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goddess represents more than nudity, romance and sex

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goddess represents more than nudity, romance and sex


Aphrodite, an incarnation of fecund life, was accompanied, as she made her flower-sweet progress through the dusty earth, by gold-veiled Horai, the two Greek seasons of summer and winter, spirits of time and of good order. Born from abuse and suffering, this sublime force is being described to us not just as the goddess of mortal love, but as the deity of both the cycle of life and life itself. Aphrodite is far more than an attractive figure on a Valentine’s Day card.

This is how many in Ancient Greece explained Aphrodite’s birth. It is a story, with some variations (an alternate myth suggested that Aphrodite was the daughter of the king of the gods, Zeus, and the sea nymph Dione), that was told and retold across the Mediterranean world. The ancients had a vivid mental picture of how their supernatural goddess of love and desire was conceived. Her psychological imprint was evident. But what about her physical trail? What does the archaeology in the ground reveal about the historical inception of Aphrodite and of her adoration?

As we might expect, the material evidence offers a compelling alternative to the myth. Yet the truth of Aphrodite’s origins is almost as strange as the fiction.

Venus of Willendorf statuette dating from around 25,000 BC.

Venus of Willendorf statuette dating from around 25,000 BC.Credit:Gerhard Trumler/Imagno/Getty

On the island of Cyprus there is a record of the celebration of the miracle of life, and of the sexual act, long before the Classical Greeks conceived of a voluptuous blonde they named Aphrodite. The life-giving powers of a spiritual, highly sexualised figure can be found in the formidable form of the so-called Lady of Lemba, a quite extraordinary limestone sculpture. More than 5000 years old, this wonderful creature has fat, fructuous thighs, a pronounced vulva, the curve of breasts and a pregnant belly – and instead of a neck and head, a phallus, with eyes. The Lady of Lemba is in fact a wondrous mix of both female and male.

I have had the privilege of studying this “Lady” outside her glass case. Thirty centimetres tall, she pulses with power and potential. Found lying on her back, surrounded by other, smaller figurines, the Lady of Lemba is intriguing, a distant ancestor of our goddess of love. And she’s not alone.

Probing deeper in time, back at least 6000 years, the plateaux and foothills of western Cyprus are littered with tiny, pregnant stone-women, again with phallic-shaped necks and faces and pronounced female sex organs. These figurines – lovely things, crouching down, smooth to touch, an otherworldly soft green – were produced in huge numbers here. Many have pierced heads, so must have been worn as amulets.

Aphrodite, born from the sea in a shell, c. 4th century BCE.

Aphrodite, born from the sea in a shell, c. 4th century BCE.Credit:Getty

I first met these inter-sex marvels in the atmospheric back storerooms of the old Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. Lovingly laid in Edwardian wooden cabinets, they are an extraordinarily vivifying connection to a prehistoric past. A number of the figures, made of the soft stone picrolite, have shrunken versions of themselves worn, as amulets, around their own stone necks. Dating from a time – the Copper Age – when the division of labour between women and men on Cyprus seems to have had parity, the majority of the enigmatic taliswomen-men were found in domestic spaces or near what could be prehistoric birthing centres. (Those mini-mes around their necks may represent unborn children.) Some of the basic stone-and-mud huts at one site, Lemba, have now been reconstructed. Shaded by olive trees, the prehistoric maternity wards make for a curious, sidebar of interest as tourists petrol-past on their annual sea- and-sand holidays.

Uberous, highly sexual figures, then, seem to be central to social and ritual affairs on what came to be called, by the Athenian playwright Euripides in 405 BC, “Aphrodite’s Isle”. Along with these lubricious statuettes, sea shells and a triton shell were also found, part of a ceremony whose form we can only imagine. Priestess-midwives wearing these potent insignia may well have helped with births in the early Cypriot communities here, and these figurines probably protected homes and shrines; but there is no evidence yet of the full-blown worship of an identifiable goddess of sexual love.

So how did the goddess Aphrodite actually arrive on the island of Cyprus – Kypros in Greek? How was the deity, known variously in antiquity as Aphrodite, Venus and to many simply as Kypris, the Lady of Cyprus, culturally conceived and born?

Well, as ever, the myths get one thing right.

Aphrodite did travel by sea.

Aphrodite-Venus is a complex creature – and in fact she has two births: on those shores of Cyprus as an early spirit of fertility and procreation, and as a ferocious warrior-goddess who is first made manifest east of Cyprus from Mesopotamia to Anatolia and the Levant. Because in a region that spans modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt, from at least 3000 BC onwards women and men watched one another and generated in their minds a sex-and-violence deity to explain the tempestuous and desirous nature of human behaviour.

The bone evidence from this time tells us that this was an age of frequent antagonism and turbulence, an epoch of unbridled passions. In one burial mound at İkiztepe, Anatolia, dating from the Early Bronze Age, of 445 identifiable bodies, the young and the elderly alike have sustained serious head wounds and 43 per cent of men show signs of violent trauma.

