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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 48d - Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality

Saturday, July 25, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 168 (previously 48d) - Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality - transcript

(Originally aired 2020/07/25 - listen here)

Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality.

Today’s topic explores two fields in which people in Western history and adjacent cultures expressed ideas that connect in some way to our modern idea of inherent sexual orientation. But the ways in which those concepts in the past differ from our ideas about homosexuality, heterosexuality, and bisexuality are just as fascinating as they ways in which they overlap.

These two topics certainly aren’t the only theories that Western people have had about sexual preference--they appear side by side with theories based on anatomy, moral concepts, among many others. But the fields of humoral theory and astrology intersect in interesting ways. Besides which, it’s hard to resist an alliterative title.

Both astrological and humoral theories of sexual desire arose within an understanding of sexual categories often called the “one-sex theory”, that is, a framework in which male and female existed on a continuum rather than being discrete categories, and where one’s gender identity could exist anywhere within that continuum or could shift within it. While this may sound very modern and progressive, we shouldn’t mistake it for an understanding of gender as subjective and value-neutral. At the same time that the one-sex continuum was an established philosophical concept, people were also quite certain that male and female were qualitatively different things, that male was better than female, and that stepping outside the part of the gender continuum one had been assigned to was a Bad Thing.


I’m going to tackle astrology first because it’s likely to be more familiar to my listeners. I would make a guess that most of you know the basics of astrology. It’s still common for newspapers and magazines to have a regular feature with simple advice or predictions based on the zodiac sign one was born under. And you’ll hear a lot of perfectly rational people talk about personality types associated with zodiac signs with sincerity--if not always actual belief. The basic idea is that the relative positions of the stars and planets at the exact time of one’s birth--sometimes also at the time of conception--will have an influence on one’s character, one’s strengths and weaknesses, and one’s life path. Apparent contradictions in the reading can generally be explained as secondary influences or conflicting forces: rising signs, waxing and waning planetary influences, and so forth.

For someone who takes astrology seriously -- and many people throughout history have done so -- it would seem fairly obvious that the alignments at one’s birth could influence what type of person one would desire sexually, or what type of sexual activity one would most enjoy. What is less obvious is what forms that influence would take.

Types of Astrological Influence

As an example of the sorts of topics that might be considered relevant, here’s a passage from a 4th century astrology manual by the Roman author Firmicus Maternus which shows the complicated web of factors that were considered to affect one’s life. One should understand that the default client indicated in these texts is male unless otherwise specified and when the text references a “native” it means the person whose nativity--whose birth--is being analyzed.

“Those who have Venus in [the second] house by day will have great reverses of fortune and also late marriage; they will have lawsuits over another woman. Some will be several times widowed. If the Sun or Saturn are in opposition, square aspect, or conjunction with Venus the natives will be sterile, never successful in sexual activity, will never marry, and always be lovers of boys. The misfortunes are less if Venus is in the house or terms of Saturn, Mars, or Mercury.”

That’s quite a variety of different effects that don’t have an obvious connection. But if we can understand the connections that the authors saw in these systems, then we can gain a key to how they structured sexual experiences within their societies.

The reference to a man being a “lover of boys” is set in parallel with being sterile or impotent, not marrying, or perhaps marrying late, or being widowed multiple times. These are all disruptions of the social ideal of a successful male life. Note that loving members of the same sex--which we might consider a sexual preference--is set in parallel with being sterile (which we would consider a medical condition), or with not marrying, which might be due to economic circumstances. And these are all identified as “misfortunes.”

In a different passage, still focusing on men, a particular conjunction “often makes them lovers of boys or of women from the stage, or they become manager of houses of prostitution.” Again, we see that the categories don’t align simply with gender of the sexual partner but follow an entirely different common thread, perhaps having to do with sexual options that are incompatible with marriage, or a desire for partners from a specific occupational class.

