Burning like a silver flame: The Mother of Rome and the Patroness of ancient Wine Festivals

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A medallion painting from the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii, Italy, depicting the Greco-Roman goddess Venus; it is dated to the 1st century BC.

Originally the early Latin goddess of vegetation, a patroness of vineyards and gardens, Venus became deliberately associated with the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and assumed many of her aspects. The name of Venus then became interchangeable with Aphrodite as most of the tales of these two goddesses are identical. However, like every Roman gods with their Greek counterparts, there were differences. Venus arguably became more popular in ancient Rome, and became more ingrained in the city life. She took on the aspect of a gracious Mother Goddess full of pure love as well as assuming the divine responsibility for domestic bliss and procreation.

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” Venus and Mars Bathing “, by Giulio Romano  (1499 – 1546)
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“Venus Genitrix”, Roman Imperial copy (late first-early second century AD)

Venus was also the ancestress of the Julian family of Rome which included great men such as Julius and Augustus Caesar. Anchises, a prince from Dardania and ally to Troy, was seduced by Venus who disguised herself as a Phrygian princess, only revealing her divine identity nine months later as she presented Anchises with their son Aeneas. Guided by his divine mother, Aeneas was fated to found Rome. Aeneas’ son Ascanius was credited as the ancestor of the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus along with the Julian family.

In 217 BCE, the Sibyline oracle suggested that if Rome, which at that time was losing the Second Punic War, could persuade Venus Eyrcina (Venus of Eryx) to change her allegiance from the Carthagian Silician allies to the Romans, the war would be won. Rome then laid siege to Eryx, offered the goddess a magnificent temple and took her image back to Rome. It was this foreign image that eventually became Rome’s Venus Genetrix (Venus the Mother).

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” Triumph of Venus “, by Francesco del Cossa (1436 – 1477)

At the end of the Roman Republic, some Romans laid claim to Venus’ favor and competed for it. Sulla adopted the name Felix (“lucky”) and accredited Venus Felix to his divine favor, Pompey dedicated a temple to Venus Victris (“Venus of Victory”) in 55 BCE  and Hadrian dedicated a temple to Venus in 139 CE, making her the protective mother of the Roman state.

Roman theology presents Venus as the yielding, watery female principle which is essential to the generation and balance of life. Balanced by the more active and fiery Vulcan and Mars, Venus absorbs and tempers the male essence, thus uniting the opposites of male and female in mutual affection. She embraces several otherwise quite disparate functions such as military victory, sexual prowess, good fortune and general prosperity.

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“Juno Borrowing the Girdle of Venus”, by Guy Head painted c.1771

In April 1, Veneralia was held in honour of Venus Verticordia (“Venus the Changer of Hearts”) and Fortuna Virilis (Virile Good Fortune) whose cult was probably by far the older of the two. Venus Verticordia was invented in 220 BC, in response to advice from a Sibylline oracle during Rome’s Punic Wars when a series of prodigies was taken to signify divine displeasure at sexual offenses among Romans of every category and class, including several men and three Vestal Virgins. Her statue was dedicated by a young woman, chosen as the most pudica (sexually pure) in Rome by a committee of Roman matrons. At first, this statue was probably housed in the temple of Fortuna Virilis, perhaps as divine reinforcement against the perceived moral and religious failings of its cult. Venus Verticordia was given her own temple in 114 BCE. She was meant to persuade Romans of both sexes and every class, whether married or unmarried, to cherish the traditional sexual proprieties and morality known to please the gods and benefit the State. During her rites, her image was taken from her temple to the men’s baths, where it was undressed and washed in warm water by her female attendants, then garlanded with myrtle. Women and men asked Venus Verticordia’s help in affairs of the heart, sex, betrothal and marriage.

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A little of what is left from the temple of Venus, Pompei 2015

In April 23, the ancient Romans celebrated vinalia urbana, a wine festival shared by Venus and Jupiter, the king of the gods himself. While Venus was patron of “profane” wine, for everyday human use. Jupiter was patron of the strongest, purest, sacrificial grade wine, and controlled the weather on which the autumn grape-harvest would depend. At this festival, men and women alike drank the new vintage of ordinary, non-sacral wine in honour of Venus, whose powers had provided humankind with this gift. Upper-class women gathered at Venus’s Capitoline temple, where a libation of the previous year’s vintage, sacred to Jupiter, was poured into a nearby ditch. Common girls (vulgares puellae) and prostitutes gathered at Venus’ temple just outside the Colline gate, where they offered her myrtle, mint, and rushes concealed in rose-bunches and asked her for “beauty and popular favour”, and to be made “charming and witty”.

