There is a way to re­cast sex­ual re­la­tions – and it starts with Venus Bet­tany Hughes

The god­dess’s long life story tracks cen­turies of men’s fear and prej­u­dice, with women the vic­tims

The Guardian - - JOURNAL - Bet­tany Hughes is a broad­caster, au­thor and pro­fes­sor of an­cient his­tory Bet­tany Hughes’s Venus Un­cov­ered is on BBC Four tonight at 9pm

Venus, an­cient god­dess of love and beauty, is an ap­par­ently ir­rel­e­vant, in­vented de­ity of the long dead. But Venus mer­its scru­tiny. Chart her life story across 5,000 years and you chart the evo­lu­tion of our con­flicted re­la­tion­ship with sex and with the fe­male body. Now the We­in­stein flood­gates are open, root and branch re­form is, rightly, de­manded. But to ad­dress a prob­lem, you have to un­der­stand its size, its shape and its prove­nance.

Over the last decade I’ve been in­ves­ti­gat­ing Venus – the in­flu­en­tial in­car­na­tion of hu­man de­sire and beauty across mil­len­nia – to help ex­plain the state we’re in: why we deal with lust, love, sex­u­al­ity, sex­ual trans­gres­sion and the fe­male form the way we do. It’s about find­ing the roots of our prej­u­dice, be­cause once you un­der­stand the depth of a prob­lem, you can bet­ter deal with it. With a track record span­ning 50 cen­turies, Venus is a barom­e­ter of sex­ual mores and sex­ual prej­u­dice. Her nar­ra­tive also, ar­guably, of­fers a so­lu­tion to their mis­use.

Say Venus’s name today, and what springs to mind? Bot­ti­celli’s wafty nude emerg­ing from the sea on a gi­ant shell? Clas­si­cal stat­ues – naked or with di­aphanous drapes (just) cov­er­ing their mar­ble-mod­esty? Pink, “fe­male-friendly” Venus ra­zor blades? Not a bearded, full-breasted gen­der-bend­ing fig­urine? Or a Cypriot stat­uette with a pe­nis for a head and prom­i­nent vulva? Or a sin­is­ter, black, cul­tic stone? Odd. Be­cause the an­cients would be hard pushed to recog­nise the fluffier images as their pri­mal, feisty di­vin­ity, the mighty Aphrodite.

Venus-Aphrodite was never just a god­dess of ro­man­tic love – for mil­len­nia she rep­re­sented some­thing much stronger and darker. The sto­ries that the an­cients told about her were ap­pro­pri­ately shock­ing. Aphrodite, they de­clared, had a grue­some birth. Gaia, Mother Earth, was sick of the god of the sky, Uranus, eter­nally cop­u­lat­ing with her. So Gaia per­suaded her son Cronus to slice off his fa­ther’s pe­nis and tes­ti­cles with a ser­rated scythe. The am­pu­tated gen­i­tals were flung into the sea with a roar­ing splash, and out of the gory foam emerged an “aw­ful and lovely maiden” – the god­dess Aphrodite.

The early Aphrodite and her acolytes com­manded re­spect, but a key is­sue arose come the iron age – when sex, rather than be­ing sim­ply a charged gift of the god­dess, be­came a woman’s fault. In the canon­i­cal epic po­ems that form the ba­sis of western civil­i­sa­tion, sex in­creas­ingly be­comes a dis­trac­tion from the manly busi­nesses of fight­ing and em­pire-build­ing – a de­cep­tive, “limb-loos­en­ing” trick brought into play by the play­things of Aphrodite.

Think of myth­i­cal women such as He­len of Troy, whose beauty sparked a war of worlds – “a hero-race of god­like men were de­stroyed for rich-tressed He­len’s sake”; clever Princess Medea (her story the ba­sis for the BBC TV hit Doc­tor Foster), so tor­tured by her un­re­quited love for Ja­son she poi­sons his new bride and kills her own chil­dren. All those poor Greek heroes, help­less in the pres­ence of charis­matic women; the con­sen­sus emerg­ing that the only choice they had was to rape or con­trol or be­tray. The fall­out that fol­lowed a trou­bled sex­ual li­ai­son was memo­ri­alised as the fault of the fe­male of the species. Women – real and myth­i­cal – who en­gaged in sex (“ta aphro­disia”: the things of Aphrodite), were ca­sus belli.

