Venus and Aphrodite

A Biography of Desire


By Bettany Hughes

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A cultural history of the goddess of love, from a New York Times bestselling and award-winning historian.

Aphrodite was said to have been born from the sea, rising out of a froth of white foam. But long before the Ancient Greeks conceived of this voluptuous blonde, she existed as an early spirit of fertility on the shores of Cyprus — and thousands of years before that, as a ferocious warrior-goddess in the Middle East. Proving that this fabled figure is so much more than an avatar of commercialized romance, historian Bettany Hughes reveals the remarkable lifestory of one of antiquity’s most potent myths.

Venus and Aphrodite brings together ancient art, mythology, and archaeological revelations to tell the story of human desire. From Mesopotamia to modern-day London, from Botticelli to Beyoncé, Hughes explains why this immortal goddess continues to entrance us today — and how we trivialize her power at our peril.


Bronzino, 1540–1550, detail of An Allegory with Venus and Cupid (also called Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time), oil on wood.


She spoke, and as she turned, her neck

Shone with roselight. An immortal fragrance

From her ambrosial locks perfumed the air,

Her robes flowed down to cover her feet,

And every step revealed her divinity.

And then she was gone, aloft to Paphos,

Happy to see her temple again, where Arabian

Incense curls up from one hundred altars

And fresh wreaths of flowers sweeten the air.1

IN THE HIGH-SECURITY STOREROOM IN THE HEART OF the ancient site of Pompeii, a pair of beady, dark eyes stares out from the metal shelves. They belong to a foot-or-so-high limestone statuette of the goddess Venus.

The degree of survival is remarkable. Not only has Venus been left with full, glass-eyed sight (in spite of the massive volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which, at its most ferocious, threw a hundred thousand tons of magma per second into the air), but she is flushed with color. Venus’s hair is golden; her drapery, pink-blushed, tumbles off around her hips, skimming, but still revealing, her sex.

This is the Venus we think we know. Safe, attractive, chocolate-box pretty. But the goddess of sexual love is in fact a far richer and more complicated creature than she at first appears. A potent idea, given a name and a face across five millennia, this deity is the incarnation of fear as well as love, of pain as well as pleasure, of the agony and ecstasy of desire. Venus is in fact the summation of the variegated, complicated business of human-heartedness—of our burning drive to engage with one another, both for good and for bad. She oversees the intensity of our passions and of our relationships within, and beyond, our species.

So, like the humans whose form she sometimes inhabited, the goddess of love has a richly complicated, tantalizing, tricky, surprising, and sensuous life story. For four decades I have followed the scent of her trail. It is a journey that has taken me to archaeological digs in the Middle East and archives in the chill of the Baltic; from the shores of the Caspian Sea to the nightclubs of Hoxton. Here is what I have found, an evolving history of the goddess of many kinds of love.


A Birth

Rising up from her mother the sea. Look,

The Cyprian, she whom Apelles laboured hard to paint!

How she takes hold of her tresses

Damp from the sea! How she wrings out the foam

From these wet locks of hers! Now Athene and Hera

Will say

In beauty we can never compete!1


Venus—or Aphrodite as she was originally called by the Greeks—was a primordial creature, said to have been born out of an endless black night before the beginning of the world.

Ancient Greek poets and mythmakers told this ghastly story of her origins. The earth goddess, Gaia, sick of eternal, joyless copulating with her husband-son, the sky god Ouranos (sex with whom left Gaia permanently pregnant, their children trapped inside her), persuaded one of her other sons, Kronos, to take action. Gathering up a serrated flint sickle, Kronos frantically hacked off his father’s erect, rutting penis and threw the dismembered phallus and testicles into the sea. As the bloody organs hit the water, a boiling foam started to seethe. And then something magical happened. From the frothing sea spume rose “an awful and lovely maiden,” the goddess Aphrodite. This broiling, gory mass proceeded to travel the Mediterranean, from the island of Kythera to the coastline at Paphos in Cyprus.


Fornicating and Fighting

Lady of blazing dominion

clad in dread

riding on fire-red power…

flood-storm-hurricane adorned…

battle planner

foe smasher…


I will wrench your neck

grab your thick horns

throw you in the dust

stomp you with my hatred

grind my knees in your neck…

fighting is her play

she never tires of it…

a whirlwind warrior

bound on a twister…

wild bull Queen

mistress of brawn

boldly strong…1

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 across the Levant. Because in a region that spans modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, and Egypt, from at least 3000 BC onward, 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 behavior.

The bone evidence from the 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 percent of men show signs of violent trauma. Most women of this epoch were mothers at age 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 demigods and spirits were believed to be everywhere and in everything, people conceived the notion that there were savagely lusty deities responsible for this messy volatility. They gave tumultuous desire a divine entity. No longer a mixture of male and female—fascinatingly, counterintuitively—as societies became more militarized 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.

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) to him on the banks of the Nile in Luxor, 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 made inconsistent peregrinations through the cosmos (at one point Venus was thought to be two separate Morning and Evening stars) that 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.”

Burney Relief, Queen of the Night goddess with tapering wings and talons, wearing a horned headdress and elaborate jewelry. Nineteenth to eighteenth century BC, made from fired clay with red ochre pigment, currently in the British Museum, found in Babylonia.

Voluptuous Ishtar, 1150–1110 BC, made from terracotta, currently in the Louvre, Paris, found in Susa, from the Elamite empire.

