Who are the gods and goddesses of love?

To express the power of amorous desire, people make it a sanctity, in the form of a luscious woman or a handsome boy, like Venus and Cupid. Valentine’s Day is a link to these ancient celebrations of love.

By Christian-Georges Schwentzel, University of Lorraine

Goddesses of Love from Prehistoric times?

The oldest representations of woman were made more than 20,000 years ago, during the Upper Palaeolithic. These are buxom females, endowed with bulging legs, abdomen and breasts. A feminine ideal of our distant ancestors? It is possible. But the interpretation of these works often called “Venus” became the subject of debate, impossible to decide, because, of course, the people of Prehistory left no text or instructions for use.

The only certainty: “Venus” has no practical interest. It is shown in caves or in huts, sometimes hung in rings, as suggested by the perforations still visible in some statues.

Prehistoric Venus in Willendorf. Upper Palaeolithic, about 24,000-22,000 BC. J.-C. Museum of Natural History, Vienna.

source, CC BY

Ishtar and Hathor

One of the oldest known deities is called Inanna, or Ishtar. He appeared more than 5,000 years ago in the land of Sumer, in what is now southern Iraq, where he is believed to have had sexual relations with a series of kings in the region who were considered equal to his high priests and his lovers. This is why a “sacred wedding” ceremony is organized every year in the temple of the goddess.

During his night of love, the sovereign must give pleasure to his godly wife who, in turn, guarantees the fruitfulness of the kingdom.

A few centuries later, we see this goddess in Lebanon, ancient Phenicia, where she was called Astarte.

In Egypt, love consisted of Hathor, who was sometimes described as a woman with a perfect body, molded in a transparent dress, sometimes in the guise of a cow, a symbol of beauty and fertility for ancient Egyptians.

Venus de Milo, marble, 2nd century BC. J.-C. Louvre Museum, Paris.

David McSpadden/Wikipedia, CC BY

Aphrodite, the irresistible goddess

In Greece, the story of the goddess of love begins with a miraculous birth. The god of Heaven, Ouranos, was fed by his son Cronos, then to revolt against the authority of the father. Cut off at the base, the giant phallus fell from the clouds and sank into the sea.When it hit the waves, it produced a huge wave of foam from which the majestic goddess came out, completely naked. Newly born, she already has a perfect body, according to the criteria of feminine beauty of the moment: long hair in a bun, small breasts, chubby arms, small round belly with well marked navel and fleshy legs. This is how the sculptor described her in “Venus de Milo”, the most famous of all the statues of Aphrodite, made in the 2nd century BC. J.-C.

Later, it was imagined by the painter Botticelli, who followed the same canons, standing on a large shell.

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (1484-1485).

Wikipedia/Google Arts and Culture

The sea represents the turmoil in which perfection has emerged. The birth of Aphrodite is a mystery whose violence overshadows the feeling of love, voluntarily severe, severe … About to reach Olympus, the palace of the gods, Aphrodite sows trouble there with her irresistible beauty. She can hardly find her perfect forms accentuated by her glamorous dresses. And then he wears a magical gold belt, which has the effect of arousing desire.

The most beautiful of the goddesses married Hephaestus, the ugly carpenter god, at the request of Hera, wife of Zeus, envious of Aphrodite. But the goddess of love has nothing to do with this imposed husband whom she has deceived by Ares, the god of war: a bad character, but a dream body. He also happens to be in love with Hermes, Poseidon and Dionysus. He is even known to have mortal lovers, such as the Trojan prince Anchises whom he finds in his bed, without warning, before leaving the next morning, after his divine birth is revealed to him.

Tlazolteotl, c. 900-1521, British Museum, London.


Freyja, Rati, Xochiquetzal and others

In northern European mythology, known especially from Icelandic writings of the Middle Ages, the role of Aphrodite is played by Freyja. In India, the amorous function is given to Rati, the Hindu goddess with breasts inflated like balloons, riding a giant parrot.

In Aztec mythology, he is called Xochiquetzal: wearing quetzal feathers, surrounded by birds and butterflies that become his companions, he symbolizes happiness and fertility.

The ancient Mexicans also revered the charming Tlazolteotl, known for its various statues.

Today, the attributes of these goddesses are still present in the worship of the orisha Oshun or Oxum.

Through syncretism, this goddess from Africa, dressed in yellow and gold, is mixed with the Virgin of Brazil and the Caribbean. Under the name “Virgen de la caridad del Cobre”, she even became the patroness of Cuba.

Rati, the Hindu goddess.

Wikipedia, CC BY

Cupid, the handsome young man

With these sensual goddesses can be seen handsome young men. Ishtar fell in love with the shepherd Dumuzi, whom she became the god of fertility.

In Lebanon, he takes the form of Adonis, a boy of extraordinary beauty whom Astarté loves so much. The goddess hides him in a forest where she can find him to take advantage of her amulets.

In Greece, the god of love took the form of Eros, an ephebe who was always naked who, at this time, was not the lover but the son of the goddess Aphrodite. It is not known who the father of this beautiful child was, because Aphrodite had a simultaneous relationship with many gods. Armed with golden wings, he travels the sky, shooting arrows that everyone loves. No one can escape him. Even the gods are subject to him, as the poet Hesiod sang (Theogony116-122) which made Eros one of the first gods, at the beginning of our world.

His name means “desire” in Greek. He is etymologically the origin of eroticism, which is the expression and representation of everything related to Eros. As for the Romans, they called him Cupid, a name formed from the verb kupio : “I like”.

Valentine’s Day, for or against?

Even his statues aroused desire, according to Pliny the Elder (Natural History 36, 22). One day, writes the Latin author, an admirer came out of Cupid’s marble leg standing in the temple of Parion, a city in Asia Minor.

Valentin was a 3rd-century Roman who at first had little to do with eroticism. He was sentenced to death because he was a Christian. According to a modern legend, he could have written a love note to his jailer’s daughter, signed “From your Valentin”.

Valentine has been the patron saint of lovers, no doubt due to an English tradition, since the end of the Middle Ages, of making February 14 the day when birds mate. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the earliest writers to evoke this belief. The Flock Parliament (1382).

This was the beginning of Valentine’s Day which spread throughout the world of Christianity.

Today, the holiday is celebrated in the Maghreb countries. It reached India, where it provoked tensions, as it was seen as a form of acculturation by Hindu traditionalists. Valentine’s Day is associated with women’s desire to choose their own husbands, apart from marriage arrangements.

In Indonesia, partying is banned in the name of good manners and police are looking for lovers.

In China, a love festival called “qīxī” traditionally takes place on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar year, but young people living in the Western era now prefer on February 14. Thus, the celebration of Valentine’s Day has become a social and cultural symbol that goes beyond simply expressing feelings of love.

Christian-Georges Schwentzel, Professor of Ancient History, University of Lorraine

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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