"Cupid Undoing Venus' Belt by Reynolds (c. 1788)
Few among the red-blooded (Pagan) women of today can resist the allure of Venus. She is among the most celebrated of all the Goddesses, evidenced by the incredible number of artworks that have been made in her honour. Her blessing is that worth courting, for she is the divine embodiment of sexual love and fertility. One of the things that makes her so appealing is that she seems to celebrate female sexuality, but this great Goddess is not just about sex, she is also about love, and about divine, life-affirming protection. Here follows a look at some ancient sources dealing with Venus, so to help us understand her multi-faceted nature a little better.
Venus and ladies of the night
As a Goddess associated so closely with sex it is no surprise that ancient Romans associated her with sex work. In Plautus’ Poenulus one character says:
“It's the Aphrodisia [a Greek festival in honour of Venus’ Hellenic counterpart Aphrodite – the play is set in Greece] … today, at the temple of Venus, there's a fair for the courtesans; there the dealers meet”.
Similarly, Ovid describes a festival in honour of Venus (and Jupiter) celebrated by Roman prostitutes (as well as all Roman women). It was the Vinalia – a wine making festival – which took place on 23 April:
“Street girls, celebrate the divinity of Venus; Venus boosts the profits of working girls. Request beauty and public favour with your incense, request seductive charm and playful words. Give your mistress pleasing mint and her own myrtle and wicker baskets covered in roses. Now you should pack the temple near the Porta Collina … [Ovid, Fasti, Book IV, 865-872]”
And then there is Horace’s Ode to Venus:
“O Venus, the queen of Cnidus* and Paphos [mythical birthplace of Aphrodite], spurn your beloved Cyprus, and summoned by copious incense, come to the lovely shrine of my Glycera [a Greek word denoting a sophisticated and educated courtesan].
And let that passionate boy of yours, Cupid, and the Graces with loosened zones, and the Nymphs, and Youth, less lovely without you, hasten here, and Mercury too.”
All of this almost suggests that sex workers were well regarded in the ancient world – but this belief would be mistaken. Prostitutes and courtesans (whether freeborn or not) were so lowly regarded that they were precluded from enjoying the legal rights of freeborn Romans – they, along with actors and gladiators, were “infames”. Ovid highlights the ignominy of sex work in his Metamorphoses, where prostitution is a means of divine punishment:
“the indecent Propoetides [daughters of Propoetus; women from Amanthus - an ancient city in Cyprus associated with the worship of Aphrodite] dared to deny her [Venus’] divinity; in anger, Venus made them the first, it is said, to sell their own bodies, and as their shame ceased, and they lost the power of blushing, they turned into stones – a very small difference, really [Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X, 307-311].”
"Pygmalion and Galatea" (c.1890) by Gerome
These words seem like an implacable curse and make Venus seem scary and harsh, but it is not so, for in the lines immediately after them we learn of Pygmalion, who has fallen in love with a statue (in this case of ivory) and then:
“The holiday honouring Venus has come, and all Cyprus turns out to celebrate; heifers with gilded horns buckle under the deathblow and incense soars up in thick clouds; having already brought his own gift to the altar, Pygmalion stood by and offered this fainthearted prayer: ‘If you in heaven are able to give us whatever we ask for, then I would like as my wife’ and not daring to say ‘my ivory maiden’ said ‘one like my statue!’ Since golden Venus was present there at her altar, she knew what he wanted to ask for, and as a good omen three times the flames soared and leapt right up to the heavens.
Once home he went straight to the replica of his sweetheart, threw himself down on the couch and repeatedly kissed her; she seemed to grow warm and so he repeated the action, kissing her lips and exciting her breasts with both hands. Aroused, the ivory softened and, losing its stiffness, yielded, submitting to his caress ... Amazed, he rejoices, then doubts, then fears he’s mistaken, while again and again he touches on what he had prayed for. She is alive! And her veins leap under his fingers! You can believe that Pygmalion offered the Goddess his thanks in a torrent of speech, once again kissing those lips that were not untrue; that she felt his kisses, and timidly blushing, she opened her eyes to the sunlight, and at the same time, first looked on her lover and heaven! The Goddess attended the wedding since she had arranged it, and before the ninth moon had come to its crescent, a daughter was born to them [Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X, 342-371] ...”
