Most of the myths and legends concerning the origins of the constellations come from ancient Greece. The majority of those I’ve covered on this blog have been Greek. Today we look at yet another one.
Some of the most famous and popular Greek gods and heroes – Zeus, Apollo, Herakles/Hercules, etc. – have several constellations associated with them. One of the others, whose name doesn’t often spring to mind immediately when asked to name the Greek gods, is Dionysos. He was the god of wine, vegetation, fertility, pleasure, mischief, parties – and drag queens.
I’ve mentioned Dionysos twice before in relation to the stars. First was his association with Virgo, in particular with the star Vindematrix. This name means “grape gatherer” and its rise in the sky signalled the start of the grape harvest. The other constellation with Dionysos connections is Taurus, or more specifically the group of stars within it called the Pleiades. These stars were named after the seven daughters of Atlas who, as I mentioned in the article about them, seem to have been the patron deities of drag queens. Briefly, without going through it all again, ancient astrologers believed that the Pleiades influenced the worshippers of Dionysos, turning them into what the ancient writer Manilius described as someone remarkably similar to a modern day drag queen. In mythology the Pleiades raised Dionysos and disguised him as a girl to protect him from the wrath of Hera, the ever-jealous wife of Dionysos’s father Zeus.
So, what about that drag queen’s crown, you may be asking? Well, the constellation of Corona Borealis is said to represent a crown given by Dionysos to one of his lovers. Not one of his male lovers but a female one called Princess Ariadne of Crete. This princess may be familiar to you from the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. In the main variation of the myth, the most familiar one, Theseus and Ariadne got married after the Minotaur was defeated and they returned to Athens, Theseus’ home. Apparently, the marriage wasn’t a very good one and legends vary on who left who (or is it who left whom? I’m never sure about my grammar). Whichever partner it was who deserted the other first, Ariadne ended up being courted by Dionysos who had always wanted to get her into bed with her. Again, the myths vary here. The crown was either given by Dionysos as a symbol of his love before they got married, or a gift to Ariadne on their wedding day.
There’s yet another version of the myth. Theseus had not entered the labyrinth to confront the Minotaur when Dionysos gave the crown to Ariadne. It shone so brightly that she gave it to Theseus for him to see his way in and out of the labyrinth. The most familiar version has Theseus following a thread which Ariadne was holding. On Theseus’ emergence from the labyrinth Ariadne threw the crown into the sky and it became the constellation.
Whichever version was told in ancient Greece the end result was always the same – the crown ended up as Corona Borealis.
While I’m on the subject of Dionysos there’s an old fable that was recounted by the famous story-teller Aesop over two and a half thousand years ago. In it Dionysos has a significant influence on the creation of gay men and lesbians.
The god given the responsibility of creating mankind was Prometheus. He used clay to form the original bodies, making hundreds of thousands of them, men and women. This took him many days. For some reason they were all created without sexual organs, and Aesop doesn’t tell us why. When Prometheus had finished he began to form the male and female sexual organs separately. Again this took many days. He began to attach the sex organs to the pre-formed people. This also took many more days and Prometheus was getting more tired by the minute.
At that moment Dionysos arrived to ask Prometheus out for a drink. Prometheus was reluctant at first because he had this job to finish, but Dionysos keep nagging him to leave the job till later. He needed a rest and a drink would refresh him. Prometheus relented and off the two gods went.
Now, we all know what sort of relaxation Dionysos was keen on – a good party with lots of alcohol. So Dionysos took Prometheus away and they had a jolly good night out filled with wine and nectar.
Eventually Prometheus decided it was time he got back to work. He staggered home in a drunken stupor and sat down. What was he doing, he probably thought? Oh yes, putting the genitals on the rest of those human figures he had made. Picking up the genitals, one by one he began attaching them to the figures.
It was only when he had finished that he realised he had mixed up that last lot of genitals. On all of the figures he had worked on since coming home from his night out with Dionysos he had put the wrong genitals on the wrong gender. The men had female genitals and the women had male genitals.
This is how Aesop explained the creation of men and women who display characteristics of the opposite gender – effeminate men and butch women. Effeminate men were female forms with male genitals, and butch women were male forms with female genitals. It was Aesop’s way of explaining gay men and lesbians.
So, if you’re ever asked if homosexuality is “nature or nurture” you can say neither. It’s the result of a drunken night out with a drag queen!