Venus & Aphrodite: History of a Goddess
by Bettany Hughes
Through ancient art, evocative myth, exciting archaeological revelations and philosophical explorations Bettany Hughes shows why this immortal goddess endures through to the 21st century and what her journey through time reveals about what matters to us as humans.
Charting Venus’ origins in powerful ancient deities, Bettany demonstrates that Venus is far more complex than first meets the eye. Beginning in Cyprus, the goddess’ mythical birthplace, Bettany decodes Venus’ relationship to the Greek goddess Aphrodite and, in turn, Aphrodite’s mixed-up origins both as a Cypriot spirit of fertility and procreation – but also as a descendant of the prehistoric war goddesses of the Near and Middle East, Ishtar, Inanna and Astarte.
On a voyage of discovery to reveal the truth behind Venus, Hughes reveals how this mythological figure is so much more than nudity, romance and sex.
It is the both the remarkable story of one of antiquity’s most potent forces and the story of human desire – how it transforms who we are and how we behave.
We all know Aphrodite. She’s the spiteful, mostly naked love goddess who started the Trojan war and gads about on seashells.
Right? Well, classic historian Bettany Hughes has something to say about that.
In this short and sweet book, Hughes traces the origins of Aphrodite from the early goddesses who influenced her to her ancient Greek golden age, her time stripped and sexualised at the height of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity through to her appearances in Renaissance art and modern-day pop culture. Needless to say, there’s a lot more to Aphrodite than immediately meets the eye, and I’m so glad Hughes brought attention to the many sides of her and how, through her, we can view how societies throughout history have viewed love, sex and even war.
In many ways this book is an exploration into the development of western religion through the eyes of one goddess, and as someone very into religious history I was fascinated by how Aphrodite has snuck into Christian art and imagery; how there are certain poses Eve or even the Virgin Mary have been painted in that were poses traditionally associated with Aphrodite.
My only wish was that this book had been longer. This is very much an introduction to the history of Aphrodite, which in many ways was great because my ancient history knowledge isn’t the best, but in a way Venus & Aphrodite feels more like a long essay than a book. I’d’ve loved more, particularly about how Aphrodite still pops up in our culture today. I understand that Venus razors and their slogan to ‘reveal the goddess in you’ is a blatant reference to Aphrodite, but I’d’ve loved Hughes to explore this further.
That being said, Hughes is a classic historian, so perhaps this book needed to be an anthology of essays where historians who focus on more modern history, and anthropologists who study human behaviour today, wrote essays about Aphrodite through time.
I also wasn’t the biggest fan of Hughes’ writing style. The book wasn’t badly written by any means, but I sometimes found myself having to re-read a sentence a couple of times to understand the meaning because punctuation hadn’t been used where I would expect it to appear. In future, I think I’d like to experience Hughes’ work via audiobook; I enjoy her documentaries a lot so, for me personally, I think I digest her research best when it’s spoken.
This is still a very quick and easy read, though – it’s very much an accessible piece of ancient history – and it’s made me reconsider everything I thought I knew about Aphrodite. If you’re a fan of mythology, religion and history, this is one I’d recommend picking up!