Diana and Actaeon, by Titian (1556-1559), photo via Google Arts and Culture

Sex Scenes: The Moon is a Lesbian Icon

And the Roman goddess Diana is its embodiment.

by Rachel Rabbit White
Jan 18 2019, 2:18pm

Diana and Actaeon, by Titian (1556-1559), photo via Google Arts and Culture

In anticipation of Sunday's 'Super Blood Wolf Moon, GARAGE is celebrating all things lunar.

In popular culture, the moon is seen as mystical, as crazy-making (see: the etymology of the word “lunatic.”) The moon controls the tides and has long been thought to have a connection to fertility—birth rates are said to increase by the full moon, and menstrual cycles are tracked by the moon. In many spiritual practices, the moon represents a divine feminine; covens conduct their spells by the moon, and some practitioners claim that lunar phases influence human emotion, wellness, and behavior. And it’s often beneath the moon that cruising takes place, that parties and orgies happen.

It has been posited that the moon is a gay icon. But more accurately, the moon is feminized; the moon is mysterious; the moon is truly a lesbian icon. There are many cultures with moon goddesses, but the Roman goddess Diana is the embodiment of the queer moon and its lesbian vibes.

Diana is the “virgin” goddess, which in her day simply meant she was unmarried, or at least a virgin in terms of sex men. She lived atop a mountain with her female followers, fellow “virgin” nymphs. In classical art we see myriad representations of this pseudo-lesbian utopia, of these goddesses who swam and hiked and frolicked nude, a group who—imbued with the power of Diana—were a danger to any man who crossed them.

This scene is masterfully expressed in the Italian Renaissance painting Diana and Actaeon, by Titian (1556-1559). We see Diana and her coterie of female companions bathing together in a leafy grotto when they are intruded upon by Actaeon, a famous Greek hero. He has been separated from his friends after a day of hunting and has stumbled upon the nude godesses. The painting heightens this dramatic moment of intrusion with its color, movement and light: red fabric billows as the nymphs, in various poses, scramble.

Diana is seated on the right, wearing a gilded crescent moon crown and glaring at Actaeon, her feet still being washed by one nymph as another works to shield her with a sheet. Diana is the goddess of animals, so it’s fitting that a little dog sits beside her, presumably barking at the intruder.

The darkness of the tale is foreshadowed in the stag skull that sits on the pillar above Diana. The goddess, furious at her secret bathing spring being discovered, and at being seen in the nude, will turn Actaeon into a stag. Actaeon’s own hunting hounds, not recognizing him, will immediately devour their owner. The dogs will then spend their days roaming the countryside looking for Actaeon, only to finally be satisfied by the sight of a statue of him.

Titian painted this next scene in The Death of Actaeon (1559-1576) in which a hastily clothed Diana, dress half falling off, uses her bow to turn this peeping Tom into a deer, the dogs already jumping on him. Diana’s single breast, fallen from the fabric, seems to glows with light. Not only is Diana a lesbian icon, she’s also an idol for the “one titty out” fashion movement.

There are many retellings of this story and in the text Diana at Her Bath: The Women of Rome by Pierre Klossowski, brother of the painter Balthus, a rich and poetic analysis of the myth is woven, one in which Actaeon doesn’t simply come upon Diana in her bath, but plots the intrusion, taken by a desire to see the “virgin” goddess naked. He wears the head of a stag as a disguise to approach her and the nymphs in the spring. In this retelling of the legend, the goddess is amused and shows herself in all her naked splendor to Actaeon, then punishes him by transforming him into a real stag.

The fact of lesbian and queer women being sexualized by straight men is, apparently, a tale as old as time, and Klossowski (whose other works focus on themes of bisexuality and his wife’s androgynous qualities) delights himself in imagining Diana’s body as it would appear to Actaeon. He writes: “:ook at those slim flanks, that backside made like a handsome young man’s [...] look at that powerful knee, which crushes the beasts of the forest; those calves, those hams, those heels that wreak havoc, as befits the goddess swifter than the spirit, swifter than lightning and storm. And then those shoulders and those arms; and those long hands so cruel when they seize the bow, so tender when they stroke the brows of women in labor.”

Perhaps Diana did proudly show herself to Actaeon before punishing him. After all, she is the goddess of the moon, and the moon is the one sky deity we can actually fix our gaze upon without going blind. Through her lunar characteristics, Diana is also the goddess associated with femininity and women in labor; because of the menstrual association, but also from the blossoming of life, since at dew condensated at night, allowing vegetation to thrive in dry Greece. Artemis (Diana’s Greek counterpart) is the goddess of the hunt, and the bow is a crescent moon that connects to the night, to the exuberance of life.

Artemis is a complex goddess in the Greek pantheon, torn between the natural world and the world of culture. She’s outdoorsy, spending more time on earth on her hunting grounds with the female nymphs and wood spirits than in the halls of Olympus. Like our queer icon, the moon, Artemis connects the heavens to earth.

Diana has taken attributes from other deities; she’s been somewhat merged with Selene (who was the first moon goddess) and Hecate (the shadowy three-faced goddess of witchcraft and crossroads), making her a “triple goddess.” In modern paganism this is often considered a deity who represents all stages of life from maiden, mother, to crone.

If the queerness isn’t clear enough, the myth of Jupiter and Callisto proves that Artemis and the nymphs would have sex. Callisto was one of Diana’s girlfriends, a nymph she hunted with, and Zeus became creepily infatuated with this friend of his daughter’s. In order to have a shot with her, Zeus takes the form of Diana, to trick her, and lays with Callisto. It’s a scene often portrayed in lesbian affection where the transformation of Zeus only works if there was an existing sexual relationship between Diana and Callisto. However, it’s during this stunt that Callisto becomes pregnant by Zeus, and during one of their usual baths Diana notices the pregnancy and furiously chase Callisto away from her group. Callisto would also eventually be turned into a bear and then killed by her former love, Artemis, in the hunt.

In these troubled times, perhaps what 2019 needs is the energy of a childless-by-choice lesbian separatist moon cult who wants nothing more than to bathe in the nude in peace.

Greek mythology