When Maternus addresses how women are affected, there is less complexity in his description. “If Saturn is in opposition, in square aspect, or conjunction with Venus, located as we have said with Mars, women who have this combination make love impurely and unchastely to other women.” Or, for a different conjunction, “If a woman has this combination she will always imitate the behavior of men,” a description that can imply sex with women, although it can also imply other male-coded behaviors.

The earliest astrology manuals we have are from an era when the practice was already long established, and it’s clear that each era interpreted and framed the material according to its own culture. Astrology manuals in circulation in Europe during the middle ages had often made their way from classical Greek and Latin origins through the Arabic tradition, picking up interpretations along the way. And classical texts were translated, adapted, and republished in the Renaissance and later. So as we take this tour through some interesting passages, we shouldn’t treat them as belonging to a unified, coherent, logical system, even though they all operate within a relatively continuous tradition of practice.

Stars that Make a Woman Masculine

Astrological alignments that cause women to “act like men” sometimes indicate pursuing sex with women, but sometimes it is a more general comment on assertive and dominant behavior. Such as: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men.” But also, “Mars and Venus in conjunction in a morning rising and in a masculine sign make women viragosand sterile.” That is they are made unfeminine in personality, but without necessarily pursuing women sexually.

If a variety of references to same-sex behavior are analyzed together, we see that there isn’t really a unified concept of homosexuality being expressed, but something more like a notion of fixed gender roles that include expected sexual behaviors for that role. Women’s same sex desires are most often discussed in a context of being masculine in behavior, which can include desiring women as a sexual partner and taking an active role in sex--both traits that were coded as male. In contrast, influences leading to men’s same-sex activity fall into two distinct groups: men who desire to be the passive partner in sex, and men who prefer partners not suitable for marriage, which can include both male partners and women of an unsuitable class or occupation. These are key factors in understanding some of the differences from a modern concept of sexual orientation.

The Arabic Tradition

While texts in Greek or Latin or the later European languages often refer to sex between women only in terms of one partner “acting like a man”, Arabic texts had a more specific vocabulary available that didn’t necessarily imply masculinity.

A medieval Arabic translation of Dorotheos of Sidon, who originally wrote in the 1st century, translates whatever language he used with the completely unambiguous word sahaqato mean a woman who has sex with women. He writes that when Venus and the Moon are in a particular location, the female subject will be a sahaqa, while men with a similar conjunction will be “desirous of males”. But in another passage, Dorotheos discusses astrological causes of excess lust in women, giving the conjunctions that lead to adultery, to “perform the act of men with women”, or to simply to excessively indulging in sex with men. Here we see another historic view of sex between women: that it results from an excess of desire that may be expressed in a variety of ways, where the gender of the partner is simply one type of inappropriate context.

Influences other than Gender of Partner

The choice of partner isn’t the only sexual factor being influenced, not even the choice of an active or passive sexual role, which is often a more accurate way to interpret these descriptions. The stars can affect your preference for sexual partners of a specific age, social status, or race. It can cause you to prefer specific sexual positions, as in a text by Guido Bonatti that claims that if a male child is conceived with Venus in a certain position, he will later participate in sex with the woman on top.

The stars also determine whether you will pursue illicit sex secretly or openly, which is one of the factors discussed in the following passage by Claudius Ptolemy, who wrote in 2nd century Egypt. He also combines discussions of astrology with humoral theory, a common feature in the early texts, as the planets were often thought to have their effects through changing one’s humoral balance. But more on that in a moment.

We see in Claudius Ptolemy’s system that conjunctions that reinforce “natural” sexual behaviors in men are thought to cause unnatural behavior in women because they have caused her to be more masculine in nature, and vice versa. “If the luminaries are unattended in masculine signs, males exceed in the natural, and females exceed in the unnatural quality, so as merely to increase the virility and activity of the soul. But if likewise Mars or Venus as well, either one or both of them is made masculine, the males become addicted to natural sexual intercourse, and are adulterous, insatiate, and ready on every occasion for base and lawless acts of sexual passion, while the female are lustful for unnatural congresses, cast inviting glances of the eye, and are what we call tribades, for they deal with females and perform the functions of males. If Venus alone is constituted in a masculine manner, they do these things secretly and not openly. But if Mars likewise is so constituted, [they do them] without reserve, so that sometimes they even designate the women with whom they are on such terms as their lawful ‘wives’.” 

