Jeremy J. Baer
One of the principle goddesses from the Near East was known in the Babylonian pantheon as Ishtar, and to the Phoenician peoples as Astarte. This goddess par excellence was responsible for the fertility of the earth and the sexuality of humanity. She was also an armed war goddess who ruled over the heavens, and was identified with the brightest star in the sky. To the Phoenician traders, she brought safety and prosperity to sailors.
In the multi-cultural climate of the ancient Mediterranean, the Semitic goddess would be adopted into the Greek pantheon via the Phoenician trading colony on Cyprus. Ishtar-Astarte was remodeled as Aphrodite. Aphrodite means “foam born”. An early Greek myth recounts how the severed genitals of the primal sky god Ouranos fell near the Island of Cyprus; there resulted a great foam, and from it lovely Aphrodite was blown to shore. Aphrodite was even older than Zeus in this recollection. Henceforth her principal epithet would be “Cyprian” or she from Cyprus. The truth behind the myth recounts how a very old Semitic goddess penetrated the Western mind via the Phoenician cult center at Cyprus.
The Greeks already had a goddess of war, as well as a queen of Heaven, and various fertility goddesses. Thus in bringing Ishtar-Astarte into the pantheon as Aphrodite, the goddess lost all her domains except the one for which she would become immortalized: love and sexuality, and the seduction that goes with it. Aphrodite reigned in the Greek pantheon in this capacity for many centuries. Nonetheless her origins as a more potent Near Eastern divinity were never completely forgotten. She was sometimes called Urania, the Heavenly. She had power to tame wild animals, and was considered a protector of sea travelers. Finally her myths sometimes recount a vicious streak that was true to her origins as a Semitic war goddess. In Sparta, there was even a cult to an armed and warlike Aphrodite.
Yet, it was as the goddess of love and seduction for which she was most honored in myth and cult. The story of Aphrodite’s role in the Trojan War was immortalized by Homeric Epic. Her most infamous cult center was in the Greek polis of Corinth. There she had a great temple presided over by a band of “sacred prostitutes” who reputedly pleasured sailors as part of their cult duties. This apotheosis of sexuality would scandalize later Christian society.
Even in Greek times some people found it base. In some ascetic mystical cults, love was recast less as a biological principle and more as a great cosmological force like gravity; it served as a power of attraction that united the cosmos and led souls upward into their final destinies. To this mysticism, some philosophers de-emphasized biological love in favor of spiritual love: a love for wisdom and civic concord, a love for one’s fellow man and concern for the citizen body.
In the Roman tradition, there was a goddess Venus. Venus means “charm” in archaic Latin. Venus was an Italic goddess who presided over persuasiveness and seduction in both the divine and mortal worlds. She was closely associated with springs, gardens and vineyards. Under increasing Greek influence, Venus was easily equated with the Greek goddess of seduction, and Venus assumed Aphrodite’s mythology. As Aphrodite’s descendant Aeneas fled Troy to found the Roman race, Venus was regarded as the grandmother of the Roman people and treated with special honor.
The Roman Venus was regarded as the goddess of love and beauty as well, but unlike the bawdy Greeks, the Romans saw her as more stately. She was said to protect the morals of maidens and avert vice. She was thought to dispense divine favor to her favorites. Many warlords of the late Republic – including Sulla, Pompey and Caesar – honored Venus as a protector and benefactor.
It was under Caesar that Venus worship began to assume its final form. The Julian clan claimed direct descent from Venus via Aeneas, and the ambitious and narcissistic Caesar dedicated a public cult to Venus to remind Romans of the fact. Venus Genetrix, or Venus the Progenitor, was honored as the divine ancestor of the Roman people and the Julian clan in particular. She was a goddess not only of love and beauty, but of motherhood and marriage and domestic life. She had powers over nature, and was eventually identified with the planet that bears her name, the brightest star in the sky. This manifestation of Venus had much in common with the Semitic goddess who had started the whole enterprise in the first place!
Augustus Caesar, adopted ward of the Julian clan, associated the cult of Venus Genetrix with that of Mars Ultor, the other divine ancestor of the Roman race, and the avenger of Caesar’s murder. Venus and Mars, as seen by the Julian clan, would then receive honors and become the major gods of the Roman Empire until the beginning of the Christian era.
Even after Christianity, Venus would still be immortalized in art and poetry as the cultural symbol of love and beauty, and the awesome power of female sexuality.