The origins of the gods have
always been a mystery and the origin of Venus is a particularly difficult
case. Malicious tongues say that she came from the countryside. Probably a
successor to an ancient mother goddess, she was venerated in what is now
Italy as the patroness of gardens and vegetable farming — especially on
Veneralia, the feast day of Venus, April I. In defence of her reputation,
one should add that she lost her earthiness early on. Beginning in the
fourth century ВС she was equated in Rome with Aphrodite, the Greek
goddess of love, who was the patroness of coquettish young women, of
laughter and fun, and of sweet desire and clemency.
Aphrodite's origins are also rather uncertain, and the
various legends about her birth contradict one another. These stories
agree about one thing, that Aphrodite emerged from the sea. According to
the early Greek poet Hesiod, who established the family tree of the
Olympian gods, Aphrodite was born of the foam which billowed up around the
genitals of her castrated father Uranus, which were cast into the sea by
his son Saturn (Cronus), who was responsible for this violent act. Another
legend tells us that Aphrodite was born in a bivalve shell. The Italian
Humanist poet Angelo Poliziano (Pollitian), who was an advisor at the
Medici court in Florence, elaborated on these ancient tales in his
"And born within [the white
in rare and joyous acts
a maiden with a heavenly race
by playful zephyrs
is pushed to the shore.
She travels on a sea-shell;
and it seems
that the heavens rejoice."
The zephyrs, blowing a strong wind, steer her "ship"
towards the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where she is greeted by
nymphs, who are "surprised by joy at the sight of her" and dress her in a
cloak decorated with flowers — for even the goddess of love cannot remain
nude forever. The Italian Renaissance painter Allesandro Filipepi, later
may well have taken Poliziano's poem as the literary model for his
painting The Birth of Venus. Probably commissioned by
the Medici family, the painting depicts the goddess as the personification
of Love. She is to lead the Florentines, who at the time were growing
increasingly enthusiastic about Greek philosophy, back to its loftiest
ideals: goodness, truth and beauty.
Today the planet Venus, sometimes called the Evening
Star, is not the only reminder of how important the goddess once was. The
fifth day of the week also bears her name: "Friday", and the German "Freitag",
derive from the name of the Teuton goddess Freya, who was equated with
Venus. Friday in Italian, venerdi, and in French, vendredi;
respectively have retained much of the original sound of "Venus", and both
mean "Venus Day".