Your stars may affect your personality, or your behavior, or your body. So it would be a mistake to focus too narrowly on the passages that talk about same-sex interactions as if that were the most salient feature of the astrological influence. Astrology couldinfluence you to prefer partners of a specific type, or to prefer certain types of sex acts, but gender was only one of many possible features involved, and even when gender was involved, it might be as part of a gender system that considered age and social class to be categories as important as male versus female.

Astrology in Other Texts

So were astrological explanations of sexual preference purely an intellectual game? A literary genre? Or simple superstition? Evidently not, because we can find astrology offered as a possible cause for desire between women in specific cases during the middle ages and later. The 16th century German Zimmern Chroniclerelates the story of a young working class woman who courted and loved other women. The chronicler considers several possible reasons for her behavior, working through popular theories of the time. Perhaps she had masculine-leaning physiology and that caused her to desire women? No, the local women checked her out and found her to conform to expected female norms. Perhaps she was born under a “perverted, unnatural constellation”? Or perhaps her desire was just something that happened sometimes given that “according to the learned and well-read one finds that the same was frequently met with among the Greeks and Romans.” Though the Zimmern chronicler comes to no solid conclusion, he considers the stars to be a possible causal factor alongside the others.

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There wasn’t a bright dividing line between how humoral theory affected human lives and the effects of astrology, for the latter was sometimes described as operating by changing the balance of heat and cold, wet and dry.  Unlike astrology, humoral theory has largely fallen out of popular familiarity in modern Western culture, though its roots were just as long and deep. Westerners today may be more familiar with the basic principles via similar philosophies in various Asian traditions. The last trace of the Western Galenic tradition of humoral balance that people are likely to have heard of is the medical practice of blood-letting, either by direct bleeding or through the use of leeches. But the philosophy was far more complicated than that.

Most later writing on humoral theory traces to the works of the 2nd century Greek physician Galen, although he simply codified ideas that were in common circulation at the time, including a large body of work attributed to Hippocrates in the 5th century BCE. And humoral theory was only one part of a larger philosophical system that focused on the principles of balance and imbalance, moderation, and characteristics that existed in polarity. Hot, cold; wet, dry; living, inert. Specific combinations and gradients of these factors defined the nature of everything in existence. These principles applied in chemistry, where a specific balance of principles determined the nature of the elements. But of more immediate interest today is the application of humoral theory in biology and health.

In this context, “Humoral theory” visualizes the two binaries of hot/cold and wet/dry in terms of bodily fluids: blood (hot and wet), phlegm (cold and wet), black bile (cold and dry), and yellow bile (hot and dry). Each living being also had an inherent humoral balance depending on their nature, as can be seen in the alternate names for personalities reflecting the humors: sanguine, phlegmatic, choloric, and melancholic. Humoral balance could be affected by diet, by environment, and by behavior and activity. Health, well-being, and proper function according to one’s nature come from having the humors in the proper balance. Medicine is designed to correct an imbalance. 

In addition certain humoral balances were associated with the genders, with life-stage, and with many other human characteristics. Thus, for example, male human beings are, by nature, considered to be “hotter” than female human beings. Certain sexual differences are considered to be a consequence of this supposed “fact.”

So, for example, under this theory women experience menstruation and men don’t because menstruation is the female body’s attempt to rid itself of an imbalance of properties specific to the condition of being female, while in turn that specific imbalance is part of what defines femaleness. Humors were generated by the body’s metabolism and could change in nature. For example, blood could be converted to milk when a woman was nursing, which provided the explanation for why lactation suppressed menstruation and fertility.

