When Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” he was putting more than one meaning into the title. On the general level it reflected the lead character’s realisation that being Ernest by name and earnest by nature was the answer to all his problems. But “earnest” had another meaning in Victorian times – or rather the homophone “urnist”. For in Wilde’s time being “urnist” could also describe same-sex attraction.
There were Victorian male poets who wrote of male love grouped under the name of the Uranian Poets. This name, and the term urnist, come from the same root – the ancient Greek name Urania. It was the gay German psychologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs who first used Urania for his description of male sexuality. He came up with several terms, each one describing a gay “type”. These included “urning” (gay man), “unringin” (lesbian), “uranodioning” (bisexual man), and “uraniaster” (straight man who has sex with men).
The use of Urania was picked up in the
in the 1870s by the above-mentioned poets, though they espoused spiritual attraction rather than Ulrichs' sexual and physical meanings. UK
But what has Urania got to do with the stars?
There are several Greek gods with related names – Uranus, Urania and Aphrodite Urania. Uranus is the god of the sky and heavens. His name (properly Ouranos) means “heavenly”. He also symbolised everything that was spiritual and divine. Then there were 9 goddess sisters called the Muses who presided over the arts and learning. Each sister had a specific area under her patronage, and Urania was the muse of astronomy – all things in the heavens. In the 17th century the poet Milton, in his “Paradise Lost”, refers to Urania as the spirit of the “loftiest poetry”, another influence for the Uranian Poets, perhaps.
Finally there’s Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, whom the Roman called Venus. She was the daughter of Uranus, born from his severed genitals that were thrown into the sea (Aphrodite means “she who shines from the sea foam”). This motherless birth is commemorated in the famous painting by Botticelli, “The Birth of Venus” (pictured). From the manner of her birth she acquired the name of Aphrodite Urania and became symbolic of love that is spiritual and divine – a love which did not involve women.
In the ancient Greek world male-male sex and love was an important part of the culture. Aphrodite Urania became a patron of male-male love because of her non-female birth. Only later was Aphrodite a patron of “straight” love under the new name of Aphrodite Pandemos (Pan=all, demos=people). It may have been around this time that the various aspects of love and sex had new deities assigned to them – all of them were thought of as children of Aphrodite Urania, and the most famous of them was Eros.
There was always a statue of Eros in Greek gyms. Athletes and soldiers would give offerings and prayers to Eros when they entered, hoping he would give them success in their training, strength in their bodies, bravery in their fighting, and regular sex with their current male partner. It was all part of Greek culture and they would never apply the modern label of “gay” to themselves. I suppose it’s like drugs – is everyone who takes aspirin for a headache a drug addict?
With these three Uranian sky deities it is natural to include them together in my “star-gayzing” series. There is, perhaps, more of an astrological aspect behind the lgbt connections, but they are all to be seen in the night sky all the same. Uranus is, of course, one of the outermost major planets. Aphrodite, as the planet Venus, is clearly visible regularly to the naked eye. Many of the features on Venus are named after lgbt women. The muse of astronomy, Urania, is to be found in the main asteroid belt as Asteroid 30.
Next time you see “The Importance of Being Earnest” or see the planet Venus perhaps you’ll think again about their multiple meanings.