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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 21d - Diana and Callisto: The Sometimes Problematic Search for Representation

Saturday, April 28, 2018 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 21d - Diana and Callisto: The Sometimes Problematic Search for Representation - transcript

(Originally aired 2018/04/28 - listen here)

The search for representation in history and historic art and literature is, in one sense, always doomed to failure because our identities are a complex product of a specific historic and cultural context. We can find echoes of individual details of our identities, but never the exact whole. And sometimes, to find those echoes, we need to excavate the features we identify with from a pit of stereotypes, disapproval, and hostility.

Today’s show looks at a topic that offers both some surprising examples of representation and some uncomfortably problematic features of how that representation was framed.

Ovid, Diana and Callisto, other mythic themes

The Roman goddess Diana (and her Greek counterpart Artemis, as well as other divinities treated as equivalent or related) is a complex figure with several prominent attributes. She is associated with the moon (corresponding to her brother Apollo’s association with the sun). She is associated with hunting and with wild spaces. She is associated with virginity or chastity and famous for harsh treatment of male intrusions into her all-female circle of followers, which makes it interesting that she was also associated with childbirth and was petitioned to assist both with becoming pregnant and with an easy delivery. Diana was often depicted in male-coded hunting garments, wearing a short tunic and boots, while carrying a bow and quiver and accompanied by hunting dogs or by a deer.

The artistic and literary treatments of Diana that had the most significant presence in later Western culture revolve around two stories, both of which are relevant for Diana as a lesbian icon. One is the story of the hunter Acteon and his fate. Acteon was out hunting and came across Diana while she was bathing naked. In punishment for this transgression, she changed Acteon into a stag and set his own hounds on him to hunt and kill him. This is part of a continuing theme depicting Diana’s band of followers as constituting a women-only space and enforcing that requirement with harsh penalties.

The other story, about Diana and Callisto, is more complex. In brief, Callisto was one of Diana’s followers, one of a band of nymphs who were sworn to reject men just as Diana herself had. Jupiter had the hots for Callisto--as he did for so many women in classical mythology--but there was no way to get close to her because of Diana’s big sign on the clubhouse saying, “No Boys Allowed.”

So Jupiter got around this problem by disguising himself as Diana. A number of the medieval and early modern versions of the story go into great detail about how Callisto became persuaded that a sexual relationship with the goddess Diana was not only ok, but was a great idea, though other versions depict her as being more consistently reluctant about it. At some point, of course, Jupiter revealed himself, but it was too late for Callisto to protest at that point. She became pregnant as a result, and although she tried to conceal the fact, her condition was discovered one day when the nymphs were bathing together. There’s that “naked nymphs bathing together in the woods” motif again. Callisto was expelled from Diana’s band and transformed into a bear, although the details of just who performed the shape-change vary depending on the version of the story. In any event, we aren’t so much concerned with that point.

The key aspects of these two stories that created resonances through the medieval and Renaissance periods were the following. The goddess Diana rejected romantic and sexual interactions with men and expected her followers to do the same. Both stories involve scenes of women bathing naked in wilderness settings. And Jupiter’s seduction of Callisto assumes a context in which Callisto responds positively to what she believes is same-sex desire. These motifs combined to create an unusually public culture of depicting female homoeroticism in a context where, if not exactly approved of, it was safely removed from everyday life enough to be acceptable.

It is undeniable that the popularity of artistic depictions of the story were, in large part, driven by the male gaze and an appetite for female homoerotic scenes created for men’s consumption. But at the same time, the depiction in both art and literature of a separatist society of women who resisted marriage or any other relations with men and who openly embraced physical affection and pair-bonding between women, created a conceptual space that welcomed women who desired women not only as consumers but as producers of those stories and images.

The concept of chastity and heteronormativity

A key feature to understanding the reception of Dianic art and literature is the shifting interpretations of the concepts of chastity and virginity. Diana was a virgin goddess and one whose followers were sworn to chastity, but for much of western culture these concepts were understood within a heteronormative framework in which “sex” was defined as what happened between men and women. During many historic eras in the west, erotic activity between women was not seen as threatening to society because it wasn’t categorized as “sex”.

Within this framework, there was no inherent conflict between Callisto swearing to be chaste and Callisto accepting the erotic advances of someone she believed to be a woman. This position is laid out explicitly in texts based on the Diana myths. For example, in William Warner’s poem Albion’s England written in 1586 Jupiter’s assault on Callisto is described as follows:

***

And Nymph-like sits him by the Nymph, that took him for no man,

And after smiles, with nearer signs of Loves assault began.

