Of all the Graeco-Roman divinities there is none whose signification is so self-evident to a Newchurchman as that of Aphrodite or Venus Astarte, the beautiful goddess of love. Love is a general term, including every variety and degree of affection, and all the goddesses represented some special affection or love. Aphrodite, however, personified a most distinct and yet most universal love, a love which is beauty itself, attraction itself, happiness itself, and innocence itself,—the love which conjoins man with woman and good with truth, and which therefore is termed Conjugial Love. Hence the goddess of beauty is also the goddess of marriage and domestic happiness, the patroness of laughter and innocent pleasure, the genius presiding over gardens and flowers, and the special guardian of children and young people.
As to the origin and birth of Aphrodite there are two different accounts, which, when viewed internally, blend into one. According to Homer in the Iliad, she was the child of Zeus and the sea-nymph Dione, who gave birth to her beautiful daughter in a cave beneath the waves. The name Dione, however, is only the feminine form of Dis, or Zeus, and was the archaic name of Juno, and the legend therefore really makes Aphrodite the daughter of Jupiter and Juno, and teaches that conjugial love has its origin in the conjunction of the Lord and the Church.
But according to Hesiod's Theogony, which we regard as the earliest compendium of Hellenic Theology, Aphrodite was the direct though posthumous offspring of Ouranos, the most ancient of the gods, and sprang from the foam of the sea.
All the higher deities were present at her birth, as is shown by Phidias in the bas-reliefs on the base of the statue of Zeus at Olympia; and a beautiful ancient intaglio of profound significance represents Eros, the winged god of love tenderly lifting the virgin Aphrodite out of the waves. This is significant, we say, for Eros or Cupid is usually represented as the child of Aphrodite, but here he assists at her creation, even as he was present at the creation of the world as the primeval god, more ancient even than Ouranos.
It is said that she was first carefully taught and educated by the ocean-nymphs in the depths of the sea, but, begotten by Heaven, (Ouranos), she longed to ascend to her glorious celestial home. And finally she rose from the waters, seated in a chariot of glistening sea-shell, drawn by snow-white swans, with turtle-doves fluttering around her head, and as she shook the water from her golden, ambrosial locks, the falling drops became a shower of opaline pearls.
Softly wafted by balmy Zephyr, she first approached the island of Cythera and thence took her course to Cyprus, where, as she lightly stepped ashore, the arid sand was changed into a verdant meadow and the loveliest flowers sprang up at every step of her delicate feet. Here the four beautiful ''Horae" or Seasons, were the first to greet her, and they, together with the three Divine Graces, decked her in garments of immortal fabric, encircling her fair brow with a wreath of purest gold and adorning her neck and ears with the most precious chains and jewels. Thus garbed, she was led to the assembly of the Olympian gods who without dissent hailed her as the queen of beauty. Then a strife arose, for every one of them desired her for his wife, but the all-wise Zeus, to the astonishment and disgust of the immortals, settled the dispute by giving her to Vulcan, the homeliest but most industrious of the gods.
As we have indicated in the story of Ouranos, the birth of Aphrodite has a two-fold signification, one historical, the other of universal application. Historically, it represents the birth of conjugial love in the Ancient Church after the Flood, when, after that love had been lost in the Most Ancient Church, (Ouranos), a remnant was preserved, to be received and developed by the Gentiles, (the Sea), among whom it was at first external, (the foam), but gradually became spiritual and internal,—the most precious love in the Ancient Church.
Thus in the internal-historical sense. But in the universal internal sense of the Ancient Word this story, which is clearly derived from that Word, represents the birth of conjugial love with every man in every age. For the human conjugial with every man is begotten from Heaven, from celestial remains implanted in earliest infancy, but it is actually born in the midst of the sea, surrounded by foam, the scum of the raging waters. But with the regenerating man this love is merely the rough matrix which contains the jewel, the shell which contains the pearl of the human conjugial; and when the real Love (Eros), comes, as the winged messenger of the Divine Love,— the love for the one partner in life and after death,—it takes the human conjugial into its arms and raises it out of the scum and the waters. It lifts it up above the sensual love of the sex, and love truly conjugial is born, the grace and beauty, the joy and blessing of human and angelic life. (See C. L. 447.) And this most precious love cannot remain as the permanent partner of any other love than the love of performing uses, and therefore Aphrodite is represented as the wife of Vulcan alone.
