Wednesday 14 August 2013

Star Gayzing - Interstellar Fag Hags and Drag Queens

For those of you who aren’t sure, a “fag hag” is a straight woman who spends a lot of time in the company of gay men, especially out clubbing and partying. There is one group of stars which, according to some authorities, have been associated with homosexuality since Ancient Rome, but I prefer to think of them as the “Interstellar Fag Hags”. This group of stars are the Pleiades in Taurus.

The Pleiades of Ancient Greek legend were 7 sisters, daughters of Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. There are several legends regarding their transformation into stars. First, one says how they mourned the deaths of their half-sisters the Hyades and committed suicide en masse. Zeus turned them all into stars. Another legend says the Pleiades killed themselves after their father was doomed to carry the weight of the sky on his shoulders. Yet a third says that Zeus turned them into stars to escape the attention of Orion. In the night sky, the constellation of Orion appears to chase the Pleiades across the sky.

Many astrologers say that the Pleiades were associated with homosexuality in ancient times, but as yet no-one has discovered why. One clue, however, can be found in the 1st century poem called “Astronomica”. The poem’s author, Manilius, was writing in an era when astronomy and astrology were indistinguishable. In contrast to today’s astrology, Manilius wasn’t interested in the planets and their influence, only the constellations (both zodiac and non-zodiac).

What Manilius wrote about the Pleiades was : “Under their influence devotees of Bacchus and Venus are born into the benevolent light, and people whose carefree and irresponsible behaviour runs free at parties and banquets and who strive to provoke good humour with biting wit. They will always take pains over personal adornment and elegant appearance. They will set their long hair in waves or curls or confine their tresses with ribbons, building them into a big topknot, and they will transform the appearance of their head by adding hair to it; they will smooth their hairy limbs with pumice, loathing their masculinity and craving for sleekness of arm. They adopt feminine dress, footwear worn not for practical use but for show, and an affected feminine walk. They are ashamed of their sex; in their hearts dwell a senseless passion for display, and they boast of their malady, which they call a virtue. To give their love is never enough, they will also want their love to be seen” (adapted from the translation by G. P. Goold, 1977, Loeb Classical Library edition).

Manilius was writing during the Roman period and used the Roman names of the gods. Bacchus was the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of wine, dance and theatre, Dionysos. Dionysos was considered a bull-god, the bull being an important symbol of power and male virility. This may be the reason who the Pleiades and Hyades star clusters are in the constellation of Taurus the Bull. Taurus may represent Dionysos the bull-god, and the Pleiades and Hyades were said to have been his nursemaids and teachers. Taurus has other bull-related symbolism, as told in an earlier Star Gayzing article in March 2012.

Dionysos was also regarded as a god of sexual opposites – a fertility god who was never shown sexually aroused, a powerful male god who dressed as a woman, a god of equal masculine and feminine qualities. Many sources called Dionysos “womanly”, yet his myths always represent him as quite definitely butch. Only very early representations of his show him as a long-haired androgynous beardless youth.

What helps to understand why Dionysos should wear woman’s clothes is one of the myths about his childhood. Rather than be brought up by the Pleiades and Hyades, Dionysos, who was an illegitimate son of Zeus, was put in the care of King Athanus who was told to raise the boy as a girl to hide him from the wrath of Hera, Zeus’s wife.

The adult Dionysos didn’t need to be shown sexually roused as he was often surrounded by spectacularly well-endowed satyrs and attendants. Being sexually aroused was seen as being bestial, not godly. Besides, Dionysos’s own son, Priapus, is the epitome of perpetual sexual arousal!

The Bacchae, the wild parties held as part of the worship of Dionysos/Bacchus, are characterised by their  descent into orgy. In Ancient Greece these often involved same-sex activity, as was accepted in their society.

Reading Manilius’s text again it would appear that he was not so much describing cross-dressers but drag acts – the female attire, the effeminate manners, the over-the-top personality, and the “strive to provoke good humour with biting wit”. He appears to be describing the Pleiades as a gods who influence men to turn against the usual male stereotype and to act and dress as women. Perhaps we could call the Pleiades a constellation for fag hags and drag queens. And, of course, drag queens refer to each other as “sisters”.

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