Last week people around the world celebrated (and in some cases took the day off work) to spend some time intentionally, thinking about all the accomplishments and stories of women. Regardless of the gender you were assigned at birth, or your race, creed, sexuality, last week (and in my opinion every week) was a time to set aside a day where we just celebrate, love and highlight the women who’ve touched our lives.
So I thought, in honour of that, today I’d talk about one of mythology’s better known, as well as utterly misunderstood, female figures.
The Etruscans called her Turan, though most of us know her as Venus (Roman) or Aphrodite (Greek). Unlike other mythological figures like Heracles and Achilles who’ve been branded on the worlds collective consciousness as popular characters, Aphrodite has become known throughout the world as more of a ‘symbol’ or an ‘idea’ rather than an actual character in her own right who, well, could do things.
Two of the most famous pieces of art in European history are of our girl Venus; Borachellie’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ (which gets homaged in everything from the Muppets to Lady Gaga, to the Simpsons) and the ‘Venus de Milo’.
In her classic interpretation Aphrodite is an incredibly powerful, revered and terrifying immortal. In Hesiod’s Theogony she was born when the Titan Cronus cut off Uranus’ (god of the sky, husband of Gaia) dick and threw it into the ocean (so far a promising start). In Homer’s work she is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. She features predominately in many Greek and Roman legends, Eros and Psyche, the Judgment of Paris, the Trojan War legend, Medusa’s Rape and the Adonis myth.
In most of these legends, Aphrodite is depicted in a similar way; as a being who is to be feared, who uses her sexuality and the preconceived value of the female form by the patriarchal society to get, rather empowering actually, what she wants. She is actually known for inducing through lust a type of psychosis (or insanity) and often uses other people (men and women and other gods alike) to reach her means. She is ambitious, vengeful, romantic, insightful, wise, and cunning (Aphrodite would deffo be a Slytherin FYI), and a myriad of other things and ultimately, is a very complicated and multifaceted woman.
Though unlike her sister Athena, in popular culture, Aphrodite’s character outside of her beauty and sexuality, it at best implied and at worst completely disregarded. In fact most of her characterisation tends to lend itself to what ever ear she's depicted in's version of the 'ideal' sexualised woman.
Seeing this dichotomy is 1. Expected in a patriarchal society and 2. Deserving of deeper consideration and mental unpacking. How Aphrodite has been depicted over the years can essentially be summed up in the patriarchy and deep seeded societal and institutionalised sexism, true, but also there is a key difference in what the Greeks and Romans in the age of antiquity actually constituted as love compared to what we could call love now.
Yes, Aphrodite is a love goddess but, what kind of love?
The typical Greek love categories were Agape; a charitable, altruistic kind of love, Philia, that ‘virtuous love between mates’ kind of thing, usually between friends or ‘equals’ and most recognisable Eros. a sexual, passionate, more object orientated kind of love i.e. the desire to have something. Be that a roll in the sack or a tasty biscuit.
Eros is the kind of love we would consider attraction, infatuation, a crush, desire yet the Greeks considered it a legitimate mental illness, some sort of ‘madness’. (which with this understanding explains a lot of Aphrodite’s classical myths) Love was an illness, able to be set upon a person by the gods like a curse and often the cause of death for mortals, demi-gods, the Trojan War and the reason figures like the Minotaur exist.
And while some social classes and cultures at this time had some more favourable ideas about love, attraction, women and general equality, in the time of Greek antiquity there were some rougher ideas being thrown around about all these things, mainly by philosophers.
Aristotle thought that: women would bring disorder, evil and were “utterly useless and caused more confusion than the enemy.” Also writing that: “the male by nature is superior and the female inferior as one rules and the other is ruled.”
Ouch, thanks Aristotle.
Another familiar faced old-guy, Socrates, wrote: “women are the weaker sex, being born a woman is a divine punishment since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal.”
Undoubtedly, women in Greece at this time lived their lives as almost sub-human, though things were a lot better for them in say, Sparta than Athens, the Greek viewpoint on love, femininity and sexuality was extremely varied and way different than our own now.
Love is a little less murderous today and not something to be apprehensive if not downright terrified of. It's a little more hearts and chocolates and commercial.
Love wasn’t a fun, sexy thing like we see today but something that absolutely terrified the Greeks, more of a disease than a right of passage. Again why cupid has a weapon, a bow, which you are struck by when falling in love.
This is also why Aphrodite, while lust inducing, was absolutely terrifying.
Like a lot of Greek deities Aphrodite was something of a place holder from a pre Hellenistic era, which contributes to her being something of a contradictory figure for a society that was so keyboard-smashy about sex and women.
Interestingly (if you haven’t already guessed already), she is more like Zeus than any of the other goddesses in the Greek/Roman Pantheon (note this is not really a compliment).
She’s married, though beds who she wishes gods and mortals alike, she’s sexualised, yet still a Goddess granting her a certain level of respect, she is parental and maternal on occasion, a natural leader and has deep ambition and she has a Jealous spouse (like Hera for Zeus), and depending on which origin myth to adhere to, she is one of the oldest, wisest and first of the Immortals after the Titan war and one of the few not born by Zeus himself.
Admittedly, she is also a much bigger jerk than most of the other gods (including y’know, Hades) she dished out her fair share of godly interventions, curses and eternal damnations (Medusa is a prime example).
But because she is a lurve goddess and our modern portrayals of love are so very branded and packaged and sterilised, her depictions tend to fall all around the place. From merely a pretty picture to an outright wet dream.
It’s clear that contemporary depictions of Aphrodite are trying to impose a modern idea of romantic love onto a decidedly ancient character that was an embodiment of a different type of love altogether. Most of these depictions only offer shades of the character, others making Aphrodite distinctly a product of their medium and their era in time.