The name Aphrodite is generally, and very plausibly, derived from the Greek aphros, foam, and as such would seem to signify simply " foam-given," born out of the foam, but it is quite possible that it has a far more remote etymology. At any rate it is singular that the radicals of the name, (f-r-d), appear almost without change in the name of the Scandinavian goddess of love, Frida, or Freya, the root meaning of which conveys the ideas of "peace" and "freedom." (The name remains in the word Friday, the "dies Veneris" of the Romans).
The Latin name, Venus, is derived by Cicero in a rather naive manner from venire, to come, ("Venus, quod ad omnes veniat," Venus, because she comes to all,—see DeNatura Deorum, ii : 27), but modern philology traces it more scientifically from the Sanscrit vanita, beloved, whence the Latin venustas, pleasure, and venia, favor; the German Wonne and the Anglo-Saxon wynn, pleasure, from which, in English, we have the word "winsome. ''
The name "Astarte," on the other hand, is clearly of Oriental origin, and is, in fact, identical with the Phoenician and Canaanitish goddess Ashtoreth, ''the queen of heaven'' to whose worship the idolatrous Jews were so prone. And Ashtoreth, again, is none other than the Egyptian Athor and the Assyrian Ishtar, whose name signifies "Blessedness." (See New Church Life, 1889: 191.) This goddess was from hoary antiquity identified with the beautiful evening-star; and thus from Ishtar, Ashtoreth, and Astarte, through the Greek aster, the Latin stella, and the German sterne, we have received our English word, star.
"The love of the sex," we are taught, "is like a fountain from which both conjugial love and scortatory love may be derived," (C. L. 445), and therefore we find in Greek Mythology two radically differing, nay, opposite types of sea-born Aphrodite. ''Who doubts,'' says Plato in the Symposium, ''that there are two Aphrodites? One, the elder, is the daughter of Ouranos, and has no mother; her we call Aphrodite Ourania. The other is younger, and daughter of Zeus and Dione, and we call her Aphrodite Pandemos." As, therefore, we distinguish between conjugial love and its perversion, scortatory love, so we must carefully separate Aphrodite Ourania, the heavenly Venus, from Aphrodite Pandemos, the "Venus Vulgivaga," the degraded, sensual, and adulterous Venus, whose worship was imported into Greece and Italy from Syria and Phoenicia.
The Aphrodite Ourania was the earlier and distinctly Hellenic type of the goddess of love, as is evident not only from the purely Hellenic conception of her origin from Ouranos, but from the fact that Homer places her among the Olympian gods, and as such she is the fitting personification of that pure and holy love which comes from heaven and leads to heaven. As the in-spirer of this love, she was the protectress of conjugial fidelity, the sanctity of the home, and of domestic felicity, and in this character she is represented as a beautiful and stately woman, fully and modestly draped in starry garments; her countenance is noble and serious, and on her head she wears a golden crown. She is often depicted as seated upon a swan, serenely sailing through the sky, and holding in her hand either a long sceptre or a delicate spray of flowers.
Venus Ourania appears also in two special forms,—as Venus the Victorious, ("Venus Victrix"), and Venus the Maternal, ("Venus Genetrix"). As Venus Victrix she represents not only the love which conquers and rules over all hearts, love invincible and irresistible, but also the more spiritual idea of the conjugial love which through the combat of temptation conquers all the lower passions in the regenerating man. In this character she is sometimes pictured as clothed in armor, holding a spear in her hand, and with her foot resting on a helmet.