Horned Astarte, third to second century BC, made from alabaster, currently in the Louvre, Paris, found in the Necropolis of Hillah, near Babylon.

Ishtar was also honored 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 the 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 northern 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. The dread turmoil of war—once credited to Aphrodite’s ancestors—was in play. The goddesses of this dynasty were certainly not comfortable creatures. Desire—for control, blood, fear, dominance, rapture, justice, adrenaline, ecstasy—can lead both to making war and to making love, to churn and change of all kinds. Authors from Homer onward 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, or strife.

Through the widespread and fervent worship of goddesses of perturbing passions, we are starting to get a picture of ancient societies that recognized desire can cause trouble. The ancestors of Aphrodite were the incarnation of that realization. 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.

Inanna, Ishtar, and Astarte were also goddesses on the move. We can track the Eastern love-and-hate deities’ journeys west, where the goddesshead will soon be reconfigured and will eventually be given the name Aphrodite. To witness this fission and fusion we must leave the deserts of the Middle East and the mountainous drama of the Levant, and follow Aphrodite’s trail back to the legend-rich island of Cyprus.

MAKE YOUR WAY TO THE SOUTHEASTERN SHORES OF Cyprus, close to Larnaca airport, ignore the planes—and in the winter months, draw your eyes from the flocks of flamingos that land here on the salt marshes, visitors for five thousand years—and you might just be able to make out archaeologists working on the dig of an ancient metropolis at Hala Sultan Tekke. To date, this is the largest Bronze Age city ever discovered; it spans up to fifty hectares, more than fifty soccer fields.

The very presence of this wind-buffeted settlement tells of the humming interchange between traders and settlers on this island at the edge of Asia, Europe, and Africa. The Eastern immigrants to Hala Sultan Tekke were people who brought with them strange new rituals—bull worship and bull slaughter—which they then appear to have melded with local fertility cults.

Along with the remnants of a city and its dead, among interloper archaeological riches being excavated each season originating from ancient Egypt and western Greece in the dun-brown mud, a glittering, golden lozenge featuring the goddess Astarte-Ishtar has been discovered. The bellicose great-grandmother of Aphrodite was demonstrably making her way toward Europe. But as we know, Astarte-Ishtar did not arrive in virgin territory.

After the age of those strange, strangely beautiful penis-headed figures, Cyprus started to revere a local priestess-goddess and high queen—the wanassa. She seems to have been a kind of sensuous, cosmic majesty of nature, a queen who loved her perfumes. Recently excavated Cypriot perfume workshops from this period, dating back to 2000 BC, buttress the literary texts that tell us that a nature goddess was worshipped on Aphrodite’s Isle with lustrous, perfumed oils.

Perfume was a boom export for the island, perfectly placed as it was to receive raw materials from three continents and boasting its own unique flora and fauna in a microtropical environment. Aphrodite herself was never anything other than odiferous: she was said to be washed by the Graces, and was recalled by Homer in The Odyssey as bathing at Paphos in perfumed baths.

And Aphrodite, who loves laughter and smiles,

[Went] to Paphos on Cyprus, and her precinct there

With its smoking altar. Here the Graces

Bathed her and rubbed her with the ambrosial oil

That glistens on the skin of the immortal gods.

And then they dressed her in beautiful clothes,

A wonder to see.2

So the Eastern goddess-queen Astarte-Ishtar took on the form of the Kyprian nature and fertility goddess, and vice versa. Aphrodite was shape-shifting. Driven by what women and men on the ground wanted to believe about the story of their fast-developing world and their place within it, the mating of deities was generating a divine love child.

The kourotrophos goddess-spirit of Bronze Age Cyprus, with a bird face, frequently shown nursing a young child in her arms. From 1450–1200 BC, terracotta, currently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from Nicosia-Ayia Paraskevi.


  • “Bettany Hughes is out to convince you that the face of Venus familiar to us today—simultaneously salacious and saccharine—conceals a much darker and more complex character… Ms. Hughes’s book packs real punch, particularly when she turns to the ways in which this ferocious goddess has been domesticated.”—Wall Street Journal
  • "In this lively, wide-ranging book, Hughes paints a portrait of a darker Venus, a violent, vengeful 'shape-shifting' Venus, with salt in her hair and surf at her feet."—The Times
  • "An intriguing tale that tracks the gorgeous and omnipresent Venus of western civilisation back 6,000 years ... engrossing."—The Spectator
  • "A marvellous biography of a goddess that delves beneath her passive modern image."—BBC History Magazine
  • "This is a thoroughly enjoyable history of Venus, the goddess of love, and her many manifestations throughout history. From antiquity through modern day, historian Hughes artfully weaves together elements of myth, history, religion, philosophy, literature, art, and pop culture to demonstrate this deity's centuries-long impact... Fun and fascinating..."—Booklist
  • "Informative and entertaining."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Quick paced, insightful, and often times humorous, this newest work by Hughes is an approachable look at the ancient legacy of the goddess, Aphrodite-Venus. The author provides an impressive exploration of over 4,000 years of human history, as well as the relationship between the goddess and the collective human psyche."—Library Journal

On Sale
Sep 22, 2020
Page Count
208 pages
Basic Books

Bettany Hughes

About the Author

Bettany Hughes is an award-winning historian, author, and broadcaster. She is currently professor of history at the New College of the Humanities and a research fellow of King’s College, London. She is the author of three popular books, including the New York Times-bestselling The Hemlock Cup. She lives in London.

Learn more about this author