Venus: Eroticized Goddess of Love, Fertility, Agriculture… and Infidelity?
According to Roman mythology, Venus was the goddess most famously associated with love, beauty, and fertility. Less commonly known, however, is that Venus was also worshipped as the goddess of cultivated fields and gardens. In fact, this was her original role, before the Romans equated her with the Greek goddess Aphrodite.
Although Venus became a major goddess in the Roman pantheon, it seems that she was not worshipped by them in the early part of their history. She was, however, worshipped by the other Latin tribes. Venus made a lasting impact on Western civilization, as various works of art featuring this goddess were made not only during the Classical period, but also in the subsequent eras of European history.
Origins of Venus Amongst Rome’s Latin Neighbors
The name “Venus” is speculated to be related to the Sanskrit word vanas, which translates to mean “loveliness”, “longing”, or “desire”. More directly, the name of this goddess is derived from the Latin noun venus, meaning “ love”. This noun indicated specifically erotic love or desire. This goddess’ name is also directly related to the Latin verb venerari, meaning “to love or revere”, and possibly to the noun venenum, meaning “poison”, “charm”, “potion”, or even “aphrodisiac”.
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Venus may be considered as part of a tradition of eroticized female deities, which was prevalent in both ancient Indo-European, and Near Eastern cultures. Apart from the Greek goddess Aphrodite, whom Venus eventually became equated with, other deities belonging to this tradition include the Egyptian Hathor, the Sumerian Inanna, the Mesopotamian Ishtar, and the Etruscan Turan. Like these other goddesses, Venus is represented as an extremely attractive female whose domains included love, sexuality, and fertility.
Originally, Venus was not part of the Roman pantheon, as indicated by Marcus Terentius Varro, an ancient Roman scholar who lived between the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. Varro mentioned that he could not find any mention of this goddess in the old records. This is supported by the fact that in the oldest Roman calendar, Venus had neither any special festival dedicated to her, nor a flamen (a priest who served a particular deity). Nevertheless, Venus was already worshipped amongst the Romans’ Latin neighbors. Amongst the Latins, Venus was regarded as the goddess of cultivated fields and gardens.
It seems that Venus was already a very ancient goddess amongst the Latins, and that she had at least two temples dedicated to her, one in Lavinium, and the other in Ardea. It is thought that the cult of Venus was brought to Rome from the latter city. As Venus was already being worshipped amongst Rome’s Latin neighbors, it is perhaps not so surprising that the cult eventually made its way to Rome. On the other hand, it is unclear as to how Venus, originally associated with agriculture, became a major goddess in charge of love and beauty.
Venus and Anchises by William Blake Richmond. ( Public domain )
Venus’ Adoption into the Roman Pantheon
It is thought that Venus was adopted into the Roman pantheon during the 3rd century BC. Additionally, it was believed that this goddess lent support to the Romans in their conflicts with the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars of the 3rd and 2nd centuries AD. The Romans attributed their victory over the Carthaginians to Venus’ intervention. Therefore, the popularity of this goddess increased tremendously following these wars.
The belief that Venus supported the Romans may be connected to the hero Aeneas, whom the Romans regarded as the founder of their race. According to Classical mythology, Aeneas was the son of a mortal father, Anchises, and a divine mother, Venus, or Aphrodite in the original Greek version of the story. In this tale, Aphrodite was punished by Zeus for making the gods fall in love with mortal women. This punishment involved Aphrodite falling in love with Anchises, a Trojan prince. Consequently, Aphrodite gave birth to Aeneas.
Aeneas participated in the Trojan War , defending Troy against the Greeks. He was one of the few Trojans who survived the war, and his story is picked up by the Roman authors, most notably Virgil, in his epic poem, the Aeneid. One episode in the Aeneid involves Aeneas’ romantic encounter with Dido, the founding queen of Carthage. When Aeneas leaves Carthage, however, Dido commits suicide, after cursing Rome and Carthage to eternal enmity. Thus, Venus is thought to have been providing aid to her descendants, the Romans, in their struggle against their age-old enemy during the Punic Wars.
