Consider today's entry as a teaser for this month's podcast essay, entitled "Humors, Horoscopes, and Homosexuality." I'm always happy to sieze on convenient inspiration.
Armenian astrology text (British Library Ms. Or. 6471)
Today’s item is a bit outside of how I usually cover material. An image showed up in my Twitter feed posted by Dr Alex MacFarlane (@aghvesagirk) who was perusing Armenian manuscripts held in the British Library. It’s rare to find pre-modern art showing women in same-sex erotic encounters, so I asked further about it and Dr. MacFarlane was able to provide me with some additional background, as well as gracious permission to use the image and to cite them.
So this is really just a brief squib--not even a squib in the usual sense--to point to further information.
There is a long tradition, starting with the ancient Greeks, of attributing particular sexual tastes to specific astrological alignments. This wasn’t as simple as heterosexual versus homosexual, but included things like whether one preferred sex within marriage or outside of it, what type of partner one preferred in terms of class, age, etc., whether one preferred to take a sexual role that aligned with social expectations or contradicted them (in terms of active/passive participant). Within this context, some astrology texts discussed conditions that would predispose a woman to take the active role in sex with another woman.
One should be wary of interpreting this as “a woman who prefers sex with women” in the modern sense because the focus was often on the question of gender expression. If a woman’s stars aligned to give her a more masculine nature with regard to sex, then she would naturally prefer to be the active partner (by the gender models of the time) and therefore would default to engaging in sex with “normal” women who were expected to default to taking the passive role. (Such a “masculine woman” might also engage in sex with a man, but in that case he would also be acting against gender role expectations in accepting a passive role.)
You can find LHMP entries that I’ve tagged as discussion of astrological texts here. I plan to do a podcast that looks more closely at both astrology and humoral theory with regard to sexual desires/orientation, so I won’t go into the history in detail here, but suffice it to say that the astrological tradition persisted over time, including adaptations and translations into many different languages.
Thus we come to Ms. Or. 6471. It’s cataloged in A Catalogue of the Armenian Manuscripts in the British Museum, by Frederick Cornwallis Conybeare (London, 1913) starting on page 320. (The book is available through the Internet Archive here.) The basic description is: “The MS. is a treatise on Magic, Astrology, and the Calendar.” It includes something resembling a table of contents which also explains how the author collected the contents and their sources, as well as naming the author and the man who commissioned the work and giving the date it was written (1610 CE, but recorded in a different calendar system). The catalog describes the language as follows: “Parts of it, especially the first paragraphs of the early sections, are written in a fairly correct, if vulgar, Armenian, but the greater part of the text is a jargon of popular Armenian dialects of the sixteenth century, mixed with Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.” This gives you a sense of the culture context in which the author was working.
Dr. MacFarlane offers some additional information on the source of the 17th century text, suggesting that the name given (Sěṙi Mak't'um) can be connected with an Arabic text Al-Sirr al-Maktūm, which is discussed in Michael Sebastian Noble’s 2017 doctoral thesis (University of London) abstracted here and soon to be published by DeGruyter (see link). (It isn’t entirely clear that Noble’s book is concerned with the specific part of the manuscript in which this image appears.)
As described in the catalog, the astrology section of the manuscript includes a number of full-page illustrations of the planets and the Zodiac signs, primarily in the form of human figures with symbolic accessories.
This is followed by a series of pages with multiple smaller pictures that appear to depict the consequences of particular astrological alignments. And it’s here that our attention is caught:
Dr. MacFarlane provides a transcription and transliteration of the caption for the second image from the bottom:
կինմիորզկինմիկուպղծէ("a woman who defiles a woman")
This image shows two women, with their upper garments hiked up around their waists and their legs bare. One is lying on her back with the near (visible) leg elevated and the other woman is kneeling between her legs, pressing their vulvas together. Their hands are touching each other and they are gazing at each other.
The exact context would require identifying and translating the context of the other images, as well as looking at the the other parts of the text associated with the image. But given the usual context of astrology manuals, we can guess that it describes the planetary alignments that would predispose a woman to behave this way.
It is tempting to connect the sexual position shown in this illustration with the 13th century description in Al-Tifashi.