Humoral Theory and Sex

Fertility--and of course, sex--were always of interest when considering health. The general theory of humoral dynamics during sex goes something like this. The constant accumulation of certain humors in the body increases heat in the genitals, which causes irritation and draws moisture. This irritation motivates a person to engage in sex to relieve it, which results in the entire body heating up, which transforms the residues into semen. The expulsion of seed during orgasm then removes the surplus of heat and moisture and--if conception occurs--provides nourishment for the fetus. One interesting feature of medical theory at the time was that both sexes ejaculated seed at orgasm and therefore women’s sexual satisfaction was necessary for conception.

This cycle was considered to contribute to proper balance and good health, but sex was not the only means of achieving that balance. The accumulation of the humors that caused desire (and therefore the degree to which the body desired sex to expel them) depended on diet, as well as other personal factors. The sex of a resulting child depended on the mixing and strength of the seed of both parents, the woman’s being more cold and wet and the man’s being more hot and dry.

One Italian medical treatise of the 13th century shows the detailed and convoluted reasoning by which humoral theory was thought to cause particular sexual habits. It describes how virginal women are continually aroused, because the narrowness of their womb prevents emission of their seed, therefore they can’t rid themselves of excess heat in this way. The heat drives them to stimulate themselves, which draws moisture to the genitals, but cannot be expelled and they are in a constant state of frustration.

Humoral Influences on Same-Sex Desire

But how do same-sex activities come into the question? Now we get a diversity of answers. The theories for why certain imbalances of humors might cause a man to get pleasure from being the passive partner in male-male sex are fascinating, but not relevant to this essay. And note that no argument was needed for what motivated the insertive partner in a male couple because the dynamics followed the usual expectations for male metabolism.

The most straightforward explanation for how humors could drive a woman to same-sex love is simple lack of satisfaction with a male partner. If the women is not brought to orgasm, her humors remain out of balance causing continued irritation and, as Avicenna argues, they may “have recourse to rubbing with other women in order to achieve amongst themselves the fullness of their pleasures” and rid themselves of the build up of seed caused by arousal.

Indeed, some medical manuals, such as that of Nicholas Fontanus in mid-17th century England, prescribed that if a woman suffered from an “abundance of the spermatick humor” and has no husband to help relieve her, balance might be restored by “the hand of a skilfull midwife and a convenient ointment” rubbed into the genitals to achieve orgasm.

Humors and Gender Identity

But outside of this situational desire, humoral balance was considered to affect desire through a heteronormative model of innate nature. As with astrology, the effects of the humors on sexual behavior were often interpreted as being due to their influence on one’s gender expression. Men were considered to have a more hot and dry nature, women tended to be more cold and moist. As a high degree of sexual desire was considered to be a masculine characteristic, excess sexual desire in women was associated with conditions that made them more “hot”, and this was thought to result in a variety of male-coded characteristics. For example the medieval author Michael Scot claims that a woman with a hot nature, as well as being more lustful, will have small, hard breasts, smaller periods, and an excess of pubic hair.

If a woman had more of a hot, dry nature than was typical for women -- a more masculine nature -- it would affect both her ability to conceive and her personality with regard to sex, making her more bold and aggressive and inclined to take a masculine role in sex with other women. European texts are less obsessed with a precise mechanism of how this would work than they are for what might motivate a man to desire a passive role in sex.

But one exception is a 16th century Spanish text by Juan Huarte de San Juan who discussed how, if a fetus that began as one sex was subjected to the temperature that caused the other sex early in development, it could result in a contrast between nature (based on conditions at conception) and body (influenced by conditions during development). So a female fetus influenced by heat to develop male physiology, would still have a feminine personality and desire for sex with men, while a male fetus subjected to cold would develop a female body but have masculine behavior and desires, including sexual desire for women. In modern terms this description fits more with how transgender identity is envisioned, but this sex-change version isn’t the only process that can result in same-sex desire. Elsewhere Huarte discusses how a woman whose humors tend toward the hot and dry (that is, a masculine balance) will have an assertive personality, a low voice, will be more muscular, and will have difficulty becoming pregnant. (Though, in this passage, a tendency toward same-sex desire isn’t mentioned.)