As Venus Genetrix she represents conjugial love as the great mother of the human race, the benign deity who, according to Athenaeus, "fills the majestic heaven with desire to let its rain fall upon the earth, from which union is begotten and nourished all that gives life and increase to the race of men." As is well known, Venus was, herself, the mother of a numerous progeny, whom, as in the case of Aeneas, she guarded and defended with the greatest tenderness and maternal solicitude. Of Venus Genetrix there is a very beautiful classical statue, now in the Louvre, representing her as a noble matron, holding in her hand an apple, the symbol of fruitfulness.
In ancient as in modern art, Venus has been a most inspiring subject for sculptors and painters; the Greek artists, notably Praxiteles and Apelles, rivalled each other in expressing in her image the most noble conceptions of "das ewig weibliche," the ideal of feminine beauty, grace, and loveliness; and the most charming maidens of Greece, considered it an undying honor to stand as model for the statues of Aphrodite. The usual type is that of fully developed yet youthful and slender womanhood, a young matron rather than a maiden, of medium height, faultless proportions, and perfect symmetry in form and outlines. In her earlier statues she is always represented as dressed in a star-spangled robe, wearing a crown on her head, and with a turtledove tightly pressed against her breast. Sometimes she appears rising out of the sea and wringing her wet tresses; sometimes she is drawn over the waters in a pearly shell, or riding upon a dolphin, a swan, or some other marine animal.
When represented as rising out of the sea she is known as "Aphrodite anadyomene," (i. e. coming "out of the bath"), and as such she forms the subject of a painting by Apelles, the most celebrated picture in ancient art. It was originally preserved in the temple of Aesculapius on the island of Cos, but was bought by Caesar Augustus for the sum of one hundred talents and transferred to the temple of Julius Caesar in Rome. The lower part of the figure having been injured, no artist could be found in Greece or Rome, able or daring enough to venture to restore it; its subsequent history is unknown.
Among the thousands of ancient statues of Venus the most famous are the Venus de Medici, now at Florence, and the Venus de Milo, now in the Louvre. The Venus de Medici, by Cleomenes Apollonios, is supposed to be a copy of a Venus Anadyomene by Praxiteles, and remains as a noble specimen of ancient art, and as an exalted conception of womanhood, preserving a marvelous equipoise between the charming dignity of the matron and the severe chastity of the virgin. In this statue, it has been said, "art reaches its highest degree in depicting feminine beauty."
The Venus de Milo is even more celebrated, though of comparatively recent discovery: it was dug out of a garden by a poor Greek peasant of the island of Melos, in the year 1820, and is a pure Parian marble. It is supposed to represent Venus Victrix, and in its grave and unaffected beauty, free alike from coquetry and mock modesty, comes nearer than any other statue to the conception of Aphrodite as a Divine being. The expression, though dignified, is joyous; the head is not too small as is the case in most of her statues ;the rich waves of hair descend gracefully on her low but broad forehead, and are caught up in a knot at the back of her charming neck. The body is the perfect ideal of the feminine form, and the drapery falls in free and careless folds from the waist downward. But words cannot describe the perfection of this the most beautiful work of art that has been preserved from among all the lost masterpieces of the ancients.
Very different, indeed, from Venus Ourania, Venus Victrix and Venus Genetrix, is the faithless, "Venus Pandemos." In her we see the diametrical perversion of conjugial love, the holiest of all human loves, now the most profane. A modern writer has well said:
And we may here quote also, in application to Venus Pandemos, the words of Rawlinson, who, however, does not distinguish between the heavenly and the vulgar Venus:
She is, in short, the embodiment of all that is weak and erring in perverted womanhood. She is still beautiful, but her beauty is altogether physical and sensuous, divorced alike from intellectual power and moral good. The ancient sculptors, who were philosophers and theologians as well as artists, fitly represented Aphrodite Pandemos as a slightly garbed hetera, who is seated upon a he-goat galloping on the waves of the sea, while poor little Cupid, left behind, is crying and remonstrating with his vagrant mother. The ancient cameo which depicts her thus is a powerful sermon in a very small compass, a striking contrast to the stately flight of Venus Ourania through the heavens, seated upon the swan.
