Venus, historic goddess of affection and sweetness, is an apparently irrelevant, invented deity of the lengthy useless. But Venus deserves scrutiny. Chart her life story throughout 5,000 years and also you chart the evolution of our conflicted relationship with intercourse and with the feminine physique. Now the Weinstein floodgates are open, root and department reform is, rightly, demanded. But to handle an issue, you must perceive its measurement, its form and its provenance.
Over the final decade I’ve been investigating Venus – the influential incarnation of human want and sweetness throughout millennia – to assist clarify the state we’re in: why we cope with lust, love, sexuality, sexual transgression and the feminine type the best way we do. It’s about discovering the roots of our prejudice, as a result of when you perceive the depth of an issue, you may higher cope with it. With a observe file spanning 50 centuries, Venus is a barometer of sexual mores and sexual prejudice. Her narrative additionally, arguably, presents an answer to their misuse.
Say Venus’s identify right now, and what springs to thoughts? Botticelli’s wafty nude rising from the ocean on a large shell? Classical statues – bare or with diaphanous drapes (simply) masking their marble-modesty? Pink, “female-friendly” Venus razor blades? Not a bearded, full-breasted gender-bending figurine? Or a Cypriot statuette with a penis for a head and distinguished vulva? Or a sinister, black, cultic stone? Odd. Because the ancients can be arduous pushed to recognise the fluffier photographs as their primal, feisty divinity, the mighty Aphrodite.
Venus-Aphrodite was by no means only a goddess of romantic love – for millennia she represented one thing a lot stronger and darker. The tales that the ancients instructed about her had been appropriately surprising. Aphrodite, they declared, had a ugly delivery. Gaia, Mother Earth, was sick of the god of the sky, Uranus, eternally copulating together with her. So Gaia persuaded her son Cronus to slice off his father’s penis and testicles with a serrated scythe. The amputated genitals had been flung into the ocean with a roaring splash, and out of the gory foam emerged an “awful and lovely maiden” – the goddess Aphrodite.
The ancients realised that want was transformative – and never all the time in a great way. Greeks declared Aphrodite was born out of a form of primordial evening. But in actual fact she has a household tree. That penis-headed stone-age fertility spirit from Cyprus was mixed with a ferocious jap goddess of battle and intercourse variously often called Ishtar, Inanna or Astarte. Aphrodite’s ancestor was not to be messed with. “Lady of blazing dominion, clad in dread, riding on fire-red power”, her priestesses write about her.The early Aphrodite and her acolytes commanded respect, but a key issue arose come the iron age – when sex, rather than being simply a charged gift of the goddess, became a woman’s fault. In the canonical epic poems that form the basis of western civilisation, sex increasingly becomes a distraction from the manly businesses of fighting and empire-building – a deceptive, “limb-loosening” trick brought into play by the playthings of Aphrodite.
Think of mythical women such as Helen of Troy, whose beauty sparked a war of worlds – “a hero-race of godlike men were destroyed for rich-tressed Helen’s sake”; clever Princess Medea (her story the basis for the BBC TV hit Doctor Foster), so tortured by her unrequited love for Jason she poisons his new bride and kills her own children. All those poor Greek heroes, helpless in the presence of charismatic women; the consensus emerging that the only choice they had was to rape or control or betray. The fallout that followed a troubled sexual liaison was memorialised as the fault of the female of the species. Women – real and mythical – who engaged in sex (“ta aphrodisia”: the things of Aphrodite), were casus belli.
At a time when the rules of civilisation were being set down, men could be both beautiful and good (the Greeks had a phrase for these male paragons, kalo’k’agathia – noble in mind and appearance), but the first created woman was described as kalon kakon – the beautiful-evil thing, beautiful because she was evil, evil because she was beautiful. And whereas real Greek women were encouraged to dress modestly, sometimes even to veil themselves, Aphrodite, originally clothed, regularly starts to shed her kit.
The famous Knidian Aphrodite sculpture, now lost but copied again and again down the centuries and across the known world, shows a gorgeous, tantalisingly nude Aphrodite, her fluttering hands ostensibly moving to cover her nakedness but in fact drawing attention to her breasts and pudenda. Men were surrounded by omnipresent images of the naked female form, frequently representing the goddess – but also raised on morality myths that told them a woman’s body was something to be distrusted and/or conquered.
It wasn’t all bad news. Aphrodite could be benign as well as malign.As well as her more sinister ancient epithets; Aphrodite the destroyer, the deceiver, Aphrodite of the dark night, she was also Aphrodite Harmonia, Aphrodite of harmony and Aphrodite Homonia, Aphrodite of union. When the Greeks named Aphrodite(either a Hellenised version of the eastern Astarte or thanks to the fact she was born of “aphros”, or foam) they also gave her qualities such as kindness and compassion. When she stepped out of that spumy sea Aphrodite was said to have brought fertility, flowers, life, light to a barren world. For centuries women and men went to her sanctuaries to seek her pity and protection. Her domain was originally not just lust, but lust for life. A sixth-century BC figurine from Amathus on Cyprus incarnates a bearded Aphrodite – suggesting she also represented the power of sexuality in diverse forms. She was primarily, for the ancients, the goddess of mixis, of mixing things up. A deity who helped humans negotiate the complex, beautiful, bewildering business of living together.
But the goddess of love never shook off that early association with violence and sex. When the Romans adopted Aphrodite they officially combined her with their ancient fertility goddess Venus (the roots of the word vanas mean desire) to become a martial creature. Caesar wore a ring emblazoned with the goddess and Roman generals would make sacrifices to Venus before battle. Increasingly, Venus-Aphrodite was portrayed armed. So, while painters from the Renaissance onwards used her as an excuse to put temptingly available female flesh on show (think of Botticelli’s gorgeous The Birth of Venus – an intellectual allegory on the nature of neo-platonic love delivered via the image of a nude woman), the spiky charge to the words she has bequeathed us – venereal disease, aphrodisiacs, the poisoned arrows of her son Eros-Cupid, cupidity – remind us of the trouble that desire was perceived to bring.
Flintily fitting, then, that in 1914 the suffragette Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery in London, a meat cleaver hidden in her sleeve, and slashed at the supine back of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus because she “couldn’t stand the way men gaped at it all day”. Aphrodite-Venus had become not a subject of adoration, but an agent of exploitation. From the moment Christian society perceived sex not as a gift of the goddess but a crime against God himself, women were believed to be the vessels of love’s malign power.
Venus’s life story across 5,000 years reminds us not to trivialise the power of desire: the ancients were right to never underestimate its influence. Mighty Aphrodite was often blamed in Greek myth for inspiring men to do dark deeds in the name of desire – rape, incest and adultery. Yet the ancients never discovered a remedy to treat desire’s symptoms. Venus’s journey through time holds up a mirror to centuries’ worth of sexual anxiety and sexual prejudice – with women both victims and fall-guys. It’s time to overturn a canon of art and ideas that, from the edge of prehistory itself encouraged the world to cherchez la femme, and which legitimised sex as an expression of power. Time to reclaim Venus’s role as a catalyst of cherishing, compassionate, consensual love.
Venus Uncovered, produced by SandStone Global, is on BBC Four on 15 November at 9pm and on BBC iPlayer
Bettany Hughes from theguardian.com