Brilliant, awe-inspiring Venus is the most glorious object in the heavens, barring the Sun and Moon. Never more than 48° from the Sun, she can't be seen in the midnight sky, though unlike elusive Mercury, reveals herself magnificently in the periods between her helical risings and setting, often bright enough to be seen in daylight.
As an evening star, Venus appears in the west in the period following sunset. As she draws close to the Sun she disappears from view in her helical setting, circling the Earth invisibly masked by the Sun's light. As Venus moves ahead of the Sun, she eventually becomes visible again in the east, in her heliacal rising shortly before sunrise.
In ancient times these sharp contrasting appearances of Venus and her cyclic withdrawal from human sight became incorporated into her mythological characteristics. The Mesopotamians knew her, not only as the Goddess of Love and Procreation, but also as the Goddess of War, while her periodic re-emergence was associated with the seasonal fertility of the Earth. Her evening manifestation was said to bring men and women to the act of love in bed, but her morning appearance woke them up to go to war. In mythology she appears as consort to many masculine deities and as a great Mother-Goddess emerges under many names from different races without losing her essential characteristics.
As the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, one of her most famous adventures, later attributed to Aphrodite by the Greeks, was the descent into the underworld to seek the return of her lover Tammuz, the God of Spring who had died in the autumn. To gain entrance to this forbidden domain she threatened to break down the gates of the underworld, free the dead and devour the living. She was eventually allowed entrance by her sister Ereshkigal, dreadful Queen of the underworld, but at each of the seven gates had to part with an item of clothing, arriving before Ereshkigal completely naked. There she was attacked by the plague demon, Namtar, smitten with disease from head to foot and kept prisoner by the Queen.
Because of lshtar's absence, all earthly fertility was lost. On hearing the news, her brother Shamash (the Sun) consulted with the God of Wisdom. Realising that no living male or female could ever enter and return from the underworld, a sexless being was created which carried to Ereshkigal an order for Ishtar's release. Fearful of the demand, Namtar sprinkled her with the waters of life and returned her garments at each of the seven gates. Her reappearance on Earth restored fertility, and life resumed its normal course.
Although there were decidedly violent aspects to this ancient goddess. she was generally a benevolent figure who possessed most of the fortunate qualities now associated with Venus, the lesser benefic. A surviving Babylonian prayer reads:
O heroic one Ishtar, the immaculate one of the goddesses,
Torch of Heaven and Earth, radiance of the continents,
O lshtar, you are Anu [the supreme god] you rule the Heavens;
You alter the fates and an ill event becomes good,
At your right is justice, at your left goodness,
Fixed on your head are audience, favour, peace,
Your sides are encompassed with life and well-being,
Let me proclaim your divinity, Let me achieve what I desire….
Lengthen my days, Let me live, let me be well.
Throughout history our perception of the goddess Venus and its astrological influences have adapted to reflect society's archetypal image of femininity and sexuality. The ancient cultures recognised the domain of emotion, passion and creativity as one of intense and volatile power, an earthy attribute of fruitfulness, productivity, sensuality and self-indulgence, which could quickly turn to jealous rage and destructive abandonment.
During the medieval period those attributes became sanitized - the goddess appears sweet and coy, a delight to all men. Her attraction is her vulnerability and sensitivity; her demeanour is one which offers pleasure through enticement, quite a contradiction to the nature of Ishtar, who was demanding in her sexual and emotional satisfaction and showed little hesitation in cruel retribution to those who spurned her advances or insulted her honour. Hence the celebrated images of Venus idealised by Botticelli depict a sweet young maiden, delicate, sensitive and full of gentle grace, whereas the ancients portrayed their image of this inherently sexual goddess with a proudly swollen belly, prominent thighs and buttocks, and protruding breasts.
The dichotomy in the astrological perception of Venus has often been compared to her dual rulership over the signs Libra and Taurus, in which she takes residence by day and night respectively. In her diurnal, airy, Libran aspect it is virginal love, ethereal beauty, diplomacy, harmony, luxury and art which is emphasised, whereas her earthy nocturnal dwelling (Taurus) expresses her deeper, more fundamentally feminine qualities of creative passion combined with annihilative emotions. Those astrologers who have called for the removal of her governorship of Taurus, in order to establish a neat pattern of 12 signs and 12 different planetary rulers (regardless of the fact that 12 different planets don't exist) might appreciate the absurdity of this if they pondered the full complexities of this goddess and the ease with which she moves us to any form of heated passion as well as the cooler compassion we take for granted.
Even her association with the Bull is a reflection of this. According to Babylonian myth, the creature was created on her orders to destroy the legendary hero Gilgamesh who had rejected her advances remarking that she all too quickly tired of her objects of desire. Gilgamesh defeated the Bull, but the victory of logic belonged to him, not Venus, who is never swayed by such concerns. The motto 'all's fair in love and war' is created by her energies, aptly illustrating that self-interest is more than wrapping oneself up in luxuries or being surrounded by pleasant odours and tastes and sweet things. It is about feeling good inside, at the expense of others if necessary, of satisfying one's cravings and desires in whatever form they take. That's why the 17th century texts may emphasise that she rules all things delicious and pleasing to the eye, but references to her 'inciting to wantoness' are never far away.
Which then is the true nature of Venus - innocent sweet maiden or femme fatale? Both of course, because we are talking femininity here, which the classicists understood could never be understood, since it is complex, changing, indefinable and recognises no boundaries. The word 'feminine' represented that which is chaotic and undefined: it is not focused, but totally 'aware' in all directions, circular not linear, rounded not sharp. Its influence cannot be restrained; it seeps through everything, connects everything and recognises everything, often in a way that cannot be verbalised or logically expressed. Venus is about emotion, desire and attraction; but one aspect of that is love. Love itself is beyond definition in its cause and effect, and anyone who attempts to pin it down to being more than simply the most powerfully motivating force known to humankind assumes that they know more about the nature of Venus than they ever really will.
© Deborah Houlding