How a militaristic goddess became the Venus of Western art

How a militaristic goddess became the Venus of Western art

Venus and Aphrodite
By Bettany Hughes
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 241pp, £12.99/$17

Whether we know her as the Roman Venus or the Greek Aphrodite, the goddess of love and lust is as powerful today as she has always been. Bettany Hughes traces Venus/Aphrodite back to her beginnings and follows her career over millennia, right up to the present day. Aphrodite’s “ancestors” – Inanna, Ishtar and Astarte – were powerful goddesses of the ancient world. “Desire – for control, blood, fear, dominance, rapture, justice – can lead both to making war and to making love,” Hughes writes.

So how did this powerful, almost militaristic goddess come to be the softly voluptuous figure beloved of Titian, Rubens, Botticelli and Velázquez, whose Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery was slashed by a suffragette in 1914 because “men gawped at it all day long”?

Myths are not only transformative but are themselves transformed over millennia. Once established in Greece, Aphrodite became the patron of prostitutes and, as Hughes points out, “It is a sobering thought that the greatest trade in prostitutes came from the human booty of warfare; prostitutes were truly Aphrodite’s children, since she was a patron of both copulation and conflict.”

But as warfare between nations became more organised, the female role in society became more marginalised. The world became male-dominated and misogynistic, and this degraded perception of mortal women became applied to the body of the goddess herself. Having previously been ornately clad, from the 4th century BC Aphrodite/Venus “starts to shed her raiments”.

With the coming of Christianity, Venus was initially desecrated – but some of her attributes resurfaced in a surprising way. She had demonstrated for millennia that “humans wanted the comfort and stimulation of a strong, sympathetic female presence as an intercessor with the supernatural world”. Hughes argues that the Virgin Mary now fulfils this role.