BMCR 2021.07.46

Venus and Aphrodite: a biography of desire

, Venus and Aphrodite: a biography of desire. New York: Basic Books, 2020. Pp. v, 188. ISBN 9781541674233 $26.00.


Greetings from Himeros
God of sexual desire, son of Aphrodite
Lay back, and feast…
         ~Lady Gaga, G.U.Y.

Herodotus (2.53) asserted that Homer and Hesiod gave the gods their origins, names, honours, abilities, and appearances. The modern tendency to categorize the Greek gods in terms of their spheres of influence remains: Demeter with grain and the harvest; Athena with wisdom and warfare; Poseidon with the sea and earthquakes; and Aphrodite with sex and love. Perhaps this is the fault of Homer and Hesiod, or perhaps more recent popular culture (a certain yellow-hued book on Greek myths comes to mind for this reviewer). Yet anyone who studies ancient myth and ritual is all too aware of how complex and even contradictory these gods and their identities really were (the Greeks in Herodotus’ time were themselves likely all too aware of these intricacies).[1]

In Venus and Aphrodite, Bettany Hughes draws our gaze away from this tendency to cast the oft-called “love goddess” into a simple mirage of lusty hedonism, and aims simultaneously to muddy and clarify this deity for readers. Hughes states that Aphrodite-Venus is “the incarnation of fear as well as love, pain as well as pleasure, of the agony and ecstasy of desire.” (2) It is this quality of desire, and its potential for both intense suffering and sublime gratification, that Hughes suggests is most apt for encapsulating this goddess in all her complexities: “Follow her material trail down time, and she acts as a barometer for the way the world has viewed desire and lust and the pleasures, purpose, and preoccupations of flesh-and-blood women and men—and indeed of those who inhabited diverse points across the spectrum of sex and sexuality.” (36)

This is Hughes’ method precisely—to follow Aphrodite-Venus through time, from the Copper Age to present day, from the picrolite figurines of Cyprus to the music of Lady Gaga (see quote above). Hughes begins at the beginning: Aphrodite’s birth from the seaborne messiness of Uranus’ castration and her arrival on Cyprus. The earliest inklings of the goddess’ identity on this island are presented in the form of Chalcolithic stone figurines showing pregnant females with phallic heads that offered protective power to homes and domestic shrines. But the deeper, multifaceted origins are explored in Chapter 2, where Hughes delves into the fluctuating worlds of Bronze Age western Asia, surveying the roles of powerful deities such as Inanna, Ishtar, and Astarte. The collision of all these identities at the end of the Bronze Age is explored in Chapter 3, specifically at the site of Palaepaphos on Cyprus, Aphrodite’s most illustrious seat of worship in antiquity.[2] Given the popular appeal of this book, Hughes’ exploration of these intricate origins that stretch beyond the boundaries we impose on the Greco-Roman worlds is integral to the book’s meaning—although I will expand on certain reservations with the characterizations of these regions below.

Chapters 4-6 elaborate on Aphrodite’s spheres of influence in the Greek world of the first millennium BCE and her deeper roles beyond love and sex: this was a goddess of mixis, who sponsored the very forces that connected humans near and far.[3] Accordingly, she is associated with sea journeys and port towns, and naturally all sorts of human unions, from political to sexual. Indeed, even sex and politics are intermixed under Aphrodite, notably in Solon’s taxation of brothels to found the sanctuary of Aphrodite Pandemos (“All the People”) in Athens.[4] Hughes explores the many sexual natures that Aphrodite, who is sometimes Aphroditos, nourished in her incarnation as “a surging life force” (59), and the more demonic sides of these awesome powers. We meet figures who reflect these intricacies: Sappho, Kinyras, the scandalous Knidians, and, of course, Paris/Alexandros. Hughes finds that all of these incarnations ultimately reflect the rise of patriarchies. As we follow her trail, we “chart the magnetic pull of a male-dominated society toward escalating misogyny. Attitudes to the goddess, in many quarters, reflected attitudes to flesh-and-blood women.” (66)

Chapters 7-9 bring us through the Hellenistic and Roman periods and into Late Antiquity, beginning with the Later Republican masculine employment of Aphrodite—or, rather, Venus—as divine ally in the imperial missions of conquest and expansion. The Roman propagation of Venus in this manner in Chapter 7 is juxtaposed with Aphrodite’s continued celebration in the Hellenistic worlds in Chapter 8, particularly via the Ptolemaic queens and Aphrodite’s venerable abodes on Cyprus. Chapter 9 explores the Christian redeployment of Aphrodite-Venus and sublime feminine power  as Christian leaders attempted to suppress her more provocative aspects.