At a time when the rules of civil­i­sa­tion were be­ing set down, men could be both beau­ti­ful and good (the Greeks had a phrase for these male paragons, kalo’k’agathia – no­ble in mind and ap­pear­ance), but the first cre­ated woman was de­scribed as kalon kakon – the beau­ti­ful-evil thing. And whereas real Greek women were en­cour­aged to dress mod­estly, some­times even to veil them­selves, Aphrodite, orig­i­nally clothed, reg­u­larly starts to shed her kit.

The fa­mous Kni­d­ian Aphrodite sculp­ture, now lost but copied again and again down the cen­turies and across the known world, shows a gor­geous, tan­ta­lis­ingly nude Aphrodite, her flut­ter­ing hands os­ten­si­bly mov­ing to cover her naked­ness but in fact draw­ing at­ten­tion to her breasts and pu­denda. Men were sur­rounded by om­nipresent images of the naked fe­male form, fre­quently rep­re­sent­ing the god­dess – but also raised on moral­ity myths that told them a woman’s body was some­thing to be dis­trusted and/or con­quered.

It wasn’t all bad news. Aphrodite could be be­nign as well as ma­lign. When the Greeks named Aphrodite they also gave her qual­i­ties such as kind­ness and com­pas­sion. When she stepped out of that spumy sea Aphrodite was said to have brought fer­til­ity, flow­ers, life, light to a bar­ren world. For cen­turies women and men went to her sanctuaries to seek her pity and pro­tec­tion. Her do­main was orig­i­nally not just lust, but lust for life. A sixth-cen­tury BC fig­urine from Amathus on Cyprus in­car­nates a bearded Aphrodite – sug­gest­ing she also rep­re­sented the power of sex­u­al­ity in di­verse forms. She was pri­mar­ily, for the an­cients, the god­dess of mix is, of mix­ing things up. A de­ity who helped hu­mans ne­go­ti­ate the com­plex, beau­ti­ful, be­wil­der­ing busi­ness of liv­ing to­gether.

But the god­dess of love never shook off that early as­so­ci­a­tion with vi­o­lence and sex. When the Ro­mans adopted Aphrodite they of­fi­cially com­bined her with their an­cient fer­til­ity god­dess Venus to be­come a martial crea­ture. Cae­sar wore a ring em­bla­zoned with the god­dess and Ro­man gen­er­als would make sac­ri­fices to Venus be­fore bat­tle. In­creas­ingly, Venus-Aphrodite was por­trayed armed. So, while painters from the Re­nais­sance on­wards used her as an ex­cuse to put tempt­ingly avail­able fe­male flesh on show (think of Bot­ti­celli’s gor­geous The Birth of Venus – an in­tel­lec­tual al­le­gory on the na­ture of neo-pla­tonic love de­liv­ered via the im­age of a nude woman), the spiky charge to the words she has be­queathed us – vene­real dis­ease, aphro­disi­acs, the poi­soned ar­rows of her son Eros-Cupid, cu­pid­ity – re­mind us of the trouble that de­sire was per­ceived to bring.

Flin­tily fit­ting, then, that in 1914 the suf­fragette Mary Richard­son walked into the Na­tional Gallery in London, a meat cleaver hid­den in her sleeve, and slashed at the supine back of Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus be­cause she “couldn’t stand the way men gaped at it all day”. Aphrodite-Venus had be­come not a sub­ject of ado­ra­tion, but an agent of ex­ploita­tion. From the mo­ment Chris­tian so­ci­ety per­ceived sex not as a gift of the god­dess but a crime against God him­self, women were be­lieved to be the ves­sels of love’s ma­lign power.

Venus’s life story across 5,000 years re­minds us not to triv­i­alise the power of de­sire: the an­cients were right to never un­der­es­ti­mate its in­flu­ence. Mighty Aphrodite was of­ten blamed in Greek myth for in­spir­ing men to do dark deeds in the name of de­sire – rape, in­cest and adul­tery. Yet the an­cients never dis­cov­ered a rem­edy to treat de­sire’s symp­toms. But Venus’s jour­ney through time tracks cen­turies’ worth of sex­ual anx­i­ety and sex­ual prej­u­dice – with women both vic­tims and fall-guys. It’s time to over­turn a canon of art and ideas that en­cour­aged the world to cherchez la femme, and which le­git­imised sex as an ex­pres­sion of power. Time to re­claim Venus’s role as a cat­a­lyst of cher­ish­ing, com­pas­sion­ate, con­sen­sual love.

Getty Images/ DeA­gos­tini

A de­tail from The Birth of Venus, by Bot­ti­celli

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