He feeleth oft her ivory breasts, nor maketh coy to kiss;

Yet all was well, a maiden to a maiden might do this.

***

From a similar era, Thomas Heywood’s play The Golden Age, lays out the expectations for the women in Diana’s band. When Callisto arrives begging to join them, Diana asks the hero Atalanta, “Is there no princess in our train as yet unmatched to be her cabin fellow and sleep by her?” And Atalanta answers, “Madam, we are all coupled and twinned in love, and hardly is there any that will be won to change her bedfellow.” So Diana tells Callisto, “You must be single till the next arrive: she that is next admitted of our train must be her bed-companion; so ‘tis alotted.” It is this uncoupled state that leaves her vulnerable to Jupiter’s advances when he arrives pretending to join Diana’s band. There’s an ironically humorous scene where Diana lays out the rules for her followers, which the disguised Jupiter has no problem promising to:

***

You shall vow chastity.

You never shall with hated man atone,

But lie with woman, or else lodge alone.

With ladies only you shall sport and play,

And in their fellowship spend night and day.

Consort with them at board and bed,

And swear no man shall have your maidenhead.

***

But despite this talk of bedfellows and sporting with the ladies, Callisto takes some convincing when the false maiden gets her alone and begins kissing and fondling her, asserting, “so a woman, with a woman, may.” This type-scene of a man in disguise working to convince a woman that same-sex erotics are perfectly acceptable also shows up in works not directly involving Callisto or the goddess Diana, such as Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure or Phillip Sidney’s Arcadia.

In an expansion of the specific myths involving Diana’s maintenance of an all-female band, she became a key symbol of marriage resistance in general. There are many literary examples of women being depicted as being “followers of Diana” in the context of rejecting marriage as a life path. For example in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, specifically in the Knight’s Tale, the character of Emily prays to Diana for help in avoiding marriage to either of the two men competing for her hand. Chaucer took this tale from Boccaccio--or at least from the same source as him--who also feature Diana as the patroness of marriage resistance. The same story shows up in Shakespeare’s Two Noble Kinsmen, and in several plays Shakespeare’s characters make regular references to Diana as a symbol of a voluntary unmarried state. But it is a state in which love and even physical affection may flourish as long as only women are involved.

The problem of Callisto-type stories for transgender representation

The myth of Diana and Callisto and they ways in which it was represented in medieval and early modern culture--as well as other stories with similar tropes, such as The Convent of Pleasure and the Arcadia--highlight two examples of the pitfalls of reaching into history to find representations of modern identities. One hazard is illustrated by viewing the Callisto story through a transgender lens, the second hazard comes from recognizing the key role of male objectification in depictions of female homoeroticism.

In looking through western history for transgender representation, it is inescapable that pervasive misogyny makes examples of transfeminine representation far more problematic than examples of transmasculine representation. Female-bodied persons who took on a masculine presentation were, historically, treated as admirable. Both in medical theory and in literary representation, the motif of the spontaneous change of physiological sex is nearly always from female to male, and philosophers argued that this was as expected because nature would only support a change from less perfect to the more perfect--that is, from female to male. In contrast, western literature treated male-bodied persons who take on a feminine presentation almost invariably as engaging in deceit, often for the purpose of sexual predation, with the exceptions to this generally being when the feminine presentation is either done for comic effect or as humiliation.

This is an expected consequence of a cultural context in which being female is considered lesser than being male. There was no framework in western culture prior to the 20th century in which to view a transition from male to female as a positive and desirable thing. Therefore when done deliberately, the assumption was that it was from ulterior motives.

Plots and motifs like these were considered edgy and amusing in early modern literature, but they are problematic when viewed from the point of view of modern audiences. And since the organizing principle of this podcast is to look at history and literature as inspirations and sources for modern historical fiction, we need to deconstruct this motif a bit more deeply to map out the minefields.

Within the historic context, gender-disguise stories--whether of a woman disguised as a man or a man disguised as a woman--could create a context for imagining and visualizing homoerotic relationships, but with a “safety valve” in which they normally resolved into heterosexual couples at the end. Occasionally, this safety valve was in the form of a magical sex change, as in the myth of Iphis and Ianthe and its many descendents such as Yde and Olive or the play Gallathea. But at the heart of these motifs lies the erasure of the reality of queer experiences. Female couples were allowed to achieve a happily-ever-after ending, but only if one of them became a man. However much a story like Gallathea may tease the audience with the possibility of a committed romantic relationship between two women, in the end it erases the validity of that possibility to restore mandatory heterosexuality. But just as importantly, such stories erase the validity of the transgender experience even while appearing to support a transgender reading of the story.

