Almighty Aphrodite

She came forth, a reverend, beautiful goddess, and grass grew up around her beneath her slender feet. Gods and men call her “Aphrodite”, the foam-born goddess and the well-garlanded “Cytherea”, since she grew in the foam, and “Cytherea”, since she arrived at Cythera, and “Cyprogenea”, since she was born on sea-girt Cyprus, and “genial”, since she came forth from the genitals. Eros accompanied her and beautiful Desire stayed with her as soon she was born and when she went to the tribe of the gods; and since the beginning she possesses this honor and has received as her lot portion among human beings and immortal gods – maidenly whispers and smiles and deceits and sweet delight and fondness and gentleness.

Hesiod: Theogony, 194–206
Transl. Glenn W. Most (Loeb Classical Library, 2006)

The fresco featured above depicts the goddess Aphrodite arriving at the shore in a shell. Hence the Pompeiian house, whose walls it adorns is commonly referred to as the „House of Venus”. The fresco was created in the 70s AD, shortly before the city was destroyed.

The frescoes on the rear wall of the courtyard (Pompeii III. 3.) Photo: Klaus Heese, source: Pompeii in Pictures

The fresco appears on the rear wall of the inner courtyard. To the right of Venus is a garden scene with a fountain, birds, and a theatre mask at the top. To the left is a statue of Mars, the lover of Venus – the proportions of the two deities speak for themselves. The blue waves of the central, picturesque scene transcend a mere landscape: they evoke a mythical scene with the arrival of the most beautiful of goddesses, born of the sea.

Aphrodite was often depicted emerging from the sea and wringing the water out of her hair, not as a little girl, but as a beautiful woman. But the subject of this scene is her epiphaneia: Venus in her divine majesty.

The goddess appears in a typical scheme, revealing her beauty, but not in a seductive way. She focuses on herself: her gaze is not directed at the viewer, and her thighs are closed. She wears a single cloak, which covers only her right forearm; the rest, which she lightly holds with the two fingers of her left hand, flutters behind her back. Her true attire is her jewellery: a diadem, earrings, a necklace, a bracelet, rings, and anklets – all of which can also be regarded as protective amulets. In her right hand, she holds a gold hairpin or a perfume dispenser.

Her body shines against the sea-blue background – this was the ancient feminine beauty ideal, not tanned skin. Venus reclines on the shell, leaning on her right elbow like a banqueter. This imagery not only evokes the birth of the goddess but also has great associative power: Latin words for ‘shell’, such as concha, can also refer to the vulva (a meaning preserved in Neo-Latin languages).

There is an Eros-figure on each side of the goddess, but Amor is not only the child of Venus: the winged figures constitute a retinue befitting her status. One of them sails on a dolphin, proclaiming the glory of Venus, while his companion seems to be pushing the shell. A comfortable journey for a goddess who is respected by gods and mortals alike, and who brings with her not only the sweet pleasures of love but also a sea of tears.

Featured image: wikipedia © Stephen Haynes. See more photos and short descriptions of the house on the website of Pompeii In Pictures.

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