For those with an interest in Classics, Bettany Hughes and Daisy Dunn are household names. It is a pleasure, therefore, to listen to them in conversation with one another – an opportunity I had on the 17th November, at an online event organised by Blackwell’s, which facilitated a discussion around Hughes’ most recent publication: ‘Venus and Aphrodite: History of a Goddess’. It is an enlightening and entertaining hour, made all the more enjoyable by the brief ‘zoom-bombing’ of Hughes’ cat, Cinnamon, and the revelation that she is the owner of twenty-five guinea pigs, each with an appropriately Greek name.
So, begins Dunn, what attracted you to the figure of Aphrodite, why did you want to write this ‘biography’? And how can we construct a biography for someone who didn’t really exist?
Hughes considers. Her reasons were two-fold: in academic terms, she has always been interested in the role that desire – for one another, for power, for wealth – has played throughout human history, and in the stories that we have created. But she also has a personal vendetta – she is sick of seeing the figure of Venus/Aphrodite depicted in modern society as a ‘fluffy pin-up’, being used to sell razors, or sung about in ‘sickly, saccharine-sweet’ pop-songs. She is so much more than that, Hughes explains, and by following her trail throughout history, we can also observe the changing attitudes on what it means to be female, and to sex and sexuality of all kinds.
Let’s go back to the start of that trail, Dunn suggests, can you tell us about Aphrodite’s origins?
This is a subject on which Hughes enthuses. Of course, she says, the most popular myth surrounding Aphrodite’s birth is that of Ancient Greece– in which the goddess has a rather gristly beginning, emerging from the blood-spattered seafoam created by the god Ouranos’ severed genitals. However, if we look further back, we can see precursors for this ‘awful and lovely maiden’, particularly in the traditions of the Ancient Middle East and a trio of goddesses who were variously worshipped there: Innana, Ishtar and Astarte. Crucially, each of these deities was not only a goddess of sex, but of war – Innana was described by one of the earliest named female authors as ‘lady of blazing dominion’, as a ‘battle-planner’ and ‘foe-smasher’. This dual nature can also be seen in the figure of Aphrodite, even if, as Dunn notes, her later depictions place any weapons of war firmly in the hands of her son, Eros, or her lover, Ares. Hughes also wonders, tentatively, if there is something being said here about the nature of ‘femaleness’ – after all, at this time around fifty percent of children were still-born, or died in infancy. Did early societies therefore see women as bringers of both life and death?
The conversation shifts to the importance of the goddess to women throughout history. Even in the Roman period, as she became Venus, they were taken with her, weren’t they? Prompts Dunn. Absolutely, Hughes agrees. The goddess had both priests and priestesses, and her female worshippers adored her. She also had a strong connection to sex workers and was believed to give them protection. It’s important to mention, though, the ideas of gender-fluidity that accompanied her – male priests of Aphrodite were often shown with breasts, and in the pre-historic archaeology you have the ‘Lady of Lemba’, a ‘cross-sex’ statue in possession of breasts and a vulva, but also a phallus in place of a head. Aphrodite was thus seen as a goddess who ‘mixed things up’, who inhabited a liminal space between land and sea, sex and death, woman and man.
Can we use her to observe the history of misogyny? Dunn wonders, with regard to the more negative epithets which attach themselves to the goddess, such as ‘destroyer of men’. Was this how women in general were being talked about? Definitely, says Hughes, who believes that you can trace ‘a kind of decline’ for Aphrodite, particularly in her statues, where she goes from being fierce and glorious, to an ‘object of desire, and motivator of trouble’. There is real anger directed at her, for example, in the vicious graffiti of Pompeii, and that does appear to be intertwined with her ‘femaleness’.
What about later representations? Asks Dunn. If we zoom forward to the Renaissance, for example, do you think she has lost some of her original power?
Unfortunately, yes, believes Hughes. She is re-embraced, but definitely altered – we can see during this period the idea of a ‘good Venus’, who represents a very pure, perfect love, and a ‘bad Venus’, who gives her name to venereal disease and to sex-workers, who were seen at the time as ‘impure’. As time goes on, she remains divisive – inciting both devotion and acts of violence, such as the famous slashing of the Rokeby Venus painting, by suffragette Mary Richardson. Even today she is fundamental to the conversation surrounding the female form, (Dunn points to the recent controversy around a new statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft) and how we allow it to be shown.
As the discussion wraps up, the audience is offered the opportunity for questions. What lessons, asks someone, does the figure of Aphrodite/Venus have for us today? Hughes’ answer is insightful and empathetic. When researching this book, she learned to think of Aphrodite primarily as the goddess who ‘shakes things up’, who forces us to ‘mix and meld’ with others. Hughes believes that Aphrodite shows us that desire should be followed, not selfishly, but with ‘human-heartedness’, and that the power of love is ‘best employed as a collective act’.
A little cliché, perhaps, but as ever, Aphrodite is what we make her, and in a world currently beset by pandemics and political divisions, there is worse advice than to show some more love and understanding.
Written by Hazel Atkinson