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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 49d - Artificial Scarcity of Representation: Asexual Artemis/Lesbian Diana

Saturday, August 22, 2020 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 172 (previously 49d) - Artificial Scarcity of Representation: Asexual Artemis/Lesbian Diana- transcript

(Originally aired 2020/08/22 - listen here)

What does representation mean when we’re looking deep into history? When the people we long to identify with had radically different understandings of the very identities we’re looking for? As I put it in an essay I wrote several years ago: who owns history? Who gets to claim specific historic figures for “their team” when the scanty evidence can validly be interpreted in more than one way? And how are those questions magnified when we’re talking about mythic or fictional creations in the first place, for whom the entire concept of “historic truth” is of questionable usefulness?

This month’s podcast theme on representations of the sexuality of the goddess Artemis or Diana is intended to poke at those questions and discuss why they can be so thorny and why we can find ourselves asking the wrong questions in the first place. After considering the question of Artemis/Diana in particular, I’m going to talk about why the creation of an “artificial scarcity” of representation bothers me more generally, and how I struggle to avoid contributing to it.

The Goddess Artemis

Both the Greek goddess Artemis and the Roman Diana have complex histories and attributes. The many versions of them share themes without having overall consistency. Artemis was a goddess of hunting, of wild beasts, and of wilderness in general. Her key attributes included virginity or chastity, expressed as a desire not to marry and more generally to resist being treated as an object of desire by men.

In many stories she is attended by a group of women who are similarly pledged to remain unmarried and who are cast out of the group if they stray. Some related this attribute to a desire for autonomy from men and a degree of power that was not available to married women in Greek society--not even goddesses. To be in a relationship to a man put him in a position of power over her, and as with Athena, this wasn’t compatible with the flavor of divinity that Artemis represented.

Some later Greek writers represented Artemis’s rejection of relations with men as a rejection of sexuality in general and placed her in opposition to the goddess of love, Aphrodite.

But Artemis was not a simple, one-note divinity. Her devotion to chastity made her a natural as the protector of young girls, but she was also one of several goddesses overseeing chidbirth and midwifery--an attribute connected with the story that she was born before her twin, Apollo, and was midwife for her mother at her brother’s birth. Even as she protected women in childbirth, she was also blamed for specifically female causes of death. She had some attributes of a goddess of the moon and the underworld, mirroring Apollo’s association with the sun. Artemis has some attributes that seem borrowed from mother goddess traditions, though she was not represented as a mother goddess directly.

There are a wide variety of more local traditions and interpretations of Artemis that may reflect what were originally independent local deities with similar attributes, or where myths about an unrelated figure were transferred to her. This type of conflation of independent traditions into a unified figure--often with attempts to smooth out the inconsistencies--is called syncretism and is a key factor to keep in mind. Artemis doesn’t have a consistent, coherent story in part because she did not evolve from a single source. This syncretism also accounts for the many and conflicting variants in some of the key myths associated with her.

The story of Orion is one of those inconsistencies. The basic story is that Orion was a great hunter who became a companion of Artemis through that shared interest. Things go wrong--though there are several versions of what, why, and how--and Orion is killed. Maybe accidentally by Artemis. Maybe she’s tricked into it. Maybe he was stung to death by a scorpion. Maybe the earth goddess takes him out because he swears he’s going to hunt every animal on earth to extinction. Maybe Apollo is responsible because he’s afraid Orion will win Artemis’s heart and hand. There are a lot of different variants and they speak differently to the motif that Orion was the one man that Artemis was attracted to. None of the stories have her actually succumbing to his charms, but she does put him in the sky as a constellation, so she liked him enough for that. Sometimes the legend of Orion doesn’t involve Artemis at all. The point being that there isn’t one single story. No “true version” that trumps the others. This is a feature of classical mythology in general. The river may run to the sea, but it meanders and shifts in its course on the way, sometimes joining other rivers, sometimes splitting into a complex delta, sometimes drying up entirely or emerging from an underground course in unexpected places.

One of those story-rivers about Artemis is that she was intensely protective of her independent status with regard to men. There are any number of tales of Artemis taking revenge on men (or gods) for offences ranging from trying to rape her to accidentally viewing her bathing naked to simply challenging her status as the best hunter around. The most famous of these is the tale of Actaeon who sees her bathing--in some versions accidentally, in some, deliberately--at which Artemis turns him into a stag and he is hunted to death by his own hounds.

