In 1912, the suffragette Mary Richardson calmly walked into London’s National Gallery and up to La Venus del espejo. With a few swift moves of her arm cut the canvas, like a sushi chef cuts tuna or a surgeon a rotten hulk of flesh.
The deed done, the men in the gallery went apoplectic and rushed to her. Shaking with fear of reprisal and with the emotion of it all she said “I couldn’t stand the way men gawped at it all day long”.
The painting by Velázquez, also known as the Rokeby Venus, had only recently been brought by the nation following a public campaign. Its first English owner J Bacon Morritt called it his ” fine picture of Venus’s backside”.
It certainly is a fine painting with its soft colours and beguiling shades. The model may have been partly based on the Borghese Hermaphroditus (Velázquez ordered a copy for the Prado).
The cult of the bum was big in the ancient World. A common type of image was the Aphrodite Kallipygos (Aphrodite of the beautiful bum). According to Athenaeus, there was even a Rear of the Year competition dedicated to the goddess in Syracuse.
Yet all this hides one fact. This is the goddess Aphrodite as depicted by men.
Passion, desire, destruction. Venus is a powerful goddess.
“She was Philomedes, lover of male genitals […] she was also Epistrophia, the deceiver; Melanus, she of the dark night. She was Kataskopia, the spying one; Psithryristes, the whisper; Heliokeblepharos, the coy eyelidded; Tymbororukhos, gravedigger and Androphonos, killer of men”
She came from the East originally. Astoreth, Astarte, Ishtar, Ianna were the names she went by. An ambiguous figure. She offers both succour and comfort to people, but also their destruction. In this guise the goddess was known to the writers of the Bible.
With these in troop
Came Astoreth, whom the Phoenicians called
Astarte, queen of heaven, with crescent horns;
To whose bright image nightly by the moon
Sidonian virgins paid their vows and songs
Aphrodite is first visible in Cyprus. There small statuettes have been found depicting female bodies (with a phallic shaped head).
Cyprus was an important location in the Bronze Age due to its Copper resources (the English word for Copper comes from the name of the Island). Ships would travel between the Island and the civilisations of Europe, Africa and Asia. Aphrodite developed as a part of this trade. She is associated also with Orichalcum, a luxury copper alloy.
From an early period Aphrodite was associated with doves. The Greek word for dove peristera may come from perah Ishtar bird of Ishtar.
Today the goddess is one of the most iconic images of Ancient Art. The Venus de Milo is seen as an exemplar not just of Greek sculpture but art in general. Other archetypal images of the goddess include the Venus de Medici and Knidian Venus. These statues were copied extensively during the Roman period and give a rough idea of the relative popularity of such images. The statues all show a beautiful youngish women in a state of undress.
Aphrodite was not always portrayed in this way.
There is evidence that worship in Cyprus also took place in sanctuaries with standing stones. Non-figurative or anionic rocks were worshipped through antiquity. (The Elagabal is just one example).
The goddess began being stripped during the late classical and Hellenistic periods. Praxiteles is sometimes thought to be the first sculptor to represent Aphrodite nude.
Hughes links this to a disempowerment where the goddess become an object of male desire. This needs putting back in context. The poet Lucretius identified Venus as the most powerful goddess in his philosophical poem The Nature of Things. A self identified member of the atheist Epicurean school of thought, he nevertheless recognised the importance of the goddess.
At Pompeii too, she was honoured. The city was hers. A fine temple was dedicated to her in the centre of the city, with views over the Gulf of Naples. Several images of her have been found, including in the House of Venus in the Shell.
Afterlife of the goddess
History does not end with antiquity. Hughes traces the post-Christian Venus from the poetry of the Troubadours (which may have originated from contact between Arabic and Romance traditions) to the high art of the Renaissance.
The list of images of Venus in art is too numerous to go into detail Today Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is famous. Botticelli annoyed another Florentine Savonarola who railed against the images of Venus and said people knew more about her myths than the stories of the Bible.
The goddess of women?
It might shock readers of the Guardian and LRB to learn that the ancient world had a developed understanding of gender beyond physical determinants at birth.
Images of non-Binary figures have been found in Cyprus in the cult centre of Venus: a figurine with a beard, but wearing female dress with visible breasts; most likely left as votive offerings. One festival to the goddess involved men and women swapping clothes.
Such ideas might connect the goddess with later gnosticism and its own understanding of gender. A tentative lead, but one that deserves further study.
The goddess was long associated with extra-martial sex which has always been something of a social liminal act. Often obliquely recognised as a natural thing, it has nevertheless been penalised often to the detriment of women.
Yet Hughes has an ambivalence about sex workers. She thinks stories of sacred prostitution may have been around sacralising natural acts between consenting people, rather than prostitution. At one point she writes of the models for Venus in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century as “low class”.
She also identifies the moment that Venus became the object of male desire as a moment when sex became a distraction from male actions such as war or empire building. Actions she looks down on. However, this argues against powerful women of Antiquity who took on political or military leadership roles such as Cleopatra VII who identified herself as Isis-Aphrodite.
Of course, veneration of the goddess does not happen in a vacuum. Even in the post-Christian period, the goddess can be used to promote problematic ideas. The sexualisation of women of colour, which justified slavery, colonialism and exploitation was sometimes done in the name of the goddess. Sarah Baartman, known as the Hottentot Venus, was enslaved and paraded around Europe essentially in a freak show. The word Hottentot is no longer used as it is an offensive term for the Khoi (or Khoikhoi). That Baartman is still known by this offensive epithet is perhaps evidence of the legitimating power of the goddess.
Several artists have engaged with the tradition of Aphrodite to challenge patriarchal art. Renee So, for example, draws on various traditions to present powerful goddess figures.
Hughes understands the goddess as someone taking on the role of other gods such as the Eastern sex goddess, but does not examine the nature of this “syncretism” in enough detail in this book to give the reader an understanding of the complexities.
Ultimately Isis was the most powerful goddess of the ancient world, not Aphrodite. Her religion was a major competitor to Christianity.
Isis is often mentioned in connection to Aphrodite and her attributes. She is first named in Latin, by the golden age love poets. Tibullus complains that his love Delia is abstaining from sex for a period because she to engage with a festival to the goddess.
Around the same time in Egypt, Ptolemaic queens would associate themselves with Isis- Aphrodite. Both Arsinoe II and Cleopatra VII were venerated in this way.
Isis was associated with motherhood and female sexuality. In the East she was associated with Astarte (both goddesses were portrayed with horns). In Egypt, images of Isis-Aphrodite show the goddess lifting her dress to present her sex. Women in Egypt may have performed a similar action during a festival to the goddess.
Yet Isis remained powerful during the Roman period, but is venerated as a more benevolent figure.
A fascinating read, this small book offers a lot of information in fast flowing prose.