A magical physiological sex change may have resonances with modern hormonal and surgical approaches to addressing gender dysphoria, but the motif doesn’t address the realities of trans experience any more than stories about miraculous cures of the blind and lame address the realities of people’s experience of disability. Characters such as Iphis, or Yde, or Gallathea and Phyllida, or Blanchandine in the romance of Tristan de Nanteuil do not express gender dysphoria prior to their physiological transformations. Iphis and Ide and the dual protagonists of Gallathea express frustration at not being able to imagine how to successfully carry out their erotic desires within a same-sex relationship. And Blanchandine is looking for an escape from the predicament that gender disguise has led her into precisely because her desires are heterosexual and because she experiences life as a woman, whatever her outward appearance. Conversely, the few female-bodied characters who are described in terms that suggest gender dysphoria, such as the knight Silence in the romance of that name, have their stories resolved by being maneuvered back to living conventional female lives and, as always, being married off to men.

So just as there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for lesbian identification, there is historic cross-dressing literature that can provide touch-points for transgender identification, but in neither case do the motifs, the character motivations, and the story resolutions align for fully satisfactory representation.

I should emphasize that I’m talking specifically of self-consciously fictional representation here. There are plenty of real life biographies involving cross-gender behavior that evoke transgender interpretations--lives such as Catalina de Erauso or Eleno de Céspedes. But literature took a less nuanced and less ambiguous approach to the question because it was concerned with making the characters make sense within the social framework of the times.

In considering transgender intersections with characters and themes that have lesbian resonance, I’m almost always talking about transmasculine figures. When physiologically male characters appear in literature presenting themselves as female, it is almost universally within one of two contexts: for the purpose of humor, or for the purpose of gaining illicit sexual access to a woman in a gender-segregated society.

These two contexts not only erase the validity of transgender identity but reinforce two of the most hurtful myths about trans women that are present in modern culture: that transfeminine identity is inherently ridiculous, and that claims of transfeminine identity are made by cis men in order to sexually assault women in gender-segregated spaces. In other words, Jupiter’s rape of Callisto is the defining myth of the modern “bathroom panic” issue.

In searching through history and literature for scraps of identification and representation, I can get a bit numb to the stuff one has to slog through in order to find those scraps. But I think it’s important to examine the question of representation from many angles. Not just looking at motifs both from the context in which they were produced and from the context in which we are now examining them. But also looking at them from all the different angles of potential identification and representation.

Even though pre-modern literature could accept that a “chaste Diana” might engage in same-sex erotics, chastity most often implied an avoidance of all erotic activity. The fact that images of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto offer a superficial representation of lesbian desire doesn’t negate the fact that they also reinforce a pernicious stereotype of transgender motivations.

The same contradictions and ambiguities that offer the fleeting chance for identification for some readers and viewers, can remove the chance for identification for others. I don’t have any answers here, only the reminder that not only is history never neutral, but the study of history is never neutral. If I often seem to embrace only interpretations that address lesbian representation in history, it’s because this project was never intended to be a neutral presentation of historic fact. If, indeed, there is such a thing as a neutral presentation. But I will regularly acknowledge the specific filters I bring to this topic and remind my audience of other possible ways of engaging with the same material.

Female homoerotic art and the male gaze

This same honesty requires me to acknowledge that pretty much all the female homoerotic art we have from the medieval and early modern period was inspired by the fact that some men get off on seeing two women getting it on together.

Depictions of the goddess Diana and her followers in art can be found in a variety of standardized genre scenes, but by far the most popular were those that included the two bathing scenes: Acteon coming across the bathing Diana, and the pregnant Callisto being found out when the nymphs were bathing together. These scenes dwell lovingly on the revealing of naked female bodies in a public space, showing the women embracing or tending to each others’ physical needs. The scenes invite the viewer to become Acteon in his forbidden act of spying on the virgin goddess, without invoking the fatal penalty that was imposed on that figure.

Given the economics of artistic patronage in the medieval and early modern periods, when the majority of professional artists and the majority of those paying for their work were male, it’s an inescapable conclusion that these two scenes were popular mostly for their pornographic appeal. Not that artists necessarily needed much of an excuse for depicting naked female bodies.