Thus in the story of Pygmalion and his statue come to life we have a story of potential redemption – a hard woman comes to true life through the power of Venus; through the power of love. This is a subtle story of hope, for both the women who have become emotionally hardened through prostitution and for the men who want to love them. So while Venus is a Goddess associated with the sale of sex she is, far more importantly, the Goddess of life affirming love, and that is the real moral of the story of the Propoetides – for, ultimately, it was their failure to love which caused them to be turned to stone. Thus to honour (or to be blessed by) Venus is not to sell your body for sex, but to feel the passion of love.
Venus - Goddess of love and divine protectress
Perhaps one of the most illuminating of ancient sources dealing with Venus is the play Rudens by Plautus, in which he refers to Venus as one who “handles love”. We then come into the storyline, wherein an elderly priestess from the temple of Venus says as she hears praying outside the temple doors:
Temple of Venus, Villa Adriana
“Who can be praying for my Lady’s help? The voice of suppliants brings me to to the door. A good, obliging Goddess they address, a Lady ever generous and kind … [she answers the door to two bedraggled young women] … you should have come arrayed in white, with ritual animals [as an offering to Venus. After a plea that she take in the two homeless women she agrees and says] … Give me your hands and stand up, both of you. No woman’s more compassionate than I. But girls, my situation here is poor: I find it hard to meet my personal needs, and I service Venus at my own expense … I’m spoken of as priestess of the Shrine [in the temple of Venus]. All my resources will be cordially shared with you, so far as means permit.”
The priestess then attempts to protect the women, who are escaped slaves, from the unscrupulous pimp and slave dealer who owns them – Labrax, referred to by the Victorian translator of the play as the “procurer”. In this she fails, for as the slaves grasp onto the temple statue of Venus their old master:
“in his villainy, pushed down the old lady, the priestess, headlong, and struck her in a very disgraceful manner, and with his violence tore us [the slaves] from the inner side of the statue.”
Upon hearing of this the slave of Plesidippus (Plesidippus is in love with one of the women) offers to protect them from their pimp and master saying “with the aid of Venus, I’ll march against the wickedness of the procurer”. At this point the young women kneel at Venus’ altar and pray:
“genial Venus, we both of us, in tears, implore thee, embracing this thy altar, bending upon our knees, that thou wilt receive us into thy guardianship, and be our protector; that thou wilt punish those wretches who have set at nought thy temple, and that thou wilt suffer us to occupy this thy altar with thy permission … hold us not in scorn …”.
Thereafter the slave of Plesidippus and some other men effectively defend the women against their pimp-master, but not before he threatens to:
“bring Vulcan [God of destructive fires] … an enemy of Venus … I’ll burn both of these alive here upon the altar … my own women … I shall drag away this instant from the altar by the hair, in spite of … Venus, and supreme Jove”.
This he fails to do and both women are eventually freed, with one of them, Palaestra – the heroine of the play – happily reunited with her family from whom she was stolen as a child. Thereafter there is talk of a happy marriage match between herself and Plesidippus – thus true love, and therefore Venus, triumphs.
