By David McCann
In ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians made a distinction between the planet Venus, known as Delebat, who was worshipped as a goddess in her own right, and the goddess Inana, of whom she was an aspect. Inana was variously said to be the daughter of the creator Anu, of his son Enlil, or of the Moon god Nanna. She was the most important of all the goddesses and was associated with both love and war. Unlike the Semitic lshtar, to whom she was later equated, Inana was not really a fertility goddess and never a mother figure, contrary to the claims of some writers. She was never depicted with a child and most traditions made no reference to her ever having born one.
Of her many lovers, Inana was particularly associated with the shepherd god Dumuzi. The story of her descent to the underworld describes how, as she descended, so her powers were stripped from her and she arrived at the mercy of his sister: Life must accept Death. The other gods negotiated her release, but only in exchange for another life, and that of Dumuzi was taken. One version of the myth says that Inana actually condemned him herself, having returned to her house to find him partying instead of mourning. The Semitic people made Tammuz, as they called him, a fertility god whose death marked the cutting-down of the corn. The Bible forbids the Jews to participate in his festival, but Tammuz is still retained as a month name in the Jewish calendar. The later form of the myth, in which Tammuz was killed in a hunting accident, was known to the Classical world as that of Venus and Adonis (Adon being the Semitic word translated as 'Lord' in the Bible), and immortalised for English readers by Shakespeare's poem.
The Egyptian equivalent of lshtar is Hathor, the goddess of love and fertility, often represented as a cow. Like most important Egyptian gods and goddesses, she had a solar connection: her name meant the 'house of Horus', the place of the sunrise. She had no connection with the planet Venus, but was identified with the star Sirius. The heliacal rising of Sirius generally coincided with the flooding of the Nile, which re-fertilised the soil of Egypt, so it was natural for the star to be associated with fertility, although its astrological nature is Martian. Hathor was the patron of women and their lives, and also of everything which brings joy: love, art, music, even beer. Like other similar goddesses, she has her connection with the underworld: in the Book of the Dead she is shown accompanying the soul to judgement and providing the deceased with food and drink. What better guarantee of life in the afterworld than the patronage of she who fosters it in the present existence?
The Greek equivalent of Inana was Aphrodite. Her name is not found in the inscriptions of Bronze Age Crete, suggesting that she was a later borrowing. Like the other foreign gods (Artemis, Apollo, and Ares) she was shown by Homer fighting for the Trojans, while the native gods such as Zeus, Hera, and Athene supported the Greeks. Tradition associated her with Cyprus, where Greeks and Semites lived side by side from an early date, and the name Aphrodite is probably a Greek corruption of the Phoenician form of lshtar, Astarte (the Biblical Ashtaroth). Aphrodite had a more limited role than her Semitic predecessor, since the Greeks had rather an excess of fertility goddesses and consequently tended to give them more specialised functions. The original Hellenic Hera, whose name refers to the seasons, became confined to the patronage of marriage; the two goddesses of Mycenean Greece, Demeter and Persephone, were assigned the crops; animals and childbirth fell to Artemis, from Asia Minor; only sexual love was left for the last arrival. In Cyprus she retained Ishtar's responsibility for agricultural fertility and even warfare.
The Roman Venus was simply one of the personifications of which they were so fond, in this case of desire. Although it may seem unlikely, the root ven is the same as the wi in 'wish'. In later times, Greek mythology (and, no doubt, astrology) filled out this abstraction with the riches of lshtar:
"Mother of Aenaeas, darling of gods and men, Venus our nurse, below the wheeling Stars of heaven you fill the ship-bearing Sea and fruitful lands with life."
(Lucretius, translated G. Grigson)
The Romans considered the Germanic equivalent of Venus to be the goddess Frig, the wife of Woden, which is why Friday (Old English Friged corresponds to the Italian Venerdi (Lat. veneris dies). Actually, they were confusing Frig with Freyja who was the goddess of love, but not even the Germans themselves could always tell the two apart.
In the Jewish Cabbala, Venus is the seventh sphere: Victory or Netzach. This forms part of the lowest triad of spheres, together with Hôd (Mercury) and Yesôd (the Moon). Dion Fortune called this the astral triad, the domain of magic where the power of Netzach is shaped by Hôd and manifested in Yesôd. It could also be called the personal triad, for the balance between Venus and Mercury, artist and scientist, has to be achieved in the individual. This tension between the two planets is shown by the opposition between their exaltations, as Antiochus of Athens observed.
Situated at the base of the pillar of action, Netzach manifests the creative power in emotion and instinct, and all human creativity, both sexual and imaginative The latter includes the arts, and also the god-forms of polytheism, created by man in his own image, yet nevertheless reflecting something of the nature of the universe. Both desire and imagination are to some extent superficial. The term glamour originally meant a magic illusion cast upon something, and the victory of Netzach involves triumphing over the glamour of its outer manifestations to reach that which they symbolise. An ancient text calls Netzach the Hidden Intelligence, "because its brilliant outpouring is received by those spiritual virtues which are seen, in the ecstasy of faith, only by the initiated".
In the tarot, Taurus and Libra are exemplified in the greater arcana by the Empress and Love respectively. The Empress signifies fertility, creativity, and passion; in modern decks she is usually depicted surrounded by a fertile countryside. The card Love (or the Lovers) is not often taken in this sense, due to a misinterpretation of the badly-drawn Marseilles card and its strange assignment to Gemini by the Golden Dawn, but the early cards all show a pair of lovers presided over by Cupid or Venus, One of the best modern designs is that of Aleister Crowley, who showed the couple as the King and Queen of Rosicrucian and alchemical symbolism.
In the lesser arcana, Venus rules the sevens on cabbalistic grounds. None are completely favourable. The Seven of Wands is Courage, and even that is only needed in times of trouble. The others all emphasise the results of succumbing to glamour in the old sense of the word. The Seven of Swords is Unstable Effort, for the emotions produce no lasting results in the world of action. The Seven of Cups is Illusory Success, for love is blind, The Seven of Coins is Unfulfilled Success, for the emotions are not swayed by material considerations - "all for love and the world well lost" is the motto here.
David McCann, who lives in London, is an expert on the history and philosophy of astrology. His articles have been published in many international journals of astrology and he was a regular contributor to the Traditional Astrologer magazine, where this article first appeared.
© David McCann, 1999
This article was first published in The Traditional Astrologer Magazine, issue 18, March 1999