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from: The Many Faces of Venus

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

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Throughout the ancient world, one is everywhere confronted by the numen of the mother goddess.  Intimately associated with a seemingly endless array of phenomena--love, birth, death, fertility, war, weaving, magic, kingship, marriage, maidenhood, mourning, etc.--the goddess was invoked at most of the principal rituals and functions that characterize culture.  Her titles, befitting her many areas of influence, are legion: Queen of Heaven, Warrior, Kore, Harlot, Mother Earth, Queen of the Underworld, etc.  If her cult is no longer as all-pervasive as it once was, it is still very much alive, having been gradually sublimated and assimilated into countless niches of modern religious experience.  It is well-known, for example, that various aspects of the mother goddess' cult have been absorbed by the worship of the Virgin Mary.1  Robert Graves was surely right when he wrote of the mother goddess that she is "deeply fixed in the racial memory of the European countryman and impossible to exorcize."2

Among the ancient cultures, it is the Greeks who have preserved some of the most compelling portraits of the goddess.  Mere mention of the names Aphrodite, Medea, Scylla, Hecate, Ariadne, and Athena is enough to evoke images of archetypal significance.  Each of these figures represents, as it were, a face from the ancient gallery of the mother goddess, offering respectively a crystallized view of the goddess as Queen of Heaven, sorceress, harpy, witch, captive maiden, and warrior. 

At first glance, the aforementioned figures would appear to have little in common.  Indeed, it is the extraordinary diversity in the mother goddess' cult which militates against the prospect that a common denominator can be found which will satisfactorily define the goddess in each of her numerous manifestations.  Such diversity notwithstanding, there have been various attempts to explain the goddess' cult via a common denominator, different hypotheses viewing the goddess as a personification of the Moon3, the earth4, a prehistoric tribe of Amazons5, the unconscious6, etc. Yet none of these theories has gained general acceptance, primarily because none can account for more than a select handful of the goddess' various functions and attributes, much less explain the myriad of peculiar details attending her myth and cult. 

In our opinion, it is the goddess' identification with the planet Venus--attested in numerous cultures from the ancient Near East, but also among aboriginal peoples of the New World--which offers the elusive common denominator necessary to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the goddess' mythical attributes.  In this series of essays, we intend to show that the majority of symbolic images and mythological themes associated with the mother goddess--including the various forms of the goddess personified by the Greek figures enumerated above--have their origin in ancient conceptions associated with the planet Venus. 

If indeed the cult of the mother goddess traces to the ancients' experience of the planet Venus--its appearance, behavior, and participation in a series of spectacular cataclysms--the possibility presents itself that the various faces of the goddess reflect significant phases or episodes in that planet's history.  It is demonstrable, for example, that Venus experienced a series of metamorphoses in appearance during the period of its association with the polar configuration, including several changes in color and shape as well as significant mutations in its orbit, the shape of its atmosphere, and rate of spin.  Inasmuch as the respective phases in the evolutionary history of Venus can be delineated and reconstructed, they can be shown to be responsible for the origin and development of specific archetypal images of the goddess. 

Aphrodite Urania

Even today, the name Aphrodite evokes images of alluring beauty, sensuality, and passion.  The goddess is best known, perhaps, as a divine matchmaker and agent provocateur of sensual desire and infatuation, whose magical charms were enough to entice even the gods into acts of lust and illicit love.  In the Iliad, for example, Aphrodite's zone is said to arouse immediate desire in the eyes of its beholder.7  As Burkert points out, verbs formed from the goddess' name denote the act of love, a tendency found already in Homer.8 

Aphrodite is famous for her liaisons with various heroes and gods.   Aphrodite's adulterous dalliance with Ares was the source of much amusement to the gods of Olympus, and was most likely a subject of ancient cult as as well.9  Her torrid love affair with Adonis ended tragically.  According to one version of the myth, the goddess is said to have leapt off the Leucadian rock in grief for the beautiful youth.10  Her romance with Anchises, finally, is one of the most ancient traditions surrounding the goddess.11  Gantz summarizes Aphrodite's role in myth as follows: "Aside from Homer and these (relatively few) amatory encounters, Aphrodite's role in myth is limited to isolated instances of aiding lovers or punishing those who reject love."12 

No doubt it is difficult to discern the action of a planet behind such accounts.  As Harrison pointed out long ago, however, there is a noticeable tendency in Greek myth for originally multifaceted goddesses to become compartmentalized through time.  Such a specialization in function appears to have occurred in the case of Aphrodite:

More profound words regarding the historical origins of Greek religion it would be difficult to find.

