Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Wind and The Rain: Gay Pagan Shakespeare

As Hurricane Irene churns her way north towards New England, my mind drifts to a song from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, "Hey, Ho, The Wind and The Rain." I suppose in my youth I would have preferred the Scorpions' "Rock You Like a Hurricane", but as  I get older I prefer the classics.

Here's Ben Kingsley performing "Hey Ho..." from a 90s film version.

When I was in college I took a full year of Shakespeare. I really enjoyed it, but I remember finding the dialogue a little tough to follow. Now that I'm older I like Shakespeare even more, and strangely find the dialogue much easier to understand. I suppose I just have twenty-five more years of reading comprehension under my belt.

I also appreciate Shakespeare in a different way now. As a teen, I was drawn to the tragedies. Blood! Guts! Curses! Revenge! Now, I like the romances and comedies. Love. Sex. Mistaken Identity. Redemption. Forgiveness.

Shakespeare's plays are full of pagan references. Classical mythology was an essential part of education in the Renaissance, so as a result we find Hecate, Jupiter, Diana, Ceres, Juno and Iris as characters in his works. The rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream perform an ancient Roman tragedy for Theseus, the mythical king of Athens, and his Amazonian wife. Orlando in As You Like It is compared to Hercules, and the Romans celebrate Lupercalia in Julius Caesar. The list goes on.

Shakespeare was also the first author to mention Herne the Hunter, in The Merry Wives of Windsor. This antlered ghost is acknowledged as an aspect of the Horned God by many pagans and Wiccans, but Merry Wives is also full of fairies dancing under oak trees and small-town witches.

Merry Wives has some cross-dressing in it, as do so many of his plays. In As You Like It, Orlando falls in love with Rosalind disguised, significantly, as a young man named Ganymede, and Viola's disguise as her allegedly dead brother Sebastian causes sexual confusion among the Illyrian gentry in Twelfth Night.

The same play features one of Shakespeare's few clearly gay characters: Antonio, a heroic sea-captain in love with Viola's brother Sebastian. Sadly, he doesn't get his man at the end. Another Shakespearean Antonio, the titular character in The Merchant of Venice, seems to be in love with a younger man. He doesn't get his man either. What's going on here? The final Antonio appears in The Tempest, where he is Prospero's evil usurping brother. His partner in crime? A nobleman named Sebastian.

I wonder if Shakespeare was trying to work out some issues through Antonio. I sometimes think of all three Antonios as the same character at different stages in his life - openly loving and heroic, closeted and melancholy, and finally just bitter and evil. It's not a great trajectory. Perhaps there's some lost Shakespeare play that describes how Antonio wins Sebastian's heart. If not, someone should write it!

So you don't become bitter and evil like Antonio, here's a great scene from visionary Derek Jarman's film of The Tempest. Watch out girls, it's stormy weather! I love the sailors, and singer Elizabeth Welch filling the role played originally by three goddesses.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Dancing In A Cave

The ancient Greeks told a story that went something like this:

A long, long time ago, the great goddess Rhea gave birth to Zeus, who was destined to become king of the gods. During her contractions Rhea clawed at the earth in pain. Magically, five beautiful men emerged from the grooves her fingers made in the soil.

It had been foretold that Rhea's brother/husband Kronos would be overthrown by his children, and he had already eaten Zeus's five older siblings to prevent this prophecy from coming true. Rhea was determined that her final child wouldn't be consumed, so she deceived Kronos and presented him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, claiming it was her newborn son. Greedily, Kronos swallowed it without opening the cloth.

Rhea hid baby Zeus in a cave, and instructed the five beautiful earth-born men to guard him. They were armed with swords and shields, but never used them for violence. Instead, they used them when they danced.

Even though he was a god, Zeus was just a baby and sometimes screamed and cried. To prevent Kronos or other malevolent forces from hearing the divine baby, and to keep him entertained, the men would dance inside the cave, singing, chanting and clashing their swords and shields as they moved in ecstasy.

A Korybant dancing over the infant Zeus.

These dancing demi-gods were known by several names: Korybantes or Kuretes ("the youths"), or the Daktyls ("fingers"). Some Greek writers claimed these were all distinct groups of deities incorrectly being lumped together, while others felt they were all the same deities. Their entry at gives you a good idea of how ancient writers viewed the dancers.

In addition to protecting baby Zeus, the Korybantes also protected the divine infants Dionysos and Zagreus. They helped Minos locate his missing son Glaucus, who had fallen into a giant vat of honey. These divine dancers also taught humankind the arts of dancing, music, metallurgy and magic, much like the fallen angels do in the ancient Jewish Book of Enoch. Some writers also claim that the Korybantes were transformed into lions and pull the chariot of the goddess Cybele. The contemporary scholar Walter Burkert notes that many cities in ancient Greece had societies of sacred male dancers who identified themselves with the Korybantes and enacted their role in rituals.

A few weeks ago I was in Provincetown and went dancing at a late night party in a bar's basement. The ceiling was low, the lighting was dim, and the music was a wordless throb. The room was full of men, some shirtless, some in crazy drag, and almost all of them dancing. I spent the night on the dance floor, dancing with friends and just dancing in the crowd.

Still dancing in the cave?
 I've gone to a lot of gay dance clubs in my life, and every now and then something clicks and I'm transported into a deeper realm. This was one of those nights. Sure, I was really in a seedy room with cheap decorations, but for a few hours we had broke through the wall separating our mundane world from the spiritual one that hides just out of sight.

That night, I was dancing in a cave with other semi-divine beings. We were the ancient earth-born men, working our magic through music and motion.