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Aphrodite, Astarte and Venus
by Vincenzo Salerno

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Aphrodite.The goddess of love and fertility was an important figure in ancient life.

To Sicily's Greeks she was Aphrodite, and she came to be identified strongly with the Phoenician Astarte. To the Romans she was Venus, and the very word veneration derives from her Latin name and the act of worship. Truth be told, one deity isn't always directly comparable to another; Astarte may not have begun her life among worshippers as being a Phoenician or Carthaginian Aphrodite. She was indeed venerated across the Mediterranean, including Egypt, long before anybody thought of Aphrodite, who was either based on Astarte or greatly influenced by her cult.

Of particular note are her centres of veneration in Cythera, Malta, and the Punic Sicilian city of Eryx (Erice) for which she became known in Roman times as Venus Erycina. In ancient times, of course, Erice was perhaps more lively than it is today, being a site of ritual prostitution. The Syrian goddess Atargatis was usually identified with Astarte, and so was the Sumerian love goddess Inanna. According to Pausanias, the warlike Assyrians were the first civilization to found a cult of Aphrodite, a thesis that makes sense in view of recent research revealing the Eastern influence on Greek society and mythology before 700 BC (BCE). In Carthage, Astarte was worshipped on a par with Tanit, the moon goddess, with whom it seems she may have been identified at times - though the conquering Romans apparently regarded the goddesses as two distinct divinities.

Did the Elymians, founders of Egesta (Segesta) and Eryx, worship Astarte? The Elymians were readily assimilated by the Greeks, though Eryx eventually became a Carthaginian city, so it is obvious that they eventually adopted the Greek divinities. Whether they had their own "Aphrodite" sometime before 1000 BC is something we may never know. One theory places the Elymians' forebears among the "Sea Peoples" who attacked the Egyptian coast en route from Asia Minor to points west, and we do know that the Greeks viewed them more favorably than they regarded the Sicanians.

Astarte is one of the few Phoenician deities mentioned by name in the Bible, specifically as Ashteroth (Genesis 14:5 and Joshua 12:4), a Canaanite, or perhaps Sidonian, fertility goddess whose crescent moon, or "horns," are symbolic of mountain peaks. (Tanit is also depicted with the crescent moon in her hair in some images and statues.) Terra cotta figurines of Ashteroth have been discovered at various archeological sites in what was Phoenicia (today Lebanon and northern Israel).

Whether the early identification of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with the crescent moon - an obvious symbol of the heavens - was based on Astarte's (or Tanit's) imagery is debated by scholars and theologians. Yet Greek and Roman temples were readily converted into early churches (here in Sicily Syracuse Cathedral is a prime example), while the veneration and name of Saint Venera coincides with places where Venus was worshipped.

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and fertility. Stories of her origin abound. In his Theogony, Hesiod says she was born when Cronus cut off Uranus' genitals and threw them into the Mediterranean Sea, and from its foam (aphros) arose Aphrodite. This would make Aphrodite older than Zeus, the king of the gods, who betrothed her to Hephaestus. Aphrodite figures in numerous myths.

She is also known as Cytherea (Lady of Cythera) and Cypris (Lady of Cyprus) after the two sites, Cythera and Cyprus, that claimed her birth. Sparrows, doves and swans were sacred to her. In ancient Greece she was sometimes identified with the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

The Romans appropriated Aphrodite for themselves during their conquest of the Greek cities of southern peninsular Italy, such as Paestum, and then Sicily, where the goddess was widely venerated at Syracuse. Venus may have supplanted an Etruscan deity at a very early point in Roman history. Yet the Roman concept of Venus is based on wholesale adaptation of literary Greek mythology relative to Aphrodite. According to some Roman myths, Cupid was the son of Venus by Mars, the god of war.

It was the Romans who made her the deity of military victory in addition to beauty, love, fertility and seduction. Julius Caesar adopted Venus as his protectress. In Roman mythology she is the divine mother of Aeneas, the ancestor of Rome's founder, Romulus. Her sacred month was April, from aperire, to open, when the flowers opened or bloomed. The Veneralia, her feast, began on the first of April. Myrtles and roses were her sacred flowers. (The figure shown here is a Roman copy of a Greek Aphrodite.)

A later Roman cult to Venus was established during the early stages of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. Following the Romans' terrible defeat at the Battle of Lake Trasimene, the Sibylline oracle suggested that the Venus Erycina (at Erice), still in Carthaginian territory, could be persuaded to switch her loyalty from Carthage to Rome. In 217 BC the Romans took Erice and with the city captured a statue of the beautiful goddess. In Rome she was venerated in a temple on the Capitoline Hill. According to Rome's foundation myth, Venus was a divine progenitor of Aeneas, and through him the Roman people, so the statue's arrival may have been construed something of a return home. In the Aeneid Venus leads Aeneas to Latium in her heavenly form, as the most prominent morning star, shining brightly before him in the early dawn sky.

The Italian Venerdì (Friday) comes to us from the Latin Dies Veneris. Venus became identified with the Germanic goddess Frijjo, hence the English Friday.

Such females are potentially dangerous because they can control men, hence the ambivalence of her Roman identity is suggested in the etymological relationship of the Latin root venes with both the English venereal (pertaining to sex) and Latin venenum (venom).

About the Author: Palermo native Vincenzo Salerno has written biographies of several famous Sicilians, including Frederick II and Giuseppe di Lampedusa.


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© 2012 Vincenzo Salerno and Best of Sicily