some of their rulers as well.  Indeed the bi-sexual Roman general, as a young man, acquired the nickname 'The Queen of Bithynia' after a love affair with King Nicamedes IV of that country.  Last but not least we have that greatest of Athenian philosophers, Plato.  Of course the gayness of Plato, what came to be known as ''Greek Love', wasn't exactly what we think of today as being gay, but he was far from what would be considered straight by our standards.  The Moon was also the setting for a gay story which was I'm sure also the first ever science fiction story as well, dating from the 2nd century A.D., when the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata wrote of a man who travelled to the Moon, found an all-male population, and ended up taking the son of the Moon King in marriage.  No women, so how did the king have a son?  Simple. They grew children from plants derived from planting a left testicle.
 The planets too have their share of gay-named craters, the gayest planet of all being little Mercury.  On its baking hot surface, up to 467C during the day, we find craters named for the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, that well-known Italian decorator of ecclesiastical ceilings Michelangelo, American poet Walt Whitman, French writer Marcel Proust and poet Arthur Rimbaud, Russian author Nikolai Gogol, bi-sexual British poet Lord Byron, and American nautical author Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame.  The craters carry only the surnames, by the way.

Venus is the only female planet and, very appropriately, since it is named for the Roman goddess of love, we find on it the only women in our gay survey of the heavens.  Firstly there is bi-sexual French writer Colette, best known for her novel Gigi.  Then there is Sappho, named for Sappho of Lesbos, who lived around 600 B.C., greatest lyric poet of the ancient world, referred to by Plato as the Tenth Muse, and history's first recorded lesbian.  Indeed it is from her Aegean island home of Lesbos that we get the term 'Lesbian', which actually only means a resident of that island, just as a Dubliner is a resident of Dublin, so you could say, quite correctly, that every man, woman and child on the island was a lesbian!  Her name has also given us the term 'Sapphic Love' to describe a woman-to-woman relationship. Unfortunately the church authorities in Rome and Constantinople collected and burned all the copies of her work they could find, in 1073 A.D., regarding love between women as a very dangerous poetic topic, so that only a few tiny fragments of her poems have survived.  Completing our planetary tour we come to the red planet, Mars, where, though we won't find canals or little green men, gay or otherwise, we do find Leonardo Da Vinci once again.
 Lying between Mars and Jupiter are thousands of small lumps of rock known as the Asteroids or Minor Planets and yes, some of them are gay. Asteroid number 30 is Urania, the Muse of Gayness if you like, and number 80 is named for that 'extra' Muse, Sappho.  1036 is Ganymede, and 54 is Alexandra, which, despite its seemingly feminine form, is named for Alexander von Humboldt. (Not a jibe at his sexuality, other asteroids being named in this odd fashion)  He died not long after his asteroid was discovered, so perhaps the shock was too much for him, coming on top of all the years spent sorting out those 60,000 plants.  Number 3000 is Leonardo, in honour once again of the great Italian genius, with 3001 being his fellow countryman, Michelangelo. 
Women are not well represented in the gay night sky, but astronomically-minded lesbians might take note of the star Gamma (g) Orionis, Bellatrix, in the constellation of Orion, its proper name meaning 'Female Warrior' and known as the 'Amazon Star'.  The Amazons, that mythical race of warrior women who supposedly fought in the Trojan War, were armed with a double-bladed battle axe known as a Labyris, and this has become a modern lesbian emblem, worn for example as an earring or pendant, and I've even seen one used as a car sticker.  The Labyris was also the symbol of the Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter, and lesbian sex in fact formed part of her worship rituals, so there is a gay female connection with the constellation of Virgo, which represents Demeter, the goddess depicted in the sky holding an ear of wheat in her hand.
 The constellation of Lacerta, The Lizard, was devised by Johannes Hewelcke in the 17th century, but in 1787 the German astronomer Johann Elert Bode used its stars for his own proposed constellation, Honores Frederici, 'The Honours of Frederick', dedicated to the greatest military genius and most openly gay man of the age, King Frederick II of Prussia, 1712-1786, better known as Frederick the Great.  As a young man Prince Frederick was regularly beaten by his father, King Frederick William I, and forced to watch his lover executed, all in an attempt to 'cure' his homosexuality. The 'treatment' failed however, and as king, just as gay as ever, he took Prussia from an unimportant little country to the greatest military power on the Continent, introduced many reforms, abolished torture and brought in religious toleration, as well as encouraging the arts, though he tolerated no opposition to his authority.  Herr Bode wasn't attempting to gain royal favours, by the way, when he dedicated his constellation to Frederick, since the king was in no position to grant any, since he happened to be dead at the time.  The constellation didn't catch on however, and the humble lizard replaced the great gay king to take its place once again in the heavens. 
