The Tender, Laughter-Loving, and Irresistibly Alluring Goddess Venus

The Birth of Venus image
‘The Birth of Venus’, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905). Image from ‘W. Bouguereau’ by Marius Vachon (1850–1928)

And now, allow me to introduce you to our – and, indeed, the immortal poet Ovid’s – inspiring patron goddess. That’s the tender, laughter-loving, and irresistibly alluring Venus.

“Her who restrains the bloody hands of rough Mars, who brings peace to warring nations and holds plenty in her rich horn, mild goddess.”

– Seneca, ‘Medea’, transl. Frank Justus Miller

In classical mythology, Venus – also known, amongst various other names, as Cytherea – was the Roman goddess, and the irresistible personification, of erotic love and desire. As such then, she was also the inspiring goddess of the seductive and erotic arts, including the delightful arts of beauty, grace, and charm. Essentially then, she was the Roman equivalent of the great Olympian goddess Aphrodite from Greek mythology.

This alluring goddess’ delightful realm then is aptly described in Hesiod‘s Theogony, translated here by Hugh G. Evelyn-White:

This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, – the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.

The goddess’ charming attributes

Venus is described as golden, fair, and lovely, and as ‘laughter loving’ and tender. She’s also variously portrayed sometimes as being conveyed through the air on a light chariot drawn by her swans or her team of doves.

In the ancient poet Homer‘s famous epic poem the Iliad, meanwhile, the goddess is said to possess a potently seductive magic girdle, which the goddess Juno (Hera) borrows, under a false pretence, to entice her husband Jupiter (Zeus) and distract him from the Trojan War. Venus’ potent girdle then is thus described in the fourteenth book of the Iliad, translated here by Samuel Butler:

As she [Venus] spoke she loosed from her bosom the curiously embroidered girdle into which all her charms had been wrought — love, desire, and that sweet flattery which steals the judgement even of the most prudent. She gave the girdle to Juno and said, “Take this girdle wherein all my charms reside and lay it in your bosom. If you will wear it I promise you that your errand, be it what it may, will not be bootless [fruitless].”

line drawing Venus designThe frothy birth of Venus

According to some accounts, including the Iliad and the Odyssey, Venus’ father was Jupiter (Zeus). According to this tradition then, her mother was the Titaness Dione.

Venus’ Greek name Aphrodite, though, is said to have been derived from the ancient Greek word that’s transliterated as aphros, which means ‘foam’ or ‘froth’. According to the most popular tradition regarding her birth then, Venus was born from, and grew within, the sea foam that formed around the castrated genitals of the sky god Caelus (Uranus) after his son Saturn (Cronus) had lopped them off and cast them into the sea.

Venus then is said to have emerged from the foam before finally stepping ashore, as an exceedingly lovely goddess, near Old Paphos on the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus. On route, meanwhile, she’s said to have approached, or even begun her journey in the waters of, the Greek island of Cythera, a small island off the southern-most coast of the Peloponnese (the south-west mainland of Greece) and the origin then of her alternate name Cytherea (‘Lady of Cythera’).

Venus’ famous amours

According to most accounts, Venus married the god Vulcan (Hephaestus). Even so, though, she’s said to have had other lovers and affairs, with both gods and mortals. Perhaps the most conspicuous of these is her famous, or notorious, intrigue with the warrior god Mars (Ares). As Ovid recounts in the second book of his Ars Amatoria (Art of Love) then, and in his Metamorphoses (Transformations), Vulcan is notoriously said to have craftily caught them in the act before foolishly disgracing them then by exposing the ensnared lovers to the other gods’ sniggering gazes.

Amongst other reported amours, the goddess is also said to have had famous affairs with the Cyprian mortal Adonis and the Trojan mortal Anchises.

By Venus then, the shepherd-prince Anchises is said to have fathered the Trojan hero Aeneas. According to popular Roman legend, meanwhile, when ancient city of Troy finally fell in the infamous Trojan War, Aeneas fled the city, with a Trojan fleet, and ended up in Latium, the ancient region in which Rome was later founded. The Romans then claimed descent from the Trojans through Aeneas and his immigrant compatriots. What’s more, as the mother of Aeneas, the Romans then regarded Venus as the divine mother of their race.

