The Birth of Venus, by Alexandre Cabanel, 1863

When I think of how much I love feminine beauty, I am always reminded of how many cultures have some sort of deity that represents the power of female sexuality in our world. For the ancient cultures of the Western world, that deity would be the Roman goddess Venus (in Greek culture, Aphrodite). I suppose if we were to search for one consistent figure in art and literature that would represent the power of eroticism, this ancient goddess would be it. Christianity really never replaced this goddess in the minds of people, at least as a common, remembered force. Since sex is such an elemental part of life, and since humans need to artistically express these elemental parts of life, the advent of Christianity in the formerly Greco-Roman world meant only the suppression, rather than the annihilation, of this ancient goddess. She was reborn in the Renaissance as a favorite subject of both artists (think Botticelli or Titian) and writers (think Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis). As a religious figure, yes, her cult had long since vanished, but as cultural force, in many ways the goddess of love never left us, she just was transformed into something different from her ancient incarnation.

There are many nice images of Venus throughout history. What is nice about the artistic depiction of this goddess is that she is such an obviously sexual and erotic figure that there is no need for apologies or guilt or shame over her depiction. When sculpting, painting, or writing about the goddess of love, the artist has a certain freedom to explore eroticism in a way that may not necessarily be true for other artistic objects.

Roman statue, probably of Venus, but definitely somewhat erotic.

Every time I see a beautiful depiction of a woman, whether in painting or photography, I am reminded of this goddess. My own postings of beautiful women here are sort of a homage to her memory. And what I am reminded of is the power of female sexuality in our world. This was the essence of Venus as an actual religious figure, a goddess who had temples and to whom ritual sacrifices and celebrations were offered routinely. The ancients knew and respected the power of sexuality. It was a natural part of life. It was what kept their world alive, through procreation and the power of female fertility. They also understood the elemental passions of love, and the power of that as embodied in this goddess and were in many ways much more in tune with the natural rhythms of sexuality than we are. There is much great art and literature in the ancient world that deals with these subjects of love, the power of love and sex and passion, both natural and unnatural, from Homer to Greek tragedy to the Hellenistic poets and artists and then eventually on to many of the great Roman poets, especially Ovid (43 BC to 18 AD), who was one of the great erotic poets of Classical antiquity. His influence on later erotic writers and artists, especially in the Renaissance, is immense and still continues to this day.

Freely erotic, and delightfully so, a modern Venus beckons us with her sexuality.

So as I think about the change of Venus from antiquity to today, and she has never really left us, but has only really been transformed, I am reminded of Ovid’s greatest poem which I mentioned a few posts back, the Metamorphoses, a wonderful poem of various tales of mythology, the overall theme of each being the transformation of certain figures from one form to another. For instance, in the Apollo and Daphne story, Daphne, rather than be ravished sexually by Apollo, who has been struck by Cupid’s arrow and is madly in love with her, prays to be spared from him, and is in turn transformed into a laurel tree, which then becomes the symbol of Apollo and consequently artistic and athletic excellence. Often the underlying theme of each story is erotic and so the poem is a colorful and brilliantly rendered reflection on the unpredictable and often capricious power of love, eros, and sexuality. Ovid wrote many things, so I will say more on him in a another post. But for those of us interested in erotic art and literature he is one of the most important figures out there in the history of such art and literature. He is in part one of the reasons we still have the ancient goddess of love, Venus, today in our midst, whether we like it or not.