Finally, in chapters 10-12, we witness the continuing love affair with this goddess in the early modern and modern periods. Aphrodite-Venus was an ally to Renaissance elite pursuits, who helped artists (notably Titian and Botticelli) sublimate political messages in art forms that reached for the sublime. She was an inspiration for the writings of Shakespeare, Christian symbolism, and the copious Renaissance statues that presented the ideal female form. These receptions, subordinating the female as something to be moulded by the male, employed Aphrodite-Venus as an agent “not of elevation but of exploitation” (130), “a thinly veiled excuse for disturbing and degenerate sexism and racism.” (132) Chapter 12 continues this theme: Aphrodite-Venus is the most-viewed naked female, whose reduction to the male gaze seems to culminate dolefully in the armless and pedestalled Venus de Milo, while her combination of awesome creative and destructive powers was pulled apart by Freudian psychoanalysis. Yet her presence lives on, and Hughes reminds us in the Epilogue that we must pay close attention to Aphrodite-Venus’ life-story if we want to understand human desire: “to make it our ally, not our undoing.” (148)

Hughes’ work is an evocative tour through time and space in the footsteps of a misunderstood goddess. In one of the better summations of what a god is, Gabriella Pironti emphasizes, “…a deity represents first and foremost a divine power, one which can manifest itself in nature, in society, or in an individual, without itself being any of these manifestations.”[5]Hughes has presented Aphrodite-Venus as such, yet her goal was not merely to understand this goddess as a divine force, but to hold Aphrodite-Venus up as a mirror to ourselves and to our complicated relationship with our desires, individual and societal. Hughes has certainly succeeded, but I would like to offer a few caveats.

In writing a succinct yet entertaining tale for a popular audience that aims to complexify, the author ultimately must simplify for the requirements of prose. It is somewhat paradoxical to explore the intricacies of a deity under a singular name or string of names (e.g., Ishtar-Astarte-Aphrodite-Venus-Mary), and present the manifestations of any deity throughout antiquity as some sort of linear evolution. We should remember that many deities helped shape this biography of desire. At times too many associations are gathered under the Aphrodite-Venus umbrella, leading to questionable connections. The imagery of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus, or Mary Lactans, for instance, is tied directly to Aphrodite in order to demonstrate the natural progression from Aphrodite to Mary: “The equation between Aphrodite as a nurturer or protector of children, a kourotrophos, and the Virgin Mary is obvious.” (103) In reality, many deities across Egypt, western Asia, and the Mediterranean performed the role of kourotrophos, and the link with Aphrodite is not certain.[6]

In Hughes’ narrative equivocal details sometimes also become elided into unequivocal prose, which may mislead readers. For instance, while Hughes recognizes the many pitfalls around the question of “sacred prostitution”, there are other areas where this sensitivity is not observed. On pages 44-45, in the midst of discussions of Aphrodite and prostitution, we are introduced to the building in the Athenian Kerameikos known as Bau Z, frequently interpreted to have housed females who wove by day and serviced clients as prostitutes by night.[7] Examining the sexual metaphors in some of the imagery from this building, Hughes hopes that the goddess might bring “some comfort to the pitiful sex-slaves who lived there, weaving by day and being shagged by night…” (45) This interpretation of Bau Z downplays the quite ambiguous evidence, generating assumptions about how women existed in the ancient economy.