 Though representing that pair from Greek mythology, Castor and Polydeuces (Pollux), the constellation of Gemini has also been seen as the Biblical pair of ...well, shall we say rather more than 'just good friends', David and Jonathan.  From Roman times some of the stars that would later become Scutum, along with a number from Aquila, formed the constellation of Antinous, devised in the 2nd century A.D. and dedicated to the handsome young man who was the lover of the gay Roman emperor Caesar Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, better known to history as Hadrian (of Scottish wall-building fame), a genuinely caring and compassionate ruler who tried to improve the living standards of his subjects, and cared for the welfare of his soldiers: a rare thing among Roman emperors.  Hadrian was touring the then Roman province of Egypt, with Antinous, when a fortune-teller told them that one of the two would soon die.  Hoping to save his beloved emperor by making the prophecy come true on the spot, Antinous, with rather more loving devotion than common sense, promptly threw himself into the Nile.  The devastated Hadrian mourned his lover for the rest of his life, surrounding himself with statues of the young man, but initially he named a city on the Nile in his honour, Antinopolis; declared Antinous a god, and ordered that his image be depicted among the stars.  The real-life relationship between Hadrian and Antinous had already been compared with the mythological one between Zeus and Ganymedes (the emperor was of course also considered to be a god), and for that reason Antinous was placed in the sky below Ganymedes Raptrix, carried by the eagle of Zeus across the sky to Hadrian just as it had bourn Ganymedes to Zeus on Mount Olympus. The mythological symbolism was perfect: mighty god and beautiful young lover.  Some starmaps continued to show Antinous until the late 18th century, after which time it was universally dropped.
 The constellation of Aquarius represents our old friend Ganymedes once again, depicted in the sky pouring liquid from a jar, though the nature of the jar's contents depends on the version you choose.  One has him pouring water for the benefit of the drought-stricken peoples of the Earth, but, for those who prefer a somewhat stronger brew, he is also seen in his role as bartender of Mount Olympus, pouring not water but golden nectar and wine for the gods in general and his lover Zeus in particular.  This makes Aquarius the only constellation that still actually represents a gay person, though, as we have seen, others have done so in times gone by.
Returning to Earth, we now take a look at a gay astronomer, Dr. Franklin E. Kameny. In 1959 Dr. Kameny, a Harved-trained astronomer and World War II combat veteran, was fired from his job as an observational astronomer for the United States Government, working with the Army Mapping Service – simply because he was gay.  He then devoted his life to fighting for gay rights; believing that what he, or a straight person for that matter, did in the bedroom was nobody else's business.  He organised the first gay pickets on the White House and other government buildings, formed the Washington D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society (one of the first gay rights groups), and led the initial legal battles against the ban on gays serving in the U.S. armed forces.  Now aged 78, he still continues to fight for gay rights.
Some of the best known gay emblems are also connected with astronomy, for example that for a gay man is simply the astronomical symbol for Mars doubled and overlapped, while the lesbian emblem is the overlapping double Venus symbol.  The 11th letter of the Greek alphabet, Lambda (l), is used to denote the 11th brightest star in a constellation, from a system devised by Johann Bayer in 1603, but it is also a gay emblem, first used in 1969 by the Gay Activists Alliance in New York.
 Perhaps we should leave the last word to Sappho of Lesbos (left) who, obviously alone in her bedroom some 2,600 years ago, made some astronomical observations, putting them into a poem, a fragment of which survived the attentions of the medieval church:
Tonight I've watched
the Moon and then
the Pleiades go down.
The night is now
half-gone; youth goes;
I am in bed alone.
So you see, astronomy isn't as straight as you thought!
A shorter version of this article has previously appeared in Astronomy & Space Magazine, the journal of Astronomy Ireland. As such, it may only be reproduced by permission of A. & S. Magazine/D. P. Walter 
Printed here with the generous permission of the Author who sent me this article some time back. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment here or in side bar or you can email me at pepispictures@gmail.com

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...