The Birth of Venus

Last week I completed my brief overview of the Greek gods, with a view to writing about Boticelli’s Birth of Venus. Today I’d like to give a closer look at Venus herself. Venus was the goddess of beauty and love in Roman mythology. Through identification with the Greek Aphrodite, she became one of the most powerful mythological symbols.

As I noted last week, there are two myths surrounding the origins of Venus. In the first, probably Roman, she was the daughter of Jupiter and Dione. In the second, perhaps due to the association of the name Aphrodite with the Greek word aphros,meaning foam, she sprang from the sea fully formed. The zephyrs wafted her along the waves to the Isle of Cyprus, where she was received and attired by the Seasons, and then led to the assembly of the gods. It is this tale of the birth of Venus, of course, that was depicted by Boticelli in his most famous painting.

All the gods were charmed with her beauty, and each one demanded her for his wife. Jupiter gave her to Vulcan, in gratitude for the service Vulcan had rendered in forging thunderbolts. Thus the most beautiful of the goddesses became the wife of the most ill-favored of gods (rich psychological fare in itself, if one considers marriage as a container as opposites). As I wrote before, Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno, and was born lame. His mother was so displeased with him that she threw him out of heaven. Some myths say that Vulcan was merely born ugly, and became lame after being thrown from heaven by his mother. In any case, he was certainly not the god one would consider most likely to wed the beautiful Venus. With Vulcan, Venus became the mother of Eros and Anteros; by Mars, she produced Harmonia; by Anchises (her mortal lover), the mother of Aeneas.

I like to think about the idea of containing opposites that Venus and progeny present. Venus, the goddess of beauty and love, marries Vulcan, the ugly, lame god of fire and forges. Together (wed, cooperating, partnering, coupling), they produce Eros, the god of love, lust, and sensuality, and Anteros, the god of love returned, of requited love, and the avenger of unrequited love. With Mars, the father of all Romans and the god of war, Venus births Harmonia, the goddess of harmony. What beautiful metaphors! They suggest that if we become conscious of our inner opposites–or lust for war, our need for love–we will produce something that contains something of each real, acknowledged part: perhaps harmony, one who can unite disparate parts.

Or perhaps if we stop rejecting our ugly, lame parts and personalize them and relate to them as our inner Vulcan, we will produce fruit as necessary and important as romantic love, erotic or sexual love, and will begin to approach consciousness in our marriages or intimate relationships with others. This is what understanding mythology can do for us, I think: give us road maps to the human psyche from ancient times, when people told tales.

Venus owned an embroidered girdle called Cestus, enabled its wearer to arouse love in others. Her favorite birds were swans and doves, and the plants sacred to her were the rose and the myrtle.

Venus plays an important part in several other myths and legends. For example, she gave beauty as a gift to Pandora, the first woman; she fell in love with Adonis and after his death, changed his blood into the anemone; she first objected to and eventually consented to her son Cupid’s (Eros’) love for Psyche and thus is a symbol of the powerful mother-in-law, and the need for men to fulfill the Biblical mandate to “leave and cleave.”

Venus destined Helen, the wife of Menelaus, for Paris and thus caused the Trojan war; she sided with the Trojans against the Greeks and enlisted the help of her admirer, Mars. She competed against Juno and Minerva for the apple of discord and was given the prize by Paris; and there are numerous other tales in which Venus figures prominently.

3 responses

  1. Heni, brilliant comments. In middle age, as I watch friends and acquaintances separate and divorce after many years of marriage and child-rearing, I’m reminded that attempting to resolve childhood pain by “choosing a partner who will bring that pain back to be processed anew” can prove to be most painful indeed.

    Robert A. Johnson writes in his book “We” that the Western ideal of romantic or courtly love is not what it’s cracked up to be; I think he might say that love and fire could not birth harmony. I’m not sure, I’m still thinking these things through.

  2. I hadn’t read before that Juno may have caused Vulcan’s lameness. Combined with the story of Venus’ infidelity with Ares, I thought of Hendrix and Hunt’s Imago: perhaps this is a story about the attempt to resolve childhood pain through choosing a partner who will bring that pain back to be processed anew. In that sense, the opposite of “marriage as a container of opposites”!)

    I’m also wondering why Love and Fire did not birth Harmony, but rather Love and War. Perhaps the ancient Romans and/or Greeks had an aversion to ugliness as a stamp of the gods’ disapproval, which could never lead to harmony?

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