|Figure of Venus (1st century CE)|
The storyline of this play is interesting for what it reveals about ancient Roman attitudes – firstly, great humanity is displayed regarding the lot of slaves (particularly young, pretty ones). Of more interest to us though is what it tells us about attitudes to Venus. Clearly Plautus reveres Venus and expects his audience to do the same – we loathe the procurer/pimp-master Labrax partly or wholly because he fails to respect the sanctity of Venus’ temple and her priestess. Furthermore we see that Plautus portrays Venus as one who does not merely assist prostitutes in the exercise of their trade, namely sex, she may also attend to their welfare and provide succour. Here we see Venus as a divine protector – a theme elsewhere repeated in ancient sources. For example, Virgil emphasises Venus’ role as divine protector in his epic poem the Aeneid:
“Venus veiled them [Aeneas and his Trojan followers – mythological ancestors of the Romans] with a dark mist as they walked, and, as a Goddess, spread a thick covering of cloud around them, so that no one could see them, or touch them, or cause them delay, or ask them where they were going. She herself soars high in the air, to Paphos [in Cyprus, Venus’ mythical birthplace], and returns to her home with delight, where her temple and its hundred altars steam with Sabean [Yemeni, thus myrrh and frankincense] incense, fragrant with fresh garlands [Virgil, Aeneid, Book I, 372-417].”
Virgil also casts her as a divine healer, as befits a life-giving, fertility Goddess:
“Aeneas’s mother, Venus, shaken by her son’s cruel pain, culled a dittany plant from Cretan Ida, with downy leaves and purple flowers: a herb not unknown to the wild goats when winged arrows have fixed themselves in their sides. This Venus brought, her face veiled in dark mist, this, with its hidden curative powers, she steeped in river water, poured into a glittering basin, and sprinkled there healing ambrosial juice and fragrant panacea. Aged Iapyx [doctor to the Trojan royal family] bathed the wound with this liquid, not knowing its effect, and indeed all pain fled from Aeneas’ body, all the flow of blood ceased deep in the wound. Now, without force, the arrowhead slipped from the wound, following the motion of his hand, and fresh strength returned to Aeneas, such as before. Iapyx cried: … ‘Aeneas, this cure does not come by human aid, nor guiding art, it is not my hand that saved you: a God, a greater one, worked this, and sends you out again to glorious deeds’ [Virgil, Aeneid, Book XII, 383-467].”
The importance of Venus in ancient Rome
Venus could also be the bringer of (military) success – Sulla attributed his good fortune in battle to Venus; Pompey built a temple to Venus Victrix (Venus, bringer of victory) and Caesar dedicated his victory games to her. Similarly, before the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar vowed a temple to Venus Genetrix (Venus the ancestress) – in keeping with his affirmation that Venus was his, and Rome’s, divine ancestor guardian.** Taking this theme a step further, Apuleius cast Venus as the “ancient mother of the universe, the founding creator of the elements”.*** Likewise, the enormous power of Venus was not underestimated by Ovid:
Venus Callipyge (c. 1st century BCE)
“gentle Venus … truly deserves to regulate the universe; she has an empire matching any God’s. She gives laws to heaven, earth and her native sea; her coming frames every species. She created all Gods (too numerous to count), she bestowed the causes of trees and crops. She united the crude hearts of humankind, and instructed all to pair with a mate. What creates every caste of bird but pleasure’s prod? Cattle would not mate but for fickle love. The ferocious ram locks horns with fellow rams, but spares the brow of his cherished ewe. The bull who flurries every glade and grove, sheds his savagery to chase the heifer. The same power preserves the wide ocean’s creatures and crams the waters with countless fish. It first stripped from man his savage habits, and bred elegance and personal hygiene. A lover was the first, they say, to spurn the night and sing a vigil-song before barred doors. Rhetoric lay in persuading a stubborn girl, every man was orator for himself. The Goddess caused a thousand arts: sex-appeal, they say, often unearthed the world’s secrets … Though her power is worldwide and hymned in crowded shrines, the Goddess reigns supreme in our city [Ovid, Fasti, Book IV, 90-118].”
Here Ovid alludes to her great popularity in Rome. We know she was highly regarded in ancient Rome not least because the day of Friday was named in her honour (the “dies Veneris” meaning “day of Venus”). She was also associated with the month of April, “the fourth month, which honours you most; poet and month, Venus, you know are yours [Ovid Fasti, Book IV, 14-15]”.
The realm of Venus
Thus, we see that Venus was, as now, a Goddess of great importance and popularity. If we are to sum her up then it can be said that Venus is the Goddess of:
- Lovers and happy sexual relationships.