It is this meretricious Venus that is described as the paramour of Mars by some interpolator of the Odyssey, and it is in this character that she is represented in the story of the judgment of Paris. All the gods had been invited to the marriage-feast of Thetis and Peleus, with the sole exception of Eris, the sourfaced goddess of envy. The latter, in revenge, threw into the midst of the festive gathering a golden apple bearing the inscription, "To the most beautiful," whereupon Juno, Minerva, and Venus each claimed the prize. As each of the gods prudently declined to settle the dispute, the final decision was referred to Paris, the son of Priam, king of Troy. The three rival goddesses thereupon appeared before him, each promising a most precious reward for a favorable judgment. Juno promised wealth and unlimited power; Minerva offered the gift of profound wisdom, and Venus held out the promise of a bride as beautiful as herself,—and she won the prize. Venus here appears as the rival and enemy of Juno and Minerva,—as Love separate from and opposed to Religion and Wisdom,—conjugial love no longer, but the merely natural love of the sex,—and the downfall of Troy followed, as the downfall of any Church or nation follows upon the separation of the marriage-covenant from religion and wisdom. As we have observed before, Troy represented the Ancient Church in Asia in its later state of corruption and decline, and the chief cause of its fall was the corruption of conjugial love within it, the separation of charity and faith, and the inevitably resulting destruction of the conjugial. This story, therefore, is a lesson to the New Church that marriage-love must be based upon harmony in religion and doctrine, or the Church will be destroyed and will pass over to the Gentiles, as surely as Troy was destroyed and the center of civilization passed over to the Greeks.
The special emblems of Venus were, besides the usual paraphernalia of the feminine toilet, a magic girdle, known as the ''Cestus,'' and also the torch. Her representative birds were the turtle-dove and the swan, and her special flowers the rose and the poppy.
The Cestus, (cognate to castus, chaste), possessed, according to Homer, the magic power of investing the wearer with every attribute of grace and beauty. A belt or girdle, being that part of the dress which holds all the garments together, signifies "the external bond which connects and keeps in order all the interior things," (A. C. 9372) ; it therefore, also, signifies "conjunction, by which all things are kept in their order." (A. C. 7863.) From this it may appear what was signified in the representative Church by the girdles by which the garments were gathered into one. (A. C. 9828.)
The girdle of Venus, therefore, is that external bond which holds together in one complex all things of conjugial love, and what is this but the ultimate virtue of chastity, which is the basis of all true love, confidence, and conjugial friendship? This is the magic girdle which, with a moral youth, inspires pure love for a maiden, and without it the first essential of conjugial love is impossible. In Heaven "the angels grow cold all over the body at the thought of unchaste love, but grow warm all over the body from chaste love." (C. L. 44.)
The dove and the turtle-dove by universal consent typify the tender affection between two lovers, but the swan is not usually regarded as the emblem of such love. But in the New Church we know from "things seen and heard" from Heaven, why the Ancients so often associated the swan with Aphrodite.
In one of the Memorable Relations Swedenborg tells of a lofty palace which he once saw in Heaven, and as he was looking he beheld a pair of swans fly into this palace through the open windows of the lowest story, while a pair of birds of paradise flew into the windows of the middle and a pair of turtle-loves into the windows of the highest story.
The bird of paradise is not associated with the worship of Aphrodite, for the obvious reason that it is a South American bird which was unknown to the ancients; but its place seems to have been taken by a mysterious bird, called "lynx," or "Frigillus," sacred to this goddess, of which the ancients made much use in amatory magic. But the turtle-dove, symbol of purity, holiness, and tender love, was the constant companion of the goddess of love in every mythological system of the ancient world, from the Ishtar of hoariest Chaldean antiquity, to the Freya of our own immediate ancestors. But the clean and graceful swan, snow-white and gentle, is a purely Hellenic attribute of Aphrodite, and they must have derived it as such from the representatives of the spiritual world.