The status of Venus as a Roman goddess was elevated even further during the early days of the Roman Empire. The Julio-Claudians, who provided Rome with its first five emperors, claimed to be direct descendants of Venus. The gens Julia claimed to be the descendants of Iulus (known also as Ascanius), the son of Aeneas, and therefore were related to Venus. This claim to divine ancestry was used as a political tool by the ambitious Julius Caesar , as well as his adopted son and heir, Augustus.
The Birth of Venus by Alexandre Cabanel. ( Public domain )
The Birth of Venus in Greek Mythology
Whilst these myths were particularly Roman, there were also myths surrounding Venus that resemble more closely those about her Greek counterpart. For example, the story of Venus’ birth was adopted by the Romans from the Greeks. Incidentally, there are two known versions of the story of Venus’ birth in Greek mythology, one from Homer, and the other from Hesiod. In the former, Venus, or rather, Aphrodite, was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, a Titaness.
The story recounted by Hesiod, in his Theogony, however, is the more famous of the two, and is the one adopted by the Romans. According to this myth, Venus was born under extraordinary circumstances, and had neither a father nor a mother. The myth involves the primeval deity Uranus and his son, the Titan Saturn (Chronos to the Greeks). In the myth, Saturn’s mother, Gaia, wanted her sons to castrate their father, so that he would stop having sex with her. Only Saturn was willing to do the deed.
After succeeded in castrating Uranus, Saturn threw his father’s testicles into the sea. A white foam was produced in the waters, and out of it, Venus emerged on a scallop shell. The goddess was fully-grown, nude, and was the most beautiful being ever created. The myth of Venus’ birth has been depicted by artists over the ages, the most famous perhaps being Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus . This painting, produced during the late 15 th century, is today displayed in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli. ( Public domain )
Venus’ Marriage: The Greatest Mismatch in Classical Mythology
Like her Greek counterpart, Venus was married to the god of smiths, Vulcan ( Hephaestus in Greek mythology). This arrangement was made by Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks), as all the other gods were stricken by her beauty, and each wanted to marry her. In order to avoid a full-blown conflict between the gods, Jupiter had the goddess hastily married off to Vulcan.
This was probably the greatest mismatch in classical mythology, since, physically speaking, Vulcan was the complete opposite of Venus, being lame and ugly. This probably made it an unhappy marriage, and may be a factor contributing to Venus’ infidelity. Indeed, Venus was notorious for taking on many lovers, both mortals and immortals, the best-known of whom was Ares (Mars in Greek mythology), the god of war.
In one myth, Venus and Mars were seeing each other on a regular basis behind Vulcan’s back. One day, their affair was discovered by Mercury (Hermes to the Greeks), who reported it to Vulcan. Although the god was enraged, he did not set out immediately to confront the lovers. Instead, he went to his workshop, and created a net that was so fine that it could be detected by neither mortals nor immortals. He draped this over his bed, as a trap for his wife and her lover, and waited. Eventually, Venus and Mars arrived for their tryst, and Vulcan sprang his trap, catching the lovers like a pair of fish. He then invited the rest of the gods to mock the naked lovers.
Mars and Venus surprised by Vulcan in painting by Joachim Wtewael. (Frans Vandewalle / CC BY-NC 2.0 )
Venus: Infidelity and her Love of Adonis
Nevertheless, it seems that this humiliating experience did not hinder Venus from carrying on with her infidelities. In another myth, the goddess has an affair with Adonis, a mortal famous for his attractive looks. A version of this myth can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. According to Ovid’s retelling of the myth, Adonis was the son of Myrrha through her incestuous relationship with her father, a king of Cyprus named Cinyras.