As to the antiquity of Aphrodite's cult in ancient Greece, there is some debate.  While the goddess is already securely attested in the earliest epic literature, her name is absent from the Mycenaean religion as known from the Linear B tablets.  Most probably the cult of the goddess came to Greece in the period between 1200 BCE and 800.14  Burkert, upon surveying the evidence, confesses: "Aphrodite's origin remains as obscure as her name."15

Whence, then, did Aphrodite arrive on Greek shores?  For Homer, Hesiod, and other early writers, the goddess was intimately linked to Cyprus.  The Odyssey lists Paphos as the goddess' homeland, while the Iliad makes Kypris her most common epithet.16  Hesiod calls her both Kyprogene and Kythereia

Our search for Aphrodite's origins does not stop in Cyprus, a well-known melting pot of Oriental religious conceptions.  Among leading scholars, there is something of a consensus that the cult of Aphrodite originally came to Greece from the ancient Near East: "Behind the figure of Aphrodite there clearly stands the ancient Semitic goddess of love, Ishtar-Astarte, divine consort of the king, queen of heaven, and hetaera in one."17  This view receives strong support from the Greeks themselves.  Pausanias, for example, offered the following opinion: "The Assyrians were the first of the human race to worship the heavenly one [Aphrodite Urania]; then the people of Paphos in Cyprus, and of Phoenician Askalon in Palestine, and the people of Kythera, who learnt her worship from the Phoenicians."18

Burkert points out that Aphrodite has numerous characteristics in common with Ishtar.  Both are depicted as goddesses of love and associated with rites of prostitution, for example.19  Aphrodite, like Ishtar, was represented as armed and invoked to guarantee victory.  Aphrodite's beard recalls that elsewhere ascribed to Ishtar. 

In his comprehensive survey of Aphrodite's cult, Burkert never once mentions the planet Venus.  Here the renowned scholar is presumably but following the prevailing view, which does not recognize an early connection between the goddess and the planet.20  Yet inasmuch as the Semitic Ishtar was specifically identified with that planet, it stands to reason that the Greek goddess shared this characteristic as well.  And, in fact, a few scholars have suspected this to be the case: "As the Greek descendant of the Semitic fertility-goddess Istar, Aphrodite has inherited as her astral symbol the planet of Istar, better known to us as Venus."21  In the Greek sources themselves, Plato is our earliest authority for this identification.22  A decisive question for the historian of religions is whether Aphrodite's identification with Venus is relatively late in origin, as per the view of Burkert and the vast majority of scholars, or whether it has a foundation in the goddess' aboriginal cult?

Here the goddess' epithet Urania offers a valuable clue.  As Farnell points out23, Urania--the celestial one"--was a Greek translation of the Semitic title malkat ha-ssamayim, "the queen of the heavens," long understood as having reference to Venus.24  Yet almost unbelievably, Farnell questions whether Aphrodite's epithet betrays an astral component.  Such an opinion ignores the plain fact that this epithet finds precise parallels in the cults of other Venus-goddesses throughout the ancient world.  Thus, a Sumerian hymn invokes Inanna as follows:

That Inanna was identified with the planet Venus in early Sumerian times is well-known.26

The Akkadian Ishtar shares the same epithet.  Witness the following hymn:

How is it possible to understand these early hymns to Inanna and Ishtar apart from reference to a celestial body?  In complete agreement with the religious literature, Babylonian astronomical tablets include the Sumerian phrase, "the bright, or vari-coloured, queen of heavens" among the various names for the planet Venus.28 

The Canaanite goddess Anat, whose fundamental affinity with Inanna and Ishtar is well-known, was likewise deemed the "Queen of Heaven" in Egyptian sources.29  And she too has been identified with the planet Venus.30

The celestial goddess figures prominently among the pagan gods mentioned in the Old Testament, and no doubt there was much truth in the Israelite's admission that the people had long burnt incense to the Queen of Heaven.31 Although Jeremiah does not name the goddess in question, Astarte seems the most likely candidate.32 Astarte's identification with the planet Venus is commonly acknowledged33, as is her affinity with Aphrodite.  Indeed, a late inscription, c. 160 BC, identifies Astarte and Aphrodite Urania.34

Given this evidence, there seems to be little justification for Farnell's view that Aphrodite's epithet Urania did not have a celestial component.

Star of Lamentation

If the cult of Aphrodite reflects ancient conceptions associated with the planet Venus, it must be expected that knowledge of that planet's mythology will help explain specific details in the goddess' cult.  Consider, for example, Aphrodite's important role as a lamenting goddess, most obvious in the traditions surrounding Adonis, a god whose rituals featured ceremonial wailing and the singing of dirges.35 As we have seen, Aphrodite is said to have leapt from the rocks of Leukas in anguish over the death of Adonis.  Gregory Nagy, one of the foremost scholars of Greek myth, would explain Aphrodite's leap in terms of Venus' stereotypical movements in the sky: "By diving from the White Rock, she [Sappho] does what Aphrodite does in the form of Evening Star, diving after the sunken Sun in order to retrieve him the next morning in the form of Morning Star."36

That Aphrodite's lamentations have some reference to Venus receives support from Babylon, where Ishtar/Venus was known as the "star of lamentation."37 This is indeed a puzzling epithet: What possible relation could there be between a distant planet and ancient mourning rites?

A survey of ancient Venus-goddesses will show that most were represented as great mourners.  Inanna's lamentations in the wake of Dumuzi's death, as we will see, are said to have shaken the foundations of heaven.  In Canaanite tradition, Anat's lamentations on behalf of Baal were proverbial and much celebrated in ancient cult and literature.38 Witness the following passage:

In Egyptian tradition, Isis is said to have wandered the world disconsolate looking