Same-sex Desire Unrelated to Gender Identity

Although discussions of the influence of the humors on sexuality in the European tradition tended to be relatively value-neutral to the extent that they approached it as a medical topic, Arabic texts could be even less judgmental about sexual matters, as well as being more explicit.

The 9th century Muslim philosopher al-Kindi wrote, “Lesbianism is due to a vapor which, condensed, generates in the labia heat and an itch which only dissolves and becomes cold through friction and orgasm. When friction and orgasm take place, the heat turns into coldness because the liquid that a woman ejaculates in lesbian intercourse is cold whereas the same liquid that results from sexual union with men is hot. Heat, however, cannot be extinguished by heat; rather, it will increase since it needs to be treated by its opposite. As coldness is repelled by heat, so heat is also repelled by coldness.”

As a mathematical equation, this explanation requires a premise that female same-sex desire is a different physiological process than a woman’s desire for a man. Arousal makes her hot but orgasm results in the production of a cold liquid that cools the heat, whereas a man’s orgasm produces a hot liquid that cannot cool her. (Presumably heterosexual sex included some other means of balancing the woman’s hot/cold nature.) Al-Kindi’s explanation was quoted in the 13th century by Tifashi, who included it among a longer list of reasons why a woman might prefer sex with women over men.

But humoral explanations are not always consistent. A 12th century Arabic writer, al-Maghribi--again, among other unrelated reasons for preferring same-sex love--claims that a woman “whose womb is dominated by coldness” finds more pleasure in sex with women because the friction increases temperature, which evidently sex with men didn’t, in his system. Don’t be too distracted by apparent conflicts between texts regarding the underlying principles. A strict logical consistency was not always a feature of humoral literature.

Advice from Health Manuals

Health manuals based on humoral theory offered extensive catalogs of the nature of items in everyday life that could affect one’s humoral balance, from food, to activities, to clothing, to sensory experiences. Eating cherries is cold and wet in the first degree. The season of summer is warm in the third degree and dry in the second. Roses, gathered for their scent, are cold in the first degree and dry in the third. Linen clothing is cold and dry in the second degree while woolen clothing is warm and dry.

In addition to sexual appetite being influenced by one’s humoral balance, the sex act itself could change one’s humors, as discussed previously. Sexual arousal increased heat and orgasm took heat away. Therefore, both abstinence or excessive sexual activity could cause a harmful imbalance. One health manual notes that it may be harmful to those who are cold and dry.

The goal in changing one’s diet and habits was to achieve the balance proper to one’s nature. An imbalance could cause disease or inappropriate behavior. But that “proper balance” wasn’t the same for all people. As discussed previously, gender was considered to be a byproduct of different humoral balances. But further than that, the desired humoral profile for a military leader would be different from that of a clergyman, the proper balance for a young unmarried woman who was expected to be chaste would be different than that of a married woman hoping to conceive a child. The use of sexual pleasure to adjust one’s humoral balance could be considered a type of medical treatment, even when it didn’t conform to accepted moral principles.

Humors and Horoscopes in Historical Fiction

How do the topics of astrology and humoral theory speak to queer historical fiction? It is always tricky to represent how a character in a historic novel understands their own nature and desires, or how those around them perceive them. The models that people in history had for understanding themselves were far more complex than the image of sin and immorality one finds in Christian literature, or the psychological model we’ve inherited much more recently from the sexologists. While not everyone had access to the learned texts that I’ve quoted in this essay, the basic principles were part of popular culture and familiar to people at all levels of society. Within those complex and contradictory models, there can be room for a fictional character to understand their same-sex desires as being an innate and predetermined feature of their personality, even if that understanding differs in significant ways from modern ideas of orientation and identity.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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