When Cinyras discovered what he had done, he wanted to kill his daughter. Myrrha, however, succeeded in fleeing Cyprus, and wandered across Arabia, where she was ultimately transformed into the myrrh tree by the gods. Myrrha gave birth after her transformation into a tree. Adonis, who was already very attractive as a baby, grew up into a handsome young man, and caught the attention of Venus. Consequently, the goddess spent most of her time with Adonis.
The young man enjoyed hunting, but the goddess warned him against bold animals, such as boars and lions. Adonis, however, did not heed Venus’ warning. One day, Adonis was hunting a boar, and managed to strike it on its side with his spear. The wounded beast fought back, and gored Adonis in his groin with its tusk. The injury proved to be fatal. As Adonis lay in his blood, Venus, who was on her way back to Cyprus, heard his groans, and returned to him immediately. The goddess was powerless to save Adonis, and he died in her arms. Nevertheless, Venus was able to transform her lover’s blood into the anemone flower.
There are variations to this myth, in which the boar was sent by one of the gods to kill Adonis. For instance, one version states that Proserpina (Persephone to the Greeks) was responsible for his death. In this version, Venus found Adonis as a baby, and gave him to Proserpina to be raised. When the child grew up, he became exceedingly handsome, and Venus wanted him back. Proserpina, however, would not allow this.
The problem was settled by Jupiter, who decreed that Adonis would spend a third of the year with Venus, another third of the year with Proserpina, and the last third of the year with whomever he wished. As the young man chose to spend two thirds of the year with Venus, Proserpina was jealous, and sent the boar to kill him.
Venus mourning Adonis by Sir Peter Paul Rubens. ( Public domain )
The Multiple Children of Venus
With so many lovers, it is unsurprising that Venus had many offspring. Aeneas, for instance, is one of them. According to one version of the myth, Venus and Adonis had two children, Golgos and Beroe. Apart from them, Venus also had children through her relations with the gods. With Mars, for example, Venus had as many as eight children, including Phobos and Deimos, and four of the Erotes. Another of the Erotes, Hermaphrodites, was the offspring of Venus and Mercury. Incidentally, Venus and her husband, Vulcan, did not produce any children, though the latter fathered several offspring through his relations with various other women.
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Over the course of Western art history, Venus was a popular subject amongst artists. For example, frescoes depicting the goddess have been unearthed at the site of Pompeii. Additionally, sculptures of the goddess were produced in ancient times, one of the most famous being the Venus de Milo . Interestingly, this sculpture was produced during the Hellenistic period by a Greek sculptor named Alexandros of Antioch, and discovered on the Greek island of Milos.
Yet, the sculpture was not called by the goddess’ Greek name, but by her Roman name. This 2nd century BC sculpture is now displayed in the Louvre Museum, Paris, France. It may be added that although such sculptures are called ‘Venuses’ by modern art historians, they may have originally been meant to depict mortal women, rather than serve as the cult statue of the goddess.
The Venus de Milo at the Louvre in Paris. (dalbera / CC BY 2.0 )
Unsurprisingly, Venus’ popularity in art declined following the arrival of Christianity. During the Renaissance, however, the popularity of Venus as a subject of art was revived, and was maintained in the centuries that followed. Some notable works of art depicting Venus include Titian’s Venus and Adonis (16th century), Ruben’s Venus and Cupid (17th century), and Canova’s sculpture, Venus Victrix (19th century).
The influence of Venus can be felt even today, not only in the realm of Classical studies and art history. For instance, the second planet from the Sun is called Venus. In Western civilization, Venus is still remembered as a goddess of love and beauty, and connected to other erotic female deities such as the Sumerian Inanna, the Syro-Palestinian Astarte, and the Norse Freyja. Finally, a group of prehistoric statuettes, primarily Upper Paleolithic, but Neolithic and Bronze Age examples have also been found, are referred to as Venus figurines, though they predate this goddess by many millennia.
Top image: Venus fresco in the Temple of Venus in Pompeii, Italy. Source: Boris Stroujko / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren
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