Venus’s Revenge

In the ancient Greek tradition, Venus was called Aphrodite, and she was a goddess born out of revenge. Uranus, primeval god of the sky and father of the Titans, cast his insurgent sons, the Cyclopses, deep into the Underworld. In retribution, the mother goddess, Gaia, persuaded Cronus, youngest of the Titans, to attack his father. While Uranus slept, Cronus castrated him and threw the dismembered parts down to earth. Where the flesh landed in the Mediterranean Sea, the water began to foam. Soon after, Aphrodite emerged.

The Birth of Venus (1483–85), by Sandro Botticelli
When Aphrodite entered the assembly of the Olympian gods on Mount Olympus, it was immediately clear that she would be trouble. In a room of divine beauties, all eyes were on her. “Each one of [the gods] prayed that he might lead her home to be his wedded wife, so greatly were they amazed at [her] beauty,” sings an ancient Homeric hymn. Assessing the situation, Zeus quickly married off his adopted daughter to the steady-but-lame god of the forge, Hephaestus. This infamously mismatched pairing pushed Aphrodite into a series of adulterous affairs. The most notorious of these was with the war-hungry god Ares, but her promiscuity extended to other Olympians: Hermes, Poseidon, and Dionysus.

Aphrodite could incite and direct desire as she pleased. “There is nothing among the blessed gods or among mortal men that has escaped Aphrodite,” the Homeric hymn continues. “Even the heart of Zeus, who delights in thunder, is led astray by her; though he is greatest of all and has the lot of highest majesty, she beguiles even his wise heart whensoever she pleases, and mates him with mortal women, unknown to Hera.” Annoyed to be the victim of Aphrodite’s whims, all-powerful Zeus shamed the goddess by making her fall in love with a series of mortals. These included the beautiful Adonis (whom Aphrodite reluctantly shared with the goddess Persephone) and the Trojan hero Anchises (father of Aeneas).

When duly honored, Aphrodite could be a powerful ally. Famously, during the Judgment of Paris, the Trojan prince gave her a golden apple inscribed with the phrase “To the fairest,” infuriating the goddess’s competitors, Hera and Athena. As his reward, Paris was given the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. The Greek prince Hippomenes prayed to Aphrodite for assistance in his pursuit of the princess Atalanta: “Come, lovely Cytherea [Aphrodite], prosper the deed I dare and with thy grace nourish the flame of love that thou hast lit.” Soon Atalanta was his. Likewise, when Pygmalion, king of Cyprus, fell in love with an ivory statue he had sculpted, he prayed to Aphrodite, and the cold stone came to life.

Phaedre, (1880), by Alexandre Cabanel
On the other hand, Hades hath no fury like Aphrodite scorned. Aphrodite gave Helen to Paris, but Helen was already married to the Greek king Menelaus. Years earlier, Menelaus had promised to sacrifice a hundred head of cattle to Aphrodite should he win Helen’s hand. Following the wedding, however, the king failed to honor his pledge, and the wrathful goddess sent his trophy wife to Troy—igniting the epic Trojan War. Helen’s father, the Spartan king Tyndareus, likewise neglected to honor the goddess. Both of his daughters (Helen’s sister was Clytemnestra, the betrayed wife of Agamemnon, who watched her husband murder her daughter) were cursed with unlucky marriages. When King Theseus’s son, Hippolytus, devoted himself to the chaste goddess Artemis, an insulted Aphrodite bewitched his stepmother, Phaedre, causing her to be seized with a wild passion for her stepson that resulted in their gruesome deaths. Other examples of her fury abound.

When the Trojan Anchises discovered he had lain with the goddess of beauty, he was duly overcome with terror. He knew that when a mortal and immortal intertwined, it was often at the mortal’s peril. He prayed for pity. Aphrodite comforted her one-night-stand: she promised him no harm, and she promised him a great son. But should Anchises boast of their indiscretion, all bets were off. “Refrain from naming me,” she warned the man. “Avoid the rage of the gods.” After imparting this sound advice, she disappeared into the windy sky.

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