- Sexual passion.
- Sexual beauty and charm.
- Sex and sexual pleasure.
- Sex work.
- Fertility and regeneration.
- Plant growth.
- Divine protection from harm / healing love – for she is a benevolent life-giver.
- Victory and good fortune.
Rituals in Venus' honour
As well as this, we see that the sources above do not just shed light on the nature of Venus, they also indicate the nature of rituals, and offerings, that were performed in her honour. It seems that wearing white while making one's offering is traditional (and good personal hygiene is advisable), as is hanging garlands around her shrine. We also see that the following things are suitable offerings in any ritual wherein Venus is invoked: incense, wine, mint, myrtle and/or roses. We may also consider honouring Venus on the date of her festival in ancient Rome (marking the foundation of the temple to Venus Verticordia – Venus the heart changer), the Veneralia, on 1 April. On this day:
“Yours are the Goddess’ rites, Latin mothers and brides, you, too, without the headband and long gown [ie, prostitutes]. Remove the jewels: bathe the Goddess whole. Dry her neck and return the golden necklace to it; then dress her with flowers and new roses. She tells you, too, to bathe beneath the green myrtle … Appease her with suppliant words. Her power secures beauty and character and noble fame. Rome fell from chastity in our ancestors’ time [ie, some Vestal Virgins broke their vows of chastity]. You ancients consulted Cumae’s crone [the Sibylline books]. She orders a shrine to Venus. It was duly built, and Venus henceforth named ‘Heart-Changer’. Fairest, always view the Aeneadae [descendants of Aeneas] with kindness, and protect, Goddess, your many daughters [Ovid, Fasti, Book IV, 133-162].”
In another allusion to ancient rites associated with Venus we have a fictional exchange in Plautus’ Rudens which suggests the form of real oaths, invoking Venus, that Romans might have made. The exchange is as follows:
“GRIPUS: Touch this altar of Venus.
LABRAX (touching it): I am touching it.
GRIPUS : By Venus here must you swear to me ... Take hold of this altar.
LABRAX (taking hold of it): I am taking hold of it.
GRIPUS: Swear that you will pay me the money on that same day on which you shall gain possession of the wallet.
LABRAX: Be it so.
GRIPUS (speaking, while LABRAX repeats after him): Venus of Cyrene, I invoke thee as my witness, if I shall find that wallet which I lost in the ship, safe with the gold and silver, and it shall come into my possession ...
GRIPUS: "Then to this Gripus do I promise;" say so and place your hand upon me.
LABRAX: Then to this Gripus do I promise, Venus, do thou hear me ...
GRIPUS (followed by LABRAX): "That I will forthwith give him a great talent of silver."
GRIPUS: If you defraud me, say, may Venus utterly destroy your body, and your existence in your calling. Aside. As it is, do you have this for yourself, when you've once taken the oath.
LABRAX: If, Venus, I shall do anything amiss against this oath, I supplicate thee that all Procurers may henceforth be wretched.”
Finally, not knowing how else to come to a fitting end to this revered topic, I conclude this post with what appears to have been a genuine, and ancient, prayer to Venus, written up as graffiti in Pompeii:
“Methe, slave of Cominia, from Atella, loves Chrestus. May Venus of Pompeii be kind to them and may they live together happily ever after.”****
|N Noel in Elle magazine|
* Aphrodite (and therefore Venus) was associated with Cnidus (also called Knidos) – which was an ancient city in what is now called Turkey – because a famous statue of her was called Aphrodite of Cnidus.
** Plutarch, Roman Lives: Sulla at  and ; Beard et al, Religions of Rome: Volume 1: A History at 122, 144-145; Lipka, Roman Gods: A Conceptual Approach at 46 and 174.
*** Apuleius, The Golden Ass, Book 4.30. Note that Apuleius was a devotee of Isis - who was often equated with Venus/Aphrodite during the Roman era.
**** Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town at 279.
Postscript (2016): for a list of prayers to Venus see my post Prayer to Venus.