The story of Callisto (for which see a previous podcast) emphasizes the requirement Artemis had that her followers also remain chaste with regard to men. But the Callisto story also introduces the implication that relations between women weren’t considered to fall under the requirement for chastity. And therein lies one of the sources of ambiguity. Did Artemis’s chastity refer only to heterosexual relations or to sexuality in general? We’ll return to this question.

The Goddess Diana

The Roman goddess of the hunt, Diana had an independent origin from Artemis, but absorbed many of the Greek goddess’s attributes, making it difficult to disentangle the two. She was a patroness of rural spaces--though not so much of wilderness, a patroness of hunters and of the Moon. Like Artemis, she is considered a twin to Apollo. Another similarity is that she was dedicated to remaining virgin and was a protector of childbirth.

Later medieval traditions that associated her with witchcraft gave her a male consort and a daughter. Diana was often presented as having three distinct aspects, reflecting associations with hunting, the moon, and the underworld. In the last, she was sometimes associated with Hecate.

As with Artemis, Diana’s mythology, attributes, and worship were syncretic, incorporating material from a variety of sources--including, in her case, many of the traditions that Artemis had already attracted, making it pointless to try to define a single “true” version of Diana’s nature.

It was in this amalgamated version as Roman Diana that the goddess entered the later medieval, Renaissance, and early modern imagination, during various revivals of interest in Classical literature and imagery. She was assigned both the iconography and some of the specific mythic stories that had belonged to Artemis, including the transformation and death of Acteon and Jupiter’s seduction and rape of Callisto disguised as the goddess.

But Roman Diana also retained distinctive attributes and traditions of worship that differentiated her from simply being a mirror of Artemis. Although virginity was a key attribute of Diana, even more than Artemis she was not a deity for women only. Nor--despite the myths about men being punished for trespassing on her domain--was she depicted as being particularly hostile to men in general.

Diana left two legacies for post-Classical Europe. The worship of Diana (or of local deities conflated with Diana) continued into the early medieval period, making her a named target for Christian efforts to erase pre-Christian practices. These traditions contributed to the later association of Diana with witchcraft. But the second legacy came through the revival of classical myth and legend, both during the medieval period, and again in the Renaissance and later.

Diana’s rejecting of marriage or sexual relations with men, both for herself and her followers, was a repeating theme in the context of women’s resistance to marriage. Examples include Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” in which Emily prays to Diana to save her from marriage to either of the two men fighting over her. There are any number of other examples of Diana as an icon of marriage resistance. Shakespeare’s female characters regularly invoke Diana either when remaining chaste, as with Rosalind in As You Like Itor Hero inMuch Ado about Nothingor Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or in cases where turning from a chaste life to marriage is framed as abandoning Diana’s temple, as with Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well.

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Aro-Ace or Lesbian?

As I discussed in the podcast about Callisto, interpreting how Diana’s sexuality is viewed in historic literature requires some thought about the concepts of virginity and chastity. Does Artemis/Diana reject sex and romance generally, or sex and romance with men specifically? Male-dominated Neo-Platonic philosophy interpreted her sworn virginity as a renunciation of sexuality in general rather than an absence of sexual drive, but unless a text specifically addresses same-sex options, questions remain.

If we’re looking to classical, medieval and early modern sources for a clear answer to this, we won’t find one. The ways in which the goddess is represented, the words put into her mouth and the actions attributed to her, are ambiguous and contradictory. 

If you consider the question from the point of view of modern sexual identities, this seems a perplexing problem. But neither the classical Artemis/Diana nor the people who used her as a character in historic literature and art were modern people with modern categories for sexual identity. Just as it makes little sense to think about classical Greek and Roman ideas about male same-sex relations in terms of modern concepts of homosexuality, it makes little sense to think about historic references to virginity or chastity in terms that treat all gender pairings as equivalent.

Within the context of classical mythology--or, indeed, much of pre-modern literature--a virgin was a woman who had not had sex with a man. That was it. Men were the only sexual partner who counted for the definition. Male-female pairings were the norm against which everything else was evaluated. Everything else was--to use a modern concept--queer. And people didn’t necessarily distinguish the specific ways in which it was queer.

This, by the way, is my answer to people who question whether aromantic or asexual people are queer-by-definition. Queerness is divergence from the expected societal norm. For as long as our societal norm defaults to expecting everyone to be alloromantic and allosexual, then diverging from that state to any degree makes you just as queer as diverging from the expectation of heterosexuality, or the expectation of being cis-gendered, or the expectation of being monosexual. This might seem like a bit of a tangent, but it touches on one of the themes underlying why people view the question of Artemis/Diana’s sexuality to be a question of ownership.