I’ve hobbled together a bunch of examples (in visual mediums) to try and Illustrate this point:
ONE TOUCH OF VENUS (1948): Venus is played by Ava Gardner. The films story is loosely based on the Greek Pygmalion myth with Venus taking the role of Galatia. A frivolous light comedy with Venus as more of a plot device to teach the main character a lesson rather than a character in her own right. She is depicted as the ‘perfect woman’ appearance wise, but as naïve, out of time and out of touch throughout the film. She is not a good housewife and thus, undesirable for our leading man.
The 1988 reboot of this film GODDESS OF LOVE sees Vanna White as Venus, playing her role as an I DREAM OF JEANIE/CORPSE BRIDE character; obsessive, clingy, dim witted and again, utterly obsessed with the films leading man while being herself physically irresistible. She is turned into a statue by Zeus until she learns the ‘true meaning of love (i.e. monogamous love to one man) which indeed turns out to be the ‘moral’ of the story, though it isn’t Venus who ends up with the main character. Again, she is out of touch and does not exhibit the 'sensitive, passive' traits of a modern housewife. Instead she tries to kill people.
Venus also made an appearance in the 1988 film THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN. Here, Venus is played by Uma Thurman in her first ever film role. She is probably the most mythos accurate depiction on this list (though that isn’t saying much). The film shows Aphrodite’s almost insane control over the hearts and minds of those around her, framing it as a spell/curse. It shows her ambition, and disinterest in things outside of herself as well as showing her relationship with her husband Hephaestus/Vulcan, a relationship in which Venus does what she wants when she wants and he fumes in jealously yet still dotes upon her.
In HERACLES: THE LEGENDARY JOURNEYS/XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS Aphrodite is a pink lingerie wearing surfer chick (cos 90’s) who says “tubular” "awesome" and cracks wise. In saying this though she is is one of the most likeable characters on the show, actually having a pretty interesting character arch in Xena. In Xena she shifts from her uncaring, spiteful and selfish personality to a Goddess coming to care for and almost be parental towards humanity, specifically Xena’s girlfriend Gabrielle. Aphrodite in the series is actually one of those few immortals who is on Xena’s side when she goes all GOD OF WAR (we’ll get to this later) and tried to kill all the Olympians, thus avoiding Xena’s wrath and coming across torn between two loves, her love of her fellow gods, and her newfound love of humanity.
HERACLES is one of my favourite Disney movies and in it Aphrodite has well, no lines, is pink and slim fitted and again says nothing (though she does kiss the annoying/gross coach like satyr at the end). But Aphrodite’s role is expanded in the TV show adaptation (and she is voiced by Lisa Kudrow). She plays something of a mentor, guru figure in the show, often playing as the voice of reason in matters of the heart, teaching Heracles and his friends about sexism, objectification and self love, the latter ironically in one episode being taught to Medusa (considering their mythological history together is a whole other can of worms I won’t open up here but see victim blaming and rape). She is, thus far, the most progressive of the Venus adaptations.
Then in 2008 there was a little CW show by the name of VALENTINE, which depicts many of the Olympian gods (with Aphrodite as their matriarchy) living in the modern world. Aphrodite here in the 21st century is a business tycoon, running her own match making company (Valentine Inc.) She is a mother, a leader, a business woman and best of all she is played by the absolutely badass Jamie Murray (watch WAREHOUSE 13 guys). She overtakes HERACLES' Aphrodite in terms of progressiveness, shuns the dim witted sexualisation of her predecessors (she is still sexualised though it is framed as far more empowering) and rivals XENA’s Aphrodite in terms of genuine character. But the show only lasted eight episodes before being cancelled, and played very loosely with the idea of Greek and Roman mythology.
And then there is GODS OF WAR III (2010).
GODS OF WAR III… there’s not much to be said for this interpretation except for the fact that Aphrodite is purely sexualised to pornographic degrees and one of the few gods that protagonist Kratos decides to bang instead of kill (actually giving the played to do the banging with the push of a button and a vibrating controller). Go figure. Sex in video games looks hilarious on a normal day but the realisation of Aphrodite’s character in her (one sex) scene is really, really just laugh out loud. Most definitely pandering on part of the game developers.
On the lighter side of this, ECUPID is a cute little 2011 queer rom com about a long-term relationship between two guys being on the rocks. Aphrodite in this only has a brief sub textual cameo (only textual in the ending credits) and inhabits again a mentor role in the guise of both a phone app and a friendly waitress. In this instance again, she reveals the moral of the story to be true love, and that true love ideally is commitment and monogamy between two people (very at odds with Aphrodite in mythology).
This is by no means a conclusive and full list of all of Aphrodite’s/Venus’ depictions throughout the years (in visual mediums) but it is an interesting one; showing the path of progression our Goddess of love has taken. From love interest to eye candy to something of a mentor, all at the same time being pretty inconsistent in terms of character outside of her visual appearance (white young woman, slim and usually blonde). This is a good example showing how the pop cultural myth of women fitting this archetype being the the epitome of desirable women and also gives us a glimpse to how our ideas and interpretations of feminine beauty, desire and love have changed throughout the years (and indeed differ from decade to decade) and what idea's we have about the roles desirable women should play.
With closer analysis and more research, I don’t think it would be a terrible leap to bring about the idea that, our interpretations of Aphrodite in modern mediums, say a lot more than we intended about our contemporary thoughts about sex, women and love. And particularly about one of the greatest, most divisive and most misrepresented women in all of mythology.
*I'm sure I am not the only one reading who is craving a trans woman, queer, woman of colour, plus sized Aphrodite, right? How bloody kick ass would that be?*