Most women of this epoch were mothers at twelve, grandmothers at twenty-four, dead by thirty. Men have axe cuts on their ribs and thighs, arrow shafts through their skulls, javelin strikes to their backs. Frequently we can tell that men, sometimes women too, were wounded in battle, patched up, and then sent back out to fight. And there seems to have been a sense that all lusts and urges – to make both love and war – came from the same place.

Since this was a world where gods and demi-gods and spirits were believed to be everywhere and in everything, people conceived the notion that there were savagely lusty deities responsible for all this stasis. They gave tumultuous desire a divine entity. No longer a mixture of male and female – fascinatingly, counter-intuitively as societies become more militarised and men edged into pole position, this ferocious creature was now all-woman. With premature death more likely, the earlier “life-cycle” goddesses became predominantly harbingers of mortality. The wildness of war, and passion, took female form: across the Middle East, a kind of sisterhood of feisty warfare-and-wantonness goddesses – variously called Inanna, Ishtar and Astarte started to emerge.

There seems to have been a sense that all lusts and urges – to make both love and war – came from the same place.

These goddesses were worshipped with particular fervency in the emerging cities of the age. In Babylon alone, Inanna presided over 180 sanctuaries. We hear from the Epic of Gilgamesh that the bustling, urban temples of Ishtar were places of worship, and also where goods and ideas were traded. When the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III fell ill he requested that Inanna’s statue be brought from her shrine at the metropolis Nineveh (modern-day Mosul), hoping that the goddess’s ferocious power might save his life. Frequently portrayed as young girls, never settled, skittish, Inanna, Ishtar and Astarte were also the celestial beings originally associated with the planet we now call Venus. The brightest of all the stars, Venus’ inconsistent peregrinations through the cosmos (at one point Venus was thought to be two separate Morning and Evening stars) signified in the minds of ancient communities these goddesses’ vacillating nature, their need to travel and to conquer. The deities’ power was thought to reside in the Venus-star itself. In 680 BC when the Neo-Assyrian king of Nineveh Esarhaddon summoned violators of a treaty to his court he thundered: “May Venus, the brightest of the stars, before your eyes make your wives lie in the lap of your enemy . . .”

Babylonian terracotta statuette of Astarte from the Louvre.

Babylonian terracotta statuette of Astarte from the Louvre.Credit:C.M. Dixon/Print Collector/Getty

Ishtar was also honoured with the Ishtar Gate in Babylon, above which was emblazoned, “she who vanquishes all”; Inanna, often dressed in refulgent white, was the fickle teenager of sovereign strength who never married but always broke hearts (as a bringer of war she sometimes appears with a beard); and the divinity who could claim the closest genetic links to Aphrodite, often depicted on the prow of a handsome boat, was Phoenician Astarte.

If you travel from the rolling, red sands of Wadi Rum in the south of Jordan to the country’s northern black-basalt deserts and through the fertile slopes above the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, you will find surviving traces of the goddess Astarte, an early ancestor of Aphrodite-Venus. Like her Mesopotamian sister Inanna, whose hymn starts this chapter, Astarte, frequently portrayed with horns, was a creature who encapsulated war, death and destruction as well as the life-giving powers of sex. Astarte was worshipped across the region, her cult being particularly strong in the cities of Tyre, Sidon and Byblos. Aphrodite’s classical sanctuaries were often built over Astarte’s Bronze and Iron Age shrines.

One city sacred to Astarte was situated close to modern-day Daraa in Syria, at Jordan’s north border, mentioned in the books of Genesis and Joshua as Ashtaroth. When I was last there Assad’s coalition bombs were pounding the region at night, destroying the shared heritage of East and West alike. During the day the sky was filled with Apache helicopters. The exquisite Roman theatre at Bosra was damaged by mortars; a number of fragments of statues of Aphrodite in Bosra’s museum, some made of marble from the Greek island of Paros, are unaccounted for. Displaced Syrians were pouring across the border and lines of desperate refugees were waiting to be housed. Conflict felt very close.

Experiencing this turmoil first-hand helped me to appreciate the dreaded power of Aphrodite’s ancestors. This dynasty of goddesses were certainly not comfortable creatures. Desire – for control, blood, fear, dominance, rapture, justice, adrenalin, ecstasy – can lead both to making war and to making love, to churn and change of all kinds. Authors from Homer onwards have conflated the words used for military invasion and sexual penetration. In Homeric Greek, meignumi means both. Eros – love, passion and desire – was in the ancient world firmly paired with Eris – strife.

Through the widespread and fervent worship of goddesses of perturbing passions, we are starting to get a picture of ancient societies who recognised that desire can cause trouble. The ancestors of Aphrodite were the incarnation of that realisation. In the story of human society, the aboriginal Aphrodite was indeed lovely, but she was awful too, a creature of both day and night. Aphrodite and Venus were scions of an intimidating family tree.

This is an edited extract from Venus & Aphrodite: History of a Goddess by Bettany Hughes, published by Hachette at $29.99.

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