Wednesday 2 May 2018

Star Gayzing : Polar Bears

Let’s get straight into it and look up at the night sky again at two of the most recognisable constellations in the northern hemisphere – Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

Also known as the Great Bear and the Little Bear these constellations circle the current celestial North Pole. These constellations have been pictured as bears since Ancient Greece when Ursa Major was called Arktos.

The Greeks explained the presence of two bears in the sky through the myth of Callisto. She was a nymph who was one of the hunting entourage of the goddess Artemis (known as Diana to the Romans). Artemis required all her entourage to be virgins, like herself. This can be seen as the power of feminism over a patriarchal society – no man is going to dominate them.

However, if you know something of Greek mythology you’ll know that sex will rear its head sooner or later, especially for a mythological virgin. The great pansexual king of the gods, Zeus, was particularly taken by Callisto (well, her name means “most beautiful”). The problem Zeus had was how to have sex with her. It’s not a problem you have for long if you’re a shape-shifting deity like Zeus, so he transformed himself into a doppelganger of Artemis and made an amorous advance on Callisto when she was on her own.

The seduction of Callisto became a popular theme in art. It has been variously depicted as an act of rape, a loving embrace between two women, or something much more erotic (usually to please the male eye). The imagery became decidedly lesbian and has become part of lesbian lore.

“Jupiter in the Guise of Diana and Callisto” by Jean-Simon Berthelemy
The patriarchal interpretation of the myth puts Callisto in a subservient role, exactly what the real Artemis wanted to avoid. The matriarchal-feminist interpretation highlights the lesbian aspect of Callisto willingly succumbing to the sexual advances of her mistress and remaining in her service afterwards knowing she had broken her vow. As the Roman goddess Diana, Artemis has become the central goddess in a modern neo-pagan faith called Dianic Wicca, a female-only faith established in 1971.

It’s what happened after Callisto’s seduction that has been depicted more often in art. For several months everything was fine. Knowing she was supposed to remain a virgin, even if she believed it was Artemis who made her pregnant, Callisto hid her condition. She bathed alone in a river, but another nymph saw her and noticed that she was heavily pregnant and informed Artemis.

Artemis was understandably, furious. She banished Callisto from her entourage. This banishment is depicted in art many times. The painting “Diana and Callisto” by Richard Wilson (1713-1782) showing this episode is listed as part of the lgbt collection of the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Callisto later gave birth to a son whom she named Arcas. But if she thought her troubles were over she was mistaken. Very soon after the birth Zeus’s wife Hera recognised Arcas as her husband’s illegitimate son. This time it was Hera who was furious and as punishment turned Callisto into a bear.

Just in time Zeus spirited baby Arcas away. Eventually he became the king of a nation named after him – Arcadia. Like his mother Callisto Arcas was a great hunter. One day he was hunting bear when he saw a bear bounding towards him (you can probably guess what’s going to happen next). The bear was Callisto, eager to be reunited with her son. But he didn’t know that, and was about to shoot an arrow into her when Zeus stepped in and transformed him into a bear as well. He then flung both bears into the sky and they became Ursa Major (Callisto) and Ursa Minor (Arcas).

Because of their prominent positions in the sky, particularly Ursa Major, the constellations have been depicted on flags and in heraldry. The most famous of these flags is the state flag of Alaska (pictured at the top) which is actually the reason I’m writing about Ursa Major and Ursa Minor today. Today is the 91st anniversary of the flag being adopted by Alaska.

In heraldry Ursa Major has been featured in the coat of arms of the composer Richard Wagner and his gayson Siegfried (1869-1930) which I wrote about in 2014. There I explained that several German families called Wagner adopted Ursa Major for their coat of arms because it is a pun on their name. In German “plough” is “wagen”, and in Germany Ursa Major is known as the Great Wagon.

Returning to the nymph Callisto. As well as Ursa Major she is represented as one of the moons of the planet Jupiter. The four largest moons, called Galilean moons after the famous scientist who discovered them, are all named after some of Jupiter’s/Zeus’s famous amorous encounters. The two largest moons are Ganymede and Callisto. I find it interesting that they are named after Zeus’s lovers which are based on same-sex attraction.

Finally, I find it baffling why the lgbt bear community hasn’t taken advantage of the Ursa Major image and used it to produce more distinctive flags and logos. Maybe I’ll design some myself.
Jupiter's Galilean moons

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