More broadly, in trying to reveal Aphrodite-Venus’ blended origins, this study at times reinforces boundaries, particularly via reference to problematic constructs such as “East” and “West” (e.g., p. 17, 85) and “Western Civilization” (p. 105). At the close of Chapter 7, Hughes writes “But the tug of love over the goddess between her new adopters, the West, and her motherland, the East, could continue…” (85) The characterization of Bronze Age western Asia as “an epoch of unbridled passions” (12) and a “febrile cultural climate” (24) subtly buttresses these divisions, in my view. Aphrodite-Venus should teach us, if anything, to question these essentialist constructs of “East” and “West”.

Some smaller points: there are clear black-and-white images throughout with captions, and an inset of further images between pp. 108 and 109, but figures are not labelled for easy reference and they are also not always near the relevant text. There are sections at the back including illustration sources, a select bibliography, endnotes, and a helpful index. Translations of sources are referenced in endnotes, but are often left out – this decision is generally editorial, but there were many areas where vague phrasing (e.g., “Recent scholarship has supported…”; “Recent reevaluation of the evidence suggests…”) leaves the reader searching for more information. Typographical errors are minimal, but there were a few factual errors.[8] Finally, one of the New Sappho fragments is cited (pp. 57-58), but the controversies over its provenance are not mentioned.[9]

These issues aside, Hughes has brought us a powerful corrective to a largely misunderstood deity. The poet of the Iliadmay have committed Aphrodite to the “works of marriage” (5.429), but Hughes’ holistic investigation reveals Aphrodite-Venus as a divine force that channelled and mirrored human ambitions, offering a mirror to us to reflect on the creative and destructive forces of our own desires.


[1] For an excellent analysis of these complexities, see J. Larson, Understanding Greek Religion (Routledge, 2016), Chapter 1.2.

[2] For a more in-depth study of these origins, see S. Budin, The Origin of Aphrodite (CDL Press, 2003).

[3] On Aphrodite as a goddess of mixis, see V. Pirenne-Delforge 2010, “Something to Do with Aphrodite’: Ta Aphrodisia and the Sacred,” in D. Ogden, ed., A Companion to Greek Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 311-324.

[4] The sources for this political act are several centuries later  and deserve skepticism. See F. Frost, “Solon Pornoboskosand Aphrodite Pandemos,” Syllecta Classica 13 (2002), 34-46; M.J. Daniels, “Aphrodite Pandemos at Naukratis Revisited: The Goddess and her Civic Function in the Context of an Archaic Emporion,” Journal of Greek Archaeology 3 (2018), 165-201. Hughes calls Aphrodite Pandemos the patron of “rough sex”, which seems off the mark, but may derive from Plato, Symposium 181a-c and the characterization of Aphrodite Pandemos as the patron of baser sexual acts.

[5] G. Pironti, “Rethinking Aphrodite as a Goddess at Work,” in A.C. Smith and S. Pickup, eds, Brill’s Companion to Aphrodite (Brill, 2010), 119.

[6] See T. Hadzisteliou-Price, Kourotrophos: Cults and Representations of the Greek Nursing Deities (Brill, 1978) and S. Budin, Images of Women and Child from the Bronze Age: Reconsidering Fertility, Maternity, and Gender in the Ancient World (Cambridge, 2011). On the issue of equating Mary Lactans with earlier goddesses: S. Higgins, “Divine Mothers: The Influence of Isis on the Virgin Mary in Egyptian Lactans-Iconography,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 2-4 (2012), 71-90.

[7] See the publication by U. Knigge, Der Bau Z (Hirmer Verlag, 2005) and the English summary by B. Ault, “Building Z in the Athenian Kerameikos: House, Tavern, Inn, Brothel?” in A. Glazebrook and B. Tsakirgis, eds, Houses of Ill Repute: The Archaeology of Brothels, Houses, and Taverns in the Greek World (Pennsylvania, 2016), 75-102.

[8] Herostratos, the traveling merchant in Polycharnos’ tale related by Athenaeus (Deipnosophistae 15.675f-676c), acquired a statuette of Aphrodite in Paphos, not Alexandria. The Pharaoh Amenhotep III did obtain a statue of Ishtar, but there is no evidence this was done to cure his illness (W.L. Moran, ed., The Amarna Letters [Johns Hopkins, 1992], 64, n. 2).

[9] See C. M. Sampson and A. Uhlig, “The Murky Provenance of the Newest Sappho,” Eidolon (2019).