Urania (alternative spelling: Ourania) is one of the Nine Muses, Greek goddesses that inspire creativity. Her name has been used in reference to Lesbians, Gay men, and Transpeople. In addition to Urania the Muse, there is Aphrodite Urania, an aspect of the Goddess of Love in ancient Greece that is iconic in the history of the Gay male community due to a reference to her and same-sex love in Plato’s Symposium. Gay male Uranian poets in eighteenth century England took their name from Aphrodite Urania, which is also the source-name for “Urning,” a word coined by Karl Heinrich Urlichs in 1864 as a label for men with women’s minds and men’s bodies. Urania the Muse inspired early feminist works of fiction and a Lesbian-feminist magazine, Urania.
The Nine Muses (Greek: Musai) were Goddesses of aesthetic and intellectual inspiration. A standard list of the Muses is as follows:
Euterpe (lyrical poetry)
Erato (erotic poetry)
Polyhymnia (sacred song)
Calliope (epic poetry)
Hesiod’s Theogony says the Muses are the daughters of Zeus (Greek Father-God of Heaven) and Mnemosyne (Goddess of Memory), but they were also considered the children of Apollo (God of Music and Healing) and Mnemosyne, Uranus (deposed God of Heaven, Zeus’ father) and Gaia (Mother Earth), or granddaughters of Aphrodite (Love) and Ares (War) through their daughter, Harmonia (Harmony).
Urania takes her name from ouranos, the Greek word for “sky.” As the Muse of Astronomy, she can read the stars and predict the future, thus is also the Muse of astrologers. Her symbol is a globe, and she is often depicted with a crown of stars.
Plato and Aphrodite Urania
In Plato’s dialogue, The Symposium, Socrates and his students are at a party when the discussion of love is introduced. Each person speaks in turn on the subject. Pausanius says there are two kinds of love reflected in two forms of Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. One form, Aphrodite Pandemos (“Aphrodite for All People”) is common, earthly, and includes women and boys as objects of love.
The other, Aphrodite Urania (“Celestial Aphrodite,” considered the child of Uranus because she came from his severed genitalia) is transcendent, noble, and represented best by love between men. Aphrodite Urania did not come from a woman (she may be shown emerging from a scrotum), and that apparently made her even more heavenly. In some depictions of her, Aphrodite is portrayed as masculine.
Urania and Women’s Romantic Literature
There were two romance novels entitled Urania that are important in the history of European literature as well as feminist and LGBTQ studies. The first was written in the sixteenth century by Giulia Bigolina. It is the earliest known prose romance in Italian literature written by a woman. The second Urania, written by Mary Wroth and published in 1621, holds that same honor in British literature. Bigolina’s Urania, however, was not published until hundreds of years later.
Bigolina’s main character, Urania, is highly intelligent but not beautiful. Driven to despair by Fabio, the man she loves who leaves her for a less intelligent but more beautiful woman, Urania leaves home dressed as a man named “Fabio.” She encounters five women who think she is a man, and they ask her what men want. Later she encounters five men who, thinking she is a man, ask her what women want. She eventually finds a female companion, a widow named Emilia, who falls in love with “Fabio.” Urania resists Emilia’s pleas for marriage, and the two travel to back to Urania’s home dressed as men. Urania’s lover Fabio is freed from prison when Urania kisses another woman. Urania and Fabio marry, as do Emilia and Hortensio, Fabio’s brother. The story ends with Urania declaring that beauty of the soul is superior to beauty of the body, and that her own beauty was to be found in the poetry she had written for Fabio.
The homoerotic content of Urania with its cross-dressing, love between women (although portrayed as love between a woman and somebody she thinks is a man), and the climax of the drama resolved by women kissing, marks the text as an early reference to women’s homoerotic and transgender themes in Western literature.
The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania by Mary Worth (published in 1621, author’s name also spelled “Mary Wroth”) defends a women’s right to have her words taken seriously, a theme shared with Bigolina’s Urania even though there is no apparent connection between the two works or authors. Worth’s book would be printed in less than twenty copies, and she was roundly criticized for writing it because women were not supposed to do such manly things as write, a problem Juana Inés de la Cruz in Mexico would face at about the same time as Wroth and Bigolina. For her part, Wroth was labeled a “hermaphrodite” by a male critic.
Aphrodite Urania, British Poets, and Ulrichs
Just as two women only decades apart produced groundbreaking novels with Urania’s name in the titles, so did two groups of men take their names from Aphrodite Urania. In Britain during the mid-1800s, male poets who praised love between older men and younger men called themselves Uranians after Aphrodite Urania and the love personified by her as described in Plato’s Symposium. At about the same time in history, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs published a collection of booklets in Germany under the pseudonym “Numa Numantius” entitled Forschungen über das Räthsel der mannmännlichen Liebe (“Studies on the Riddle of Man-Manly Love”). Ulrichs coined “Urning” (German for “Uranian”) to describe men with feminine psyches, and came up with a classification system for sexual desire:
Normal man: Dioning (from Aphrodite Pandemos, daughter of Zeus and the Titan Goddess Dione)
Abnormal man: Urning, with the following subcategories:
Urning who desires effeminate men: Mannling
Urning who desires masculine men: Weibling
Urning who desires adolescents: Zwischen-urning
Urning attracted to men and women: Uranodioning
Urning driven to men because of lack of women: Urianaster
Urning forced into sexual relationship with women: Virilisirt-urning
Ulrichs’ classification is an attempt to create language that reflects diversity in gender and sexual orientation among males as well as diversity in the object of desire. His classification was eventually expanded to include categories for female sexual and gender diversity.
Urania, the Journal
Between 1915 and 1940, Thomas Baty (a transwoman also known as Irene Clyde) edited Urania, a privately distributed British journal by feminists dedicated to creating a society not bound by the inequalities resulting from gender distinctions. The elimination of gender, in fact, was a top priority and seen as an essential precondition for the liberation of women. Their journal was imagined as a place as well as a philosophy: “There are no ‘men’ or ‘women’ in Urania.” Heterosexuality was seen as socially enforced demand for conformity, marriage was damaging to self-advancement and realization, especially for women, and boys’ education was criticized for promoting violence and war, as was “the male torture-tolerant spirit.”
Eve Gore-Booth and Esther Roper, two feminists who were active in the Manchester suffrage movement and who had committed their lives to each other, also contributed heavily to the journal, which had stories about female homoeroticism to illustrate the instability of gender and heteronormal assumptions concerning sex. Gore-Booth was also a poet, and her poetry was published in the journal until her death in 1926. The phrase “Sex is an accident,” which summed up Urania’s position, is attributed to her. The authors in Urania were different from sexologists (scholars who were mapping out sex, gender, and orientation as well as promoting tolerance of difference) in that they did not see legislation for equality as an effective strategy.
Humorous Folk Speech
In American popular culture, the dichotomy of man and woman has been expressed in interplanetary terms: men are from Mars, and women are from Venus. A series of books have capitalized on this, referring to men as “Martians” and women as “Venusians.” In the context of Gay men, a planet has been designated for them as Uranians in humorous folk speech: men are from Mars, women are from Venus, and Gay men are from Uranus (pronounced “your anus”).
Bigolina, Giulia and Valeria Finucci. Urania: A Romance. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2005.
Bland, Lucy and Laura L. Doan. Sexology in Culture: Labelling Bodies and Desires. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.
Carney, Jo Eldridge. Renaissance and Reformation, 1500-1620: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CN: Greenwood, 2001.
Ferrari, Gloria. Figures of Speech: Men and Maidens in Ancient Greece. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2002.