Mother of Rome, delight of Gods and men,
Dear Venus that beneath the gliding stars
Makest to teem the many-voyaged main
And fruitful lands – for all of living things
Through thee alone are evermore conceived,
Through thee are risen to visit the great sun. - Lucretius, De Rerum Natura
In Roman times today was the Vinalia Urbana, a wine festival shared by Jupiter (as patron of fine wine) and Venus (as patroness of ordinary wine). Upper-class women observed the holiday with libations to Venus Erycina at her main temple on the Capitoline Hill, but prostitutes offered myrtle, mint and roses at her temple outside the Colline gate (one has to wonder which observance Messalina, whose story I told one year ago today, preferred). How is it that one goddess could be patron of so many things, and could be revered by empresses and whores alike? It’s because the Romans believed one deity could have many “aspects”, or faces. Just as a human can play many roles, and seem very different in each of those roles, so could a god or goddess. But for them these guises were not mere roles but almost separate beings, like multiple personalities with different powers.
In primitive times gods were not so complex; they were worshipped by small groups of people who had little (if any) contact with strangers with different beliefs. But once people began to travel and trade, they naturally compared their gods to those of others and developed myths to explain the differences and similarities. The reason the Greeks depicted Zeus as such a Casanova is that this was how his cult absorbed local ones; the local goddess (Europa, Io, Callisto, Leda, etc) became one of his amours and the local god became one of his forms. The Romans did something similar: local or even foreign deities were syncretized with the Roman ones they most closely resembled, and continued to be worshipped as aspects. The Venus of Imperial Rome was a combination of the Greek Aphrodite, the Etruscan Turan and the original Roman Venus, who was a goddess of gardens (hence patroness of homemade wines). But she had many aspects, and today I’d like to tell you about them.
Venus Caelestis (Heavenly Venus) was a syncretism with the Magna Mater who was first worshipped in the 2nd century CE. She probably arose due to the adjacent festivals of the Magna Mater and Venus Verticordia, and from an identification of the Magna Mater with Venus Genetrix, the mother of Rome.
Venus Calva (Venus the Bald One) is known only from Christian-Era accounts which may actually have been invented to explain a statue of a bald woman who had nothing to do with the goddess. One version of the story says that early Roman matrons shaved their heads to make bowstrings during a siege, and another says that the hair was sacrificed to Venus in order that she might restore the hair of Ancus Marcius’ queen and other noblewomen, who lost it due to a disease.
Venus Cloacina (Venus the Purifier) was invoked for cleansing and purification, and protected the Cloaca Maxima (the central sewer). Though this may seem a strange association, remember that Aphrodite (“foam-born”) was also a water goddess, and water is mystically associated with femininity: it’s yielding, yet powerful; it can change its shape, yet cannot be compressed; it is necessary for life, yet can also destroy.
Venus Erycina (Venus of Eryx), the patroness of prostitutes, is the third-oldest known aspect of the goddess. After Rome suffered a humiliating defeat to Carthage at the Battle of Lake Trasimene in the Second Punic War, the Senate consulted a set of ancient prophecies called the Sibylline Books and learned that in order to secure victory, Rome should capture the temple of Venus at Eryx, Sicily (whose Greek inhabitants were allied with Carthage) and bring the image of the goddess back to Rome. So they did so, and in 217 BCE she was installed in a new temple on the Capitoline Hill and a group of priestesses were charged with convincing her to support Rome over Carthage. Rome won the war and Erycina, who was more like the Phoenician Astarte than the patrician Venus Obsequens, brought warrior and harlot functions to the increasingly-composite goddess.
Venus Felix (Venus the Lucky) was an aspect which developed from the association of Venus Verticordia with Fortuna Virilis.
Venus Frutis is the name by which Venus Erycina was worshipped at Lavinium; the name “Frutis” appears to be a local one for the same Italic vegetation-goddess the Romans called Venus.