Scenes from the Callisto myth can be found in western art beginning as early as the 14th century, in illuminated manuscripts that re-told stories from Ovid with commentary that gave them a Christian moralizing spin. Due to this moral angle, the illustrations often focus on the disgrace of Callisto’s pregnancy and her expulsion from Diana’s company, but there are also images of Jupiter’s seduction of her that provide the superficial appearance of two women in erotic embrace. In addition to kissing and embracing--which could be depicted without erotic intent--often the figures are shown with the disguised Jupiter holding Callisto’s chin--a formalized symbolic gesture known as a “chin-chuck” that always indicated romantic or sexual desire.

[Image: Woodcut in Giovanni dei Bonsignori's Ovidio Metamorphoseos vulgare (1497). Br. Lib. IB.23185]

Myth of Callisto - 1497 woodcut from a commentary on Ovid

In contrast to Rennaissance depictions, often the pair are clothed during these seduction scenes, while the bathing scenes involve nudity. Book art was not the only context for depictions of the Callisto myth. It seems to have been a popular topic for decorating Italian wedding chests in the 14th and 15th centuries.

As we move into the 16th through 18th centuries, the seduction scenes are depicted with more overt eroticism. In 1613, the painter Peter Paul Rubens--who gave his name to the lush depiction of curvaceous women as “rubenesque”--shows a naked Calliso receiving the embrace of a semi-clad false Diana who uses the same “chin-chuck gesture” used in medieval art to convey eroticism.

["Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens, 1613. From Wikimedia.]

"Jupiter and Callisto" by Peter Paul Rubens 1613

François Boucher, working in the mid 18th century, painted several versions of Jupiter-as-Diana seducing Callisto, including the one used as a logo for this podcast. The figures are either nude or semi-clad to expose torsos and legs, and lie entwined on draperies in a natural setting. In one of Boucher’s paintings, Diana again uses the chin-chuck gesture to make the sexual nature of the interaction clear.

["Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743, from Wikimedia]

"Jupiter and Callisto" François Boucher 1743

Even when painters of the early modern era are depicting the bathing scene where Callisto’s pregnancy is discovered, the homoerotic context is shown in how Diana and the other nymphs are in close flesh-to-flesh contact, draping arms across shoulders, or washing and drying each others’ naked bodies. Some of the famous artists depicting these type-scenes include Titian in the 15th century and Rembrandt in the early 17th century.

["Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556, from Wikimedia]

"Diana and Callisto" Titian 1556

It’s hard to talk about artistic depictions on a podcast, but if you’re really interested, I’ve included a selection of examples in the transcript of this podcast on the Lesbian Historic Motif Project website. Follow the link in the show notes to see them.

Diana as lesbian literary symbol

As noted earlier, references to being a follower or worshipper of Diana were sometimes used in early modern literature to indicate a disinterest in marriage or even active resistance to marriage as a life path. Continuing through western literature, Diana becomes a code-word for love between women that is exclusive of men--either using a clear reference to the goddess, or simply by the use of the name.

Jorge de Montemayor’s romance Diana from the mid 16th century uses the goddess’s name to set the stage for a Callisto-like tale of desire between women in a pastoral and mythic setting and gender disguise, but with the twist that this time the seduction really is between two women, but where one of them later claims to have been a man in female disguise in order to play a trick on the other.

Several 19th century works pair the name Diana with motifs of separatist female households. The novel Diana Victrix, published in 1897 by Florence Converse, has an unusually happy ending for two women engaged in a Boston Marriage--as the author herself was. Neither protagonist in the story is named Diana, so the “victorious Diana” of the title may be understood as the goddess’s ideal of a women’s separatist society. Louisa May Alcott’s unfinished story “Diana and Persis” may be making this allusion as well, telling the story of two women artists who pledge to support each other in ways that a heterosexual marriage never could. But while the story’s Diana remains unmarried and dedicated to her work, Persis succumbs to a man’s proposal and even though he promises not to interfere with her artistic career, the daily grind of marriage and motherhood leads her to abandon her art. A similar story of two devoted and loving friends whose happiness is destroyed by the intrusion of marriage occurs in George Meredith’s novel Diana of the Crossways, published in 1885.

And, of course, the choice of the name Diana for the superhero Wonder Woman is an obvious reference to her origins within the women-only Amazonian society of Themyscira.

Despite some of the uncomfortable aspects of the use of the goddess Diana as a symbol of marriage resistance, of a female separatist society, or of same-sex erotics between women, she has remained an enduring symbol across two millennia, standing beside Sappho as an icon of lesbian possibilities, even when those possibilities were otherwise hard to imagine.

Publications and Links

The following topic tags are the most relevant to this episode. I haven't listed tag-links to all the specific works mentioned in the episode.

Major category: 
historical