Venus and Aphrodite

Title: Venus and Aphrodite: A Biography of Desire

Publisher: Basic Books

Author: Bettany Hughes

Pages: 208pp

Price: $26.00 (hc) / $16.99 (ebook)

Inanna. Ishtar. Astarte. Isis. Aphrodite. Venus. For thousands of years, she was worshipped across the Middle East and the Mediterranean, through Egypt, and north across the lands conquered by Rome. Over the centuries, her name changed, but her appeal never diminished: she was love incarnate, desire and despair, lust and beguilement and bittersweet longing and dread all mixed together. Only with the rise of Christianity and Islam did she begin to lose ground, but even then, she morphed into yet new forms … most notably as the mother of the God who had replaced her ….

Hughes’ Helen of Troy: The Story Behind the Most Beautiful Woman in the World has been on my reading list for quite some time. When I came across an advance copy of Venus and Aphrodite on netgalley, though, it jumped right to the top of the list. Here at last, it seemed, was a serious history of the worship of an important Goddess, one too often dismissed by academics (and popular culture), but central to the practices of many polytheists today.

For the most part, Venus and Aphrodite did not disappoint. Hughes has penned an engaging, wide-ranging, and well-researched history of the Goddess. She charts devotion to the divinity all the way from Neolithic Cyprus, through ancient Sumer, through the Homeric Age and the spread of Hellenism, through the rise and expansion of Rome, through medieval Europe, the Renaissance, and finally into the modern era and the creation of “beauty culture.”

The insights the Hughes offers into devotion for Aphrodite, into human perceptions of the deity, are fascinating. Such as

We should remember that for these ancient communities the great goddess was not an optional extra, an idea that could be believed or dismissed; she was as real as the sky, as real as the sea. Without her, all was lost.

And also:

It was she who was believed to encourage the carnal, cultural, and emotional mingling of women and men, to inspire relationships across borders and boundaries. She made humans social beings and encouraged civic harmony.

Or here:

Once, she had been a champion of real women, but as the divine gloss of the goddess dulled, she was styled a mere woman [….] Aphrodite-Venus had become an agent not of elevation but of exploitation [….] a thinly veiled excuse for disturbing and degenerate sexism and racism.

Hughes’ discussion of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and of the Venus de Milo are, by themselves, worth the price of the book. Not to mention her scathing critique of Freud, and the parallels she draws between the myth of Aphrodite and Ares, and modern-day slut-shaming and revenge porn.

This is not a dry, weighty tome. Venus and Aphrodite is a popular history written by a serious academic. And make no mistake: I do not mean popular history as an insult. Quite the opposite. Books like this — written in an accessible manner by a scholar who knows what the heck she is talking about — serve an important function: they help bridge the gap between disciplines, and between scholars and laypeople. We can’t all keep abreast of the latest research and theories in physics, chemistry, palaeontology, genetics, et cetera; but we can read popular books that lay out those developments for us, allowing us to figure out their importance and how those impact our lives, our view of the world, and so on.

And so it is with Venus and Aphrodite, which can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in art history, women’s history, the history of sex, gender studies, archaeology, classical history, medieval history, the film industry, religious studies, the history of Christianity, the evolution of modern polytheism, or philosophy, among other fields. Individuals new to polytheism or Goddess Spirituality will find Venus and Aphrodite especially useful, not just because Hughes so carefully lays out the evolution of the Goddess of Love, but because of the extensive bibliography she includes at the end. There are many, many more titles there which will lead people into an even more in-depth study.

I do have a few complaints. First, the book is very short: only about two hundred pages, a good twenty of which are the above-mentioned bibliography, plus endnotes. It can be easily read in a single day. The book also stops abruptly in the late nineteenth century, with a momentary segue into the late twentieth century: Hughes only briefly discusses the impact of the Venusian ideal on modern women, and the appearance of Aphrodite in such films as The Clash of the Titans. I feel like there is a lot more to discuss there, that the analysis could have been carried forward another century. Aside from a single reference to Warhol, there is no discussion of Aphrodite in modern art, and none at all of modern polytheism* (where there is plenty of devotion, desire, and art being created).

Despite those few complaints, I thoroughly enjoyed Venus and Aphrodite. I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the fields mentioned above, as well as fans of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A LifeThe Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt; and Kara Cooney’s The Woman Who Would Be King.

*For books which do deal with Aphrodite and modern polytheism, check previous publications by Laurelei Black and the forthcoming Pagan Portals: Aphrodite by Irisianya Moon.

[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her publications can be found there.]