But surely there are hints and clues in the historic portrayals of Artemis/Diana that could answer the question once and for all? Just as we can identify hints and clues in the lives of historic people that enable us to identify people as homosexual or as transgender or as other identities that weren’t clearly defined back then? Well, yes, there are hints and clues, but just as for other sexuality and gender questions, the answers aren’t clear-cut. And often they aren’t clear-cut for the specific reason that people weren’t thinking in terms of those modern categories.

So let’s look at some specific data.

Lesbian Diana

In the podcast about Callisto, I went through a number of examples of Diana--or her followers--being depicted as embracing same-sex love. These interpretations viewed their chastity as being an exclusion of relations with men, not romantic or sexual relations in general.

Every version of the story of Callisto is predicated on the understanding that Callisto believed that while accepting Jupiter’s sexual advances would get her kicked out of Diana’s band, accepting Diana’s sexual advances would not have the same result. Maybe Callisto is shown as being uncertain about having sex with Diana, or as welcoming it, but she definitely does not consider herself as committed to rejecting sexual relations in general. Whether it is William Warner in his poem Albion’s Englandasserting that “a maiden to a maiden might do this” or Atalanta, in Thomas Heywood’s The Golden Ageassuring Diana that “we [nymphs] are all coupled and twinned in love” these examples support the vision of a lesbian Diana. The Callisto podcast includes other literary references to a lesbian, or at least homoromantic, version of Diana, so I won’t reiterate them all.

Asexual Artemis

But Artemis/Diana often appears in other contexts that don’t reference the Callisto story. And in these, we have the opportunity to see Diana being depicted as standing against sexual love in general. This sometimes occurs in contexts where she is set up as an opponent to Venus, the goddess of love, romance, and sex. But can we distinguish between Venus as promoting heterosexual love as opposed to all types of love? Only rarely, for obvious reasons, but a pertinent example is in the Thomas Lyly play Gallathea.

Gallatheais something of a typical cross-dressing play in which gender disguise results in accidental same-sex desire, but in this storyline, two young women both cross-dress, both fall in love with the other (each initially thinking she’s falling in love with a young man), and continue to maintain their love after their gender is revealed.

The play includes a rivalry between Venus and Cupid on the side of love, and Diana and her nymphs on the side of chastity. In an initial encounter between Cupid and one of Diana’s nymphs, the nymph denies any knowledge of the thing called love and, when Cupid describes the symptoms and effects of love, she calls it “a foolish thing.”

In revenge for being rejected, Cupid decides to shoot his arrows at Diana’s followers to force them to love--not to love men, but to love each other. “I will make their pains my pastimes and so confound their loves in their own sex that they shall dote in their desires, delight in their affections, and practice only impossibilities.” So in this play, it isn’t only men that the nymphs reject, but clearly the experience of love in general. Of course, we must understand that the playwright’s assumptions and prejudices are at play in treating same-sex love as an “impossibility”, but the Diana of Gallatheais clearly distinct from the Diana of The Golden Age. And both reflect what writers of the time considered compatible with the mythic Diana they had inherited.

Let us skip to the end of the play, after Diana has captured Cupid and punished him for tormenting her nymphs. Diana and Venus appeal to the judgment of Neptune regarding Cupid’s fate, but also the fate of Gallathea and Phyllida’s love for each other. The two maidens, now again presenting as women, are challenged by Diana to “leave these fond affections.” But they proclaim their continued love and devotion and when Venus is asked if she approves, she answers, “I like well and allow it. They shall both be possessed of their wishes, for never shall it be said that nature or fortune shall overthrow love and faith.” And though Venus’s ultimate stratagem is to turn one of them into a boy, she approves their love before making that decision.

So in this depiction, Diana and her followers are specifically depicted as aromantic in general, not loving men or women, in contrast to Venus’s support of all forms of love.

But the Gallathea story points out one of the difficulties in identifying unambiguously asexual interpretations of Diana in eras that didn’t clearly distinguish asexuality from abstinence, and that often entirely overlook the question of same-sex desire. Gallatheaprovides a clear example of asexual Diana specifically because it doesrecognize the existence of same-sex desire and weaves it into the plot conflicts.