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The Forum of Caesar (built near the Forum Romanum in Rome in 46 BC) and the Temple of Venus Genetrix, Imperial Forums, Rome

In August 19, they celebrated another wine festival called vinalia rustica,  a rustic Latin festival of wine, vegetable growth and fertility. This was almost certainly Venus’ oldest festival and was associated with her earliest known form, Venus Obsequens. Kitchen and market-gardens, as well as vineyards were dedicated to her. 

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The circular temple dedicated to the Venus of Cnidus, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli 

A festival of Venus Genetrix (September 26) was held under state auspices from 46 BCE at her temple in the Forum of Caesar in fulfillment of a vow by Julius Caesar who claimed her personal favour as his divine patron and ancestral goddess of the Julian clan. Caesar dedicated the temple during his  quadruple triumph. At the same time, he was pontifex maximus and Rome’s senior magistrate; the festival is thought to mark the unprecedented promotion of a personal, family cult to one of the Roman state. Caesar’s heir, Augustus, made much of these personal and family associations with Venus as an Imperial deity. 

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Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: The Evolution of the Dangerous Woman

Although this month I have spoken about the Ancient Greek femme fatales starting from the sirens to Aphrodite herself, the trope did not stop there. We can also find an example in the Gospel of Matthew (14:6–9), “… on Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias (Salome) danced before them: and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath, to give her whatsoever she would ask of him. But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.”

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“Lady Lilith”, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The independent and mysterious women that I have spoken about this month evolved to what we know as a “femme fatale” who often portrayed as a seductress, even to the point of having some sort of mystical power as an enchantress. She is a stock character of a mysterious and seductive woman whose charms ensnare her lovers, often leading them into compromising, dangerous and deadly situations. Her ability to enchant and hypnotise her victim with a spell was in the earliest stories seen as being literally supernatural as who could even imagine the all-powerful hero succumb into an embrace of a “normal” woman? Hence, the femme fatale today is still often described as having a power akin to an enchantress, vampire, witch or demon to actually have power over men.

The femme fatale achieves her hidden purpose by using feminine wiles such as beauty, charm and sexual allure. One of the most common traits of the femme fatale includes promiscuity and the “rejection of motherhood”. However, as proven by Aphrodite, a woman can be a femme fatale and a mother. It is just that motherhood does not seem to take the centre stage of her life as she goes about in her adventures and interests. This is seen as one of her most threatening qualities since “by denying his immortality and his posterity, it leads to the ultimate destruction of the male.” Again, this quality of the femme fatale that leads to the ultimate destruction of the male leaves some room for questions as, often, the femme fatale is not the one who made the first move and pursues the male. It was the male who came to her island, eat her food and erected temples in her name. So was it not the man’s desires that led to his own destruction? Another illustration of this is presented to us by the story of Shiva and Mohini.

In Hindu mythology, Mohini, a goddess who is the only female avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, is portrayed as a femme fatale, an enchantress who maddens lovers and leads them to their doom. She is worshipped throughout Indian culture, especially in Western India where temples are devoted to her depicted as Mahalasa, the consort of Khandoba, a regional avatar of Shiva.

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“Mohini” by
Raja Ravi Varma

In the southern version of the Bhagavata Purana, after Vishnu deceives the demons by his Mohini form, Shiva sees Mohini for the first time. Shiva is overcome by Kama (love and desire), becomes “bereft of shame and robbed by her of good sense.” He runs crazily behind enchanting form, while his wife Parvati looks on.

The Tripurarahasya, a south Indian Shakta text, says that when Shiva wishes to see Vishnu’s Mohini form again, Vishnu fears that he may be burned to ashes like Kamadeva by the supreme ascetic Shiva. So, Vishnu prays to goddess Tripura, who grants half of her beauty to Vishnu, begetting the Mohini-form. As Shiva touches Mohini, his energy spills from his eyes, indicating a loss of the merit gained through of all his austerities.

