Most of the classical artwork that portrays Venus or Aphrodite conforms to a single mood. The pieces are moderately erotic but at the same time pretty and charming.  The goddess seems detached from her surroundings as though the artist surprised her in a dream. Is it the stereotypical daydream of candlelight, wine, and roses?

Occasionally a painting or statue of Aphrodite is decidedly different. A funeral cloak or sad face reminds us that she is the goddess who mourns, a characteristic that she shares with Demeter. That makes her much more interesting and sympathetic than the many Olympian gods who lack significant human emotions, and are therefore divine in a one-dimensional way. They are divine but are not also one of us, as Christ is one of us.

Aphrodite mourns for the loss of love and her beloved Adonis, who had to die because their mutual love was adulterous. Adonis is usually portrayed as a god of the springtime. But the significance of the myth of Venus and Adonis is not primarily seasonal. It is not that summer follows spring, and that flowers (which symbolize Adonis) inevitably wilt in the intense summer sunlight and heat of the Mediterranean lands.

The death of the Anemone---Adonis' sacred plant---is a poetic image that seems crafted to help us feel the sadness of the story. The real meaning of the myth was that true love in the classical world was often illicit, for it was extra-marital and punishable by death in societies in which marriages were arranged without regard for love, and only for the benefit of the families concerned. Such marriages of convenience were the norm in ancient civilizations, and still occur in places like India.

Aphrodite's marriage to Hephaestus meant nothing to her because it was arranged and loveless, while her bigamous marriage to Adonis meant everything to her because it was the one affair that touched her heart. There is a floral image to express her heartache: she sees the dead body of Adonis and runs to it, and while running cuts her leg on the thorns of a wild rose. Her blood stains the white flowers---and that is why some roses are red.

Adonis died every year in the classical liturgical calendar, and Aphrodite mourned for him every year in a perennial cycle of joy and sorrow. Every year she began the cycle again when Adonis was reborn. In a sense Aphrodite was reborn also, and her birth near Kythera was not her only birth. Her love was reborn countless times as the years repeated themselves.

Below: Aphrodite in mourning.

 

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