Monday, February 9, 2015

Venus Verticordia: Changer of Hearts

Last week, I wrote to you a little bit about a teaching I received from Venus of the Red Rose. In that post, I showed the painting (by Dante Rossetti) below, titled Venus Verticordia.  Like many Rossetti paintings, this one has a poem that goes with it.

She hath the apple in her hand for thee,
   Yet almost in her heart would hold it back;
   She muses, with her eyes upon the track
Of that which in thy spirit they can see.
Haply, ‘Behold, he is at peace,’ saith she;
   ‘Alas! the apple for his lips,—the dart 
   That follows its brief sweetness to his heart,—
The wandering of his feet perpetually!’

A little space her glance is still and coy;
   But if she give the fruit that works her spell, 
Those eyes shall flame as for her Phrygian boy.
   Then shall her bird's strained throat the woe foretell,
   And her far seas moan as a single shell,
And through her dark grove strike the light of Troy.

Verticordia is a kind of flower, and I thought that they were the kind in the front of the photo.  Having further examined the painting, I no longer think so.  

However, I have come to find out that Venus Verticordia is a late Roman avatar of Venus. From Wikipedia: "Likewise, a shrine to Venus Verticordia ("Venus the changer of hearts"), established in 114 BC but with links to an ancient cult of Venus-Fortuna, was "bound to the peculiar milieu of the Aventine and the Circus Maximus" - a strongly plebeian context for Venus's cult, in contrast to her aristocratic cultivation as a Stoic and Epicurian "all-goddess". (similar to the distinction between Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Ouranos)

I know very little about classical Venus Verticordia, but here is what I have learned:

She was a goddess of sexual propriety.  Her temple was first established as a sin offering to "make up" for the unchastity of three Vestal Virgins.  She encourages marriage and punishes licentiousness.  Her sacred drink: milk, honey, and poppies, was drunk by women on their wedding night "and from that moment forward, they are a bride".

This is all a bit troubling to me, and I am still puzzling out what such a goddess looks like in our modern world.  In fact, that broad idea, about how we understand the sexual aspects of classical mythology, has been on my mind for some time.  Is Zeus really a serial rapist?  Is he "just" a player?  Does "rape" mean having sex with a woman without her father/husband's permission? What do we make of Aphrodite's infidelity, in the context of her having been "sold" to a husband she did not choose?  Perhaps Venus Verticordia can help me sort all of this out.

In any case, at first glance, the painting and the poem seem likewise at odds with their name.  When it was first exhibited,  (1886), this painting was understood to be extremely avant garde.  John Ruskin, Rossetti's somewhat conservative bff and the preminant art critic of the day, HATED this painting; it was the end of their friendship The poem is very clearly about the "bewitching" power of women.  In the poem, Venus is hesitant to use this power.  The painting was made just as Victorian sexual mores were starting to be questioned.  This Venus Verticordia is not a beautiful woman, by Victorian standards; her features are too strong and she is not smiling.  This painting is a strong statement by Rossetti; with it, he stakes out a position that confidence and power are beautiful and sexy.

I am not sure what to make of Venus Verticordia's emphasis on marriage and "lawful" sexuality.  Probably because my own notions of "lawfulness" when it comes to sexuality are poisoned by Christian patriarchy.  When seen in that way, Venus Verticordia's insistence on sexual "virtue" seems at odd with the lush, primal sexuality I got from Venus of the Red Rose.  However, if I understand "lawful" to mean "consensual" then it all starts to click together.  I just don't know.  I'm working on it.

Here is something I do know, Venus Verticordia is a great lover and protectress of those who are the victims of coercive, exploitative, violent, or otherwise harmful sex.  Further, she is the right spirit to absolve one, when there is real regret and restitution, of guilt on such matters.  (I don't mean she'll forgive a rapist, but I think many of us have had sex that we have come to feel wasn't "right", for whatever reason.)

UPDATE: Venus Verticordia has since taught me more about how she can help, and given me a recipe for a bath.  More details here.

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