In the Brahmanda Purana when the wandering sage Narada tells Shiva about Vishnu’s Mohini form that deluded the demons, Shiva dismisses him. Shiva and his wife Parvati go to Vishnu’s home. Shiva asks him to take on the Mohini form again so he can see the actual transformation for himself. Vishnu again meditates on the Goddess of Shri Lalita Mahatripurasundari and transforms himself into Mohini. Again, overcome by desire, Shiva embraces Mohini to discharge his seed from his eyes which falls on the ground leading to the birth the god Maha-Shasta (“The Great Teacher”). Mohini disappears, while Shiva returns home with Parvati. 

Although the concept of an enchantress is nothing new, the real concept started to take off during the Middle Ages. As the Middle Ages often villified female sexuality, it comes as no surprise that they would make the enchantress characters act as a warning to men. Also in the Middle Ages, Eve and the Celtic legend of Morgan La Fay became popularized as the beautiful dangerous women. It was about this time also that people started to see femme fatales as slightly paranormal in nature.

 In American early 20th century films, femme fatale characters were referred to as ”vamps”. This is thanks to actor Robert Vignola who created the first “vamp” movie based on a Rudyard Kipling poem by the same name. The “vamp,” in this case was about a femme fatale who acted almost like a sexual vampire.

Despite Circe and Calypso being descrbed as “braided haired” goddesses, there was no real “dress code” for femme fatales until after the beginning of the 20th century where femme fatales embraced the look of women who are dressed all in black, with striking red lipstick. The standard red lipstick likely began with ancient Roman prostitutes who were required by law to wear blonde wigs and red pipsticks in public to advertise the fact that they were prostitutes and, therefore not looking for a husand. Around the same time in ancient Egypt, the red lipstick was a symbol of status and power for both men and women. .

The red lipstick resurfaced in America in the 1900s, as the women’s suffrage movement advanced and women embraced lipstick as a symbol of feminine identity and defiant empowerment.

Charm of the Ancient Enchantress: Aphrodite and the Mystery of Passion

“Aphrodite” by ROOSDY

The thing about Aphrodite is that she is passionate. Ancient mythology gives us numerous instances where Aphrodite punished those who neglected her worship or resented her power, as well as others in which she favoured and protected those who did homage to her and recognized her sway. As Aphrodite is the goddess of love, we take it for granted that her “passion” will not stray far from her brand. We imagine her passing her passions along her many lovers. Without a lover, she became “jealous” and her passion is used as a reason for her anger and punishments to those who disrespected her. Aphrodite knows what she wants and she expects recognition.

Aphrodite embodies love and passion because she manages to successfully balance the two concepts. In fact, can we argue that in her depictions, Aphrodite is never that much more gorgeous than other goddesses such as Athena, Hera or Artemis? She must have had something extra that made people utterly charmed by her. That something extra was her passion.

We often misunderstand the word “passion” and associate it with love and desire. But passion goes beyond one’s feelings for another person. In fact, passion is anything that arouses enthusiasm. Aphrodite’s charm is her enthusiasm to those which arouses her interest. The reason why “bad boys” or the “manic pixie dream girls” are so popular is usually because they have a variety of other passions apart from their love-interests. One gets the feeling that there are more to them than meets the eye and they are never completely yours.

In a more unromantic sphere, a group of magistrates worshiping Aphrodite called gynaikonomoi (magistrates in charge of women) actually existed at Sparta. This magistracy was first attested at Sparta in an inscription from early first-century CE. In 230 BCE, the Athenian Council dedicated an inscription to Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite who is Common to all the People). Worshipers sought her blessings not for passionate love or a good marriage but for uniting the people of Athens in both personal relationships and the political realm. Other government bodies devoted to Aphrodite included agoranomoi (magistrates in charge of the marketplace), police officials, supervisors and registrars. Among many other names, Aphrodite is also called Nauarchis (guardian of the naval commanders).

Why did all these powerful people worship the seemingly man-hungry goddess? Simple. Because she was not man-hungry (or women-hungry, for that matter). She was life-hungry. She had a wide variety of interests and she was eager to get involved in making life more harmonious for everyone. Her epithets tell us of her involvement in social causes. These involvement is also on-brand for the goddess of love. Aphrodite carved out a role for herself as the keeper of  harmony of the groups in doing their business. Import-officers of Samos dedicated offerings to Aphrodite to “maintain their camaraderie and work together.” As if those were not ambitious enough, Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite also praises Aphrodite as ruling over all creations. If Aphrodite was a modern woman, she may well be one of those women who have it all.