Venus at the Judgement of Paris and the ensuing Trojan War

With the goddesses Juno (Hera) and Minerva (Athena), meanwhile, Venus is said to have appeared before the Trojan prince Paris, at the Judgement of Paris, when he was appointed to judge the fairest of the three. Since Venus’ enticing charms are said to have proved pre-eminent then, Paris is said to have awarded her the prized golden apple, which had been addressed to the fairest. This being so then, and as the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas, Venus is said to have sided with the Trojans in the ensuing war.

Ovid’s inspiring goddess

Since the attainment of love’s delights and overcoming its attendant challenges and pains are the chief themes of Ovid’s earlier works, Venus then was Ovid’s inspiring goddess. From the outset then of his Ars Amatoria (Art of Love), Ovid, during his introduction to the first book, translated here by John Dryden, invokes the goddess to guide him:

Experience makes my work a truth so tried,
You may believe; and Venus be my guide.

Likewise, Henry T. Riley, thus renders these lines in his prose translation:

To this work experience gives rise; listen to a Poet well-versed. The truth will I sing; Mother of Love [Venus], favour my design.

Meanwhile, at start of the fourth book of Ovid’s Fasti (Calender of Festivals), which deals with Venus’ month of April, our poet prays to Venus for help and, after declaring her his inspiration, refers to himself as, essentially, her devoted servant:

“FAVOUR the poet,” I said, “thou genial mother of the twin loves;” towards the poet, she turned her countenance. “What wilt thou of me?” she said. “Surely thou wast but just now in the habit of singing of mightier subjects; hast thou still in thy tender bosom the old wound?” “By this time, Goddess,” I replied, “thou hast heard enough of my wound.” She smiled, and immediately in that direction the sky was without a cloud. “Wounded or whole, have I ever been guilty of deserting thy standards? Thou wast ever the object of my purpose, the cause of my toil. Free from all blame, in my early years, I have sported in scenes that became my age; now a more extensive range is trodden by my steeds. I sing of the festivals with their reasons, as they are extracted from the ancient annals, and of the Constellations as they sink beneath the earth and rise again. I have now arrived at the fourth month, in which of all thou art the most extolled. Thou knowest, Venus, that both the poet and the month are devoted to thee.” Influenced by my address, she lightly touched my temples with a sprig of Cytheræan myrtle, and said, “Accomplish the work which thou hast undertaken.” I was sensible of her power, and suddenly the peculiar reasons for the days of remark became evident; Let my bark [small ship] speed onward while thus it may, and while the favouring breezes blow.

Venus, Mars, and Cupid image
Venus, Mars, and Cupid – engraving by Jacob Matham (1571-1631), in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Venus’ ubiquitous dominion and civilizing power

What’s more, further on in the fourth book of the Fasti (Calender Of Festivals), translated here by Henry T. Riley, Ovid then goes on to describe the vast extent of the goddess’ power and influence:

She indeed most worthily holds sway over the whole circle of the year; she owns a sovereignty inferior to that of no Deity. She rules the heaven, the earth, and the waves that gave her birth; and by the power of her embraces she holds sway over every kind. She it was who created all the Gods; ‘twould be a tedious task to enumerate them; she furnished the primary causes for the plants and the trees. She it was that brought together the untaught minds of men, and instructed them to unite, each one with his mate. What is it but alluring delights that creates the whole race of the birds of the air? If gentle love is away, then do the flocks refuse to pair. With another male the furious ram fights with his horn, but the forehead of his beloved ewe he is careful not to hurt. The bull, at whom all the pastures and all the wood tremble, follows the heifer, divested of his fierceness. The same influence preserves whatever it is that has life beneath the wide ocean, and it fills the waters with fishes innumerable.

And so, Ovid then proceeds to thus credit Venus as, essentially, the civilizing goddess of all true self-cultivation and refinement:

It was she that first divested man of his savage habits of life; from her were derived the arts of dress, and the careful attention to the person. The lover is said at first to have chaunted [chanted] his serenade at the closed doors of his mistress throughout the livelong night that was denied to him; then, it was an effort of oratory to prevail upon the cruel maid, and each man was eloquent, he pleading for himself his own cause. By means of her were a thousand arts first touched upon, and through the desire of pleasing, many things were discovered, which before lay concealed. Can any one be found to dare to deprive this Goddess of the privilege of giving her name to the second month? Far from me be such madness.

And, far be it from me too. Indeed, let the Goddess give her name to every month of every year to come!