Venus Genetrix (Venus the Ancestress) was an earthly avatar who bore the Trojan prince Aeneas for Anchises, first cousin of King Priam. Aeneas fled the burning city and his mother guided him to Italy, where his son Ascanius later founded the city of Alba Longa, from whose kings Romulus and Remus sprang. Aeneas’ second wife was Lavinia, princess of Latium; their son Iulus was the founder of the Roman gens (clan) Julia, from which the Julio-Claudian emperors were descended. She thus became much more important after the rise of Julius Caesar, who dedicated a temple to her on September 26th, 46 BCE (on which date her festival was then celebrated).
Venus Kallipygos (Venus of the Beautiful Bum) was originally called Aphrodite Kallipygos, and was worshipped at Syracuse. It’s not entirely clear whether this was a title for the goddess herself (perhaps a byname for Venus Erycina) or merely for the statue, a now-lost Hellenistic bronze from the early third century BCE which was copied in marble by an unknown Roman sculptor and later imitated many times.
Venus Libertina (Venus the Freewoman) was the patroness of slaves seeking manumission; see also Venus Libitina.
Venus Libitina The oldest known aspect of Venus was originally a syncretization of the Etruscan goddesses Turan and Libitina, the former the Etruscan Venus and the latter the patron of funerals and undertakers; her worship is known from the 5th century BCE and a temple was erected to her in what was once Libitina’s sacred grove somewhere around 300 BCE. This rather strange combination seems to have caused a great deal of confusion after the expulsion of the Etruscans from Rome, and the name was soon altered into two more seemingly-appropriate forms, Venus Libertina and Venus Lubentina, thus creating two new aspects.
Venus Lubentina (Venus the Passionate) was a popular aspect of Venus as goddess of sex and passion, patroness of lovers and those seeking to obtain love (including by the use of love philters). See also Venus Libitina.
Venus Marina (Venus of the Sea) was an aspect worshipped at Pompeii as a protectress of trade (thanks to her status as a water deity). Also known as Venus Pompeiana.
Venus Murcia (Venus of the Myrtle) arose by association of Venus (to whom myrtle was sacred) with the obscure minor goddess Murcia. Myrtle was believed to be an aphrodisiac, but also had cleansing properties and protected from the evil eye. Since passion is the province of Lubentina and cleansing Cloacina, Murcia seems to have been invoked for protection from hexes and curses.
Venus Obsequens (Venus the Gracious) is the second-oldest known aspect; she appears to have more of Turan and less of Aphrodite in her, and was a protector of marriage. Quintus Fabius Gurges dedicated a temple to her on Vinalia Rustica (August 19th) of 295 BCE after she granted him victory against the Samnites; it was funded by fines on matrons convicted of adultery.
Venus Physica (Venus of Nature) was a very primitive aspect whose characteristics were much like those of the original goddess before she was syncretized with Turan or Aphrodite; she is chiefly known from Pompeii.
Venus Pompeiana (Venus of Pompeii) See Venus Marina.
Venus Verticordia (Venus the Changer of Hearts) was recognized in August of 216 BCE after Hannibal slaughtered the Roman Army at Cannae; a series of omens (including a Vestal Virgin killed by lightning) convinced the Senate that the disaster was due to three Vestal Virgins (the dead one and two others) breaking their vows of chastity and several members of the cult of Fortuna Virilis sinning in other ways. Because the persons of Vestals were sacrosanct (it was a capital crime even to injure one), the offenders were buried alive, but the punishment of Fortuna’s cult was dictated by the Sibylline books: a new statue of Venus as protectress of sexual oaths (including marital vows) was installed in the Temple of Fortuna to keep watch over it, and from then on she shared the Veneralia with Fortuna (though she was given her own temple in 114 BCE).
Venus Victrix (Venus the Victorious) was brought back from the Middle East by soldiers; she was a syncretism of Venus and Ishtar, who was also a war-goddess. Pompey claimed her as his patron and built a temple to her in 55 BCE; her festival was on October 9th.
Venus Volgivava (Venus the Streetwalker) was a by-name of Venus Erycina when invoked by lower-class prostitutes.