Texts that include an overt recognition of the possibility of female same-sex erotic desire are rare, and those that include them typically have the focus on the desire itself, not on a negation of that possible desire. This makes it hard to find similar examples but there’s a passing reference in Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia. Like the Callisto story, the plot involves a man disguising himself as a woman (the Amazon Zelmane) in order to gain social access to the object of his desire, Philoclea. Philoclea, completely ignorant of “Zelmane’s” true gender, gradually realizes that she has fallen in love with someone she believes to be another woman. And she realizes that what she feels is something other than friendship but more akin to what she has been told heterosexual desire is like. In adjusting to this realization, Philoclea tries on several possible resolutions to her love.

“First she would wish, that they two might live all their lives together, like two of Diana’s Nymphs. But that wish, she thought not sufficient, because she knew, there would be more Nymphs besides them, who also would have their part in Zelmane. Then would she wish, that she were her sister, that such a natural bond might make her more special to her. But against that, she considered, that though being her sister, if she happened to be married, she should be robbed of her. Then, grown bolder, she would wish either her self, or Zelmane a man, that there might succeed a blessed marriage betwixt them.”

There are several similarities here to Gallathea, if one sets aside the gender disguise issue. Philoclea recognizes her desire as equivalent to heterosexual desire, and compares the companionship of Diana’s nymphs as being an unsatisfactory arrangement because it would not fulfill the specific and exclusive nature of her desire. By implication--though not expressed as overtly as in Gallathea--theArcadiaenvisions Diana’s band as excluding sexual desire, even when the possibility of sexual desire between women is accepted.

Given how hard one must work to identify unambiguously homoerotic themes in depictions of the mythic Diana, it seems odd to find it even harder (though clearly not impossible) to find evidence for works that treat the mythic Diana and her followers as unambiguously asexual. It is the silences and omissions on both the topic of homoeroticism and the topic of asexuality that create the difficulty. Sometimes those silences are deliberate, but more often they’re a byproduct of a historic culture that didn’t view the concepts as requiring distinction.

Artificial Scarcity of Representation

So...why should we care? For that matter, why is a podcast that specifically focuses on lesbian desire in history and literature taking all this time to argue the equal validity of an asexual versus lesbian rendering of Artemis/Diana?

Well, one minor reason is that I’m both lesbian and asexual, and it makes me uncomfortable when people act as if those two important parts of my identity are in conflict. But that’s dodging the question because the point is that there’s no reason why Artemis/Diana can’t be an icon for both allosexual lesbians andasexual non-lesbians and anyone else who finds connection with the mythology. When we’re looking for representation in the past, we need to move beyond the “naming and claiming” impulse and learn how to share.

Identity categories--whether gender, orientation, even ethnic and cultural--are by nature unstable and mutable. As I discussed in a podcast episode where I compared identity features to the semantics of prepositions--which, by the way, that was a really fun one, you should go back and listen to it--identities are inherently complex in structure. The features that make up a specific named identity come together in a particular social and historic context and may not make sense to people in a different context. To insist on a one-to-one correspondence of the identities we recognize today with identities in the past is as pointless as trying to fix the meaning or pronunciation of words, as futile as trying to force that river to run in exactly the same course for all time. I regularly point out that the gender and sexuality categories that were accepted and embraced when I was a teenager are vastly different from the ones current today. How much more so the identities of hundreds or thousands of years ago? Yes, there are commonalties, there are touch-points, there are thematic similarities. But there are not exact equations. And to try to force that one-to-one correspondence erases as many aspects of the past as it affirms.

Furthermore, it treats the relationship of contemporary people to history as a fixed and limited resource. It acts as if one person’s identification with a historic figure erases all other possibilities and steals the possibility of identification from other people. And here’s the thing: nobodyshould want that because everybodyhas something to lose.

Whether it’s the question of whether we’re allowed to “claim” a historic woman as a lesbian if she was in a marriage to a man, or whether the question is trying to divvy up every single historic person into a bin labeled heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, or whether we’re arguing over where to draw the line in past centuries between butch women and trans men, we all lose if we stake out the position that there can only be one right answer in every case.

The point may be especially clear in the case of Artemis/Diana simply because the question of historic truth is moot. But the argument holds much more widely. We can either create an artificial scarcity by demanding exclusive ownership of historic icons, or we can recognize the fuzzy, overlapping, shifting, ambiguity of identity categories and agree to share. And when we share, we allget more representation.

Show Notes

An exploration of the mythic figures of Artemis and Diana

In this episode we talk about:

  • Their complex and contradictory mythology and religious traditions
  • How Artemis/Diana was represented in later literature and art
  • Diana & Callisto: the lesbian tradition
  • Diana vs. Venus: the asexual tradition
  • Why we need to stop fighting over them

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: