Bettany Hughes on the symbol of Venus
Many of us might think of the goddess Venus as a typical representation of love and romance, or a voluptuous, feminine figure who is often used today to market products from women’s razors to chocolate. Yet the historical evolution of Venus is much more complex than we might think.
Ahead of new TV programme Venus Uncovered, historian Bettany Hughes spoke to History Extra about the many meanings of the mythological figure, and shared what the goddess can tell us about the development of attitudes towards sex and desire…
In 'Venus Uncovered' on BBC Four, Wednesday 15 November at 9pm, Bettany Hughes investigates the mythological figure of Venus. (© Sandstone Global/Image by Tim Knight)
Q: Your programme Venus Uncovered investigates how the mythological figure has evolved through history and what she has meant to various cultures or causes. Why do you think it’s important, particularly in 2017, to reappraise Venus?
A: Almost everybody has heard of Venus, but nobody knows that much about her, which means there’s a fundamental historical reason to do this.
It’s fascinating that, as you trace her story back through time, you discover that her ancestors are war goddesses as well as goddesses of love. She has been such an ever-present force in the stories of civilisation that she has shaped the ways in which people have lived.
When looking at her journey, we can see the development of attitudes to sex and desire, and also towards women and the female body, so it felt like the right time to investigate her story.
Q: Your programme charts Venus's origins in powerful ancient deities. When do we first encounter the figure in ancient history?
A: She first formally appears as Aphrodite – that’s what she’s called by the ancient Greeks – and we hear about her in the work of [the poets] Homer and Hesiod – in the foundational epic poems that tell the early story of Greece.
She also appears in archaeology as well as the literary record. There’s a feisty powerful female deity that was particularly worshipped and adored on Cyprus from around 4,000 years ago (around 2,000 BC). That’s when we first know of a goddess figure who’s worshipped, who seems to have all the attributes of Aphrodite or Venus; she’s in charge of love, fertility and procreation.
However, we also found some strange figurines all the way back in Cypriot history – 5,000 or possibly even 6,000 years ago. The neck and head of these figures is basically a male phallus, while the body is female, so they’re clearly something to do with procreation and fertility. While these aren’t goddesses, they seem to represent a powerful spirit of love, sex and desire.
Further east, in the Near and Middle East, we find goddess figures called Inanna, Ishtar and Astate, which are the eastern goddesses of fertility, but also of war and destruction. We know from terms used in the prayers that priestesses gave up to these goddesses – “the lady of red dominion”, “riding on fire red power”, “battle planner”, “foe smasher”, “dread creature” – that these figures were not the kind of fluffy Venus with long blonde hair staring into a mirror that we might think we know today.
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These depictions show she was a really potent figure, who encapsulated not just desire in a ‘love’ sense, but also the human desire for what you don’t have. For armies going out to invade someone else’s land or capture a city, for example, she represented general desire or ambition.
What we found is that these two figures – this incredibly sexual creature from Cyprus and this really feisty creature from the Middle East – seem to merge and become one on the island of Cyprus. We think that this unbelievably potent figure is the one that the Greeks find when they travel over – that’s the figure they call Aphrodite.
Figures that are clearly something to do with procreation and fertility can be found in Cypriot history, Hughes explains, and are possibly up to 5,000 or 6,000 years old. (© Sandstone Global)
Q: When do we see this interpretation of the goddess change? When does she become more feminine and fluffy, less representative of martial ambitions or other desires, and perhaps more associated with love and romance?
A: What’s really fascinating is that her feistiness is never lost – it’s always there in the shadows of Venus’s story. The Greeks give her qualities of compassion and love for others and, in many ways, made her a much more positive creature. Yet she retains her martial links. If you look at her story, Aphrodite has an affair with Ares, the god of war, so she’s connected to war in that way.
Once the Romans adopt Aphrodite and she becomes Venus in the Roman canon, she becomes the goddess to whom generals sacrifice before battle. Julius Caesar has a coin emblazoned with the image of Venus, and in Roman houses and temples she is often found to be portrayed armed. We find images of this gorgeous lady, but she’s got armour on and carrying a spear, or she has armour wrapped around her naked waist. Even if they wanted her to be this slightly fluffier figure, they couldn’t quite bring themselves to forget that she had this stronger core.
Yet what you also find in the classical world is that, from around the 5th century BC – as the goddess seems to hold up her mirror to what’s happening in the real lives of women – she starts to be portrayed naked, and as a much more lovely and luscious incarnation of female beauty. If you look at sculptures of her and how she is represented in paintings from around the 5th century BC onwards, she increasingly becomes a bit of a pin-up.
Q: What other facets of her did you find as you investigated what other eras have projected onto this figure?
A: I found that her versatility has made her an incredibly popular goddess. She is described variously as Aphrodite Harmonia (of harmony), Aphrodite Homonoia (of union), but also as Aphrodite Melanis (of the dark night) and Aphrodite the deceiver.
What is very exciting to be able to share through this film is what we are realising academically: Venus really represents desire of all kinds, for good and for bad. She is a figure of the transformative nature of desire: she is, almost, a goddess of ‘mixing things up’. All this makes her a figure who deals with the sometimes beautiful and sometimes baleful business of living together as humans.
Q: In 1914, a nude image of Venus, painted by 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, was attacked while on display at the National Gallery in London. What can you tell us about the attack on the Rokeby Venus and why did this particular portrayal prompt so much ire from the attacker?
A: In 1914, a suffragette called Mary Richardson went into the gallery at the National Gallery. She waited until the security guards had left and had a meat cleaver hidden in the sleeve of her jacket. She furiously attacked the painting, which depicts a supine back view of the Rokeby Venus staring towards a mirror held by Cupid. Later, Richardson said she attacked the painting because she couldn’t bear the way men gaped at the naked Venus all day.
An illustration of suffragette Mary Richardson slashing the 'Rokeby' Venus at the National Gallery in London. (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)
Interestingly, even though some in the suffragette movement compared Emmeline Pankhurst to the powerful figure of Venus, there was a very clear idea that the figure had become an excuse to have lots of naked female flesh on show. Some felt that these depictions were cauterising the possibilities of women in the world.
It’s fascinating that of all the paintings she could have chosen to attack, it was the Rokeby Venus.
Q: Are there any other instances we know of when Venus’ nudity has either been railed against or co-opted for any other cause?
A: Not that I know of, though I suspect that has happened and could perhaps be the follow up programme, Venus in the Modern World!
It’s certainly something that has become very salient right now. Talking broadly in terms of European and North American culture, we’re very used to images of naked women or scantily dressed women being around us all the time. In some ways, Venus is the creature that kick-started that trend.
Consider Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus [completed c1485] and its nude figure coming out on a shell. Through this, she almost becomes an agent of exploitation, rather than an object of adoration and the deity that women used to adore.
‘The Birth of Venus’ painted by Sandro Botticelli, completed c1485. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
We can see in history that Venus was really beloved by the female of the species as well as men, but she certainly becomes a double agent as she travels into the modern world.
Venus Uncovered: Ancient Goddess of Love, presented by Bettany Hughes, is produced by Sandstone Global. It will air on BBC Four at 9pm on Wednesday 15 November 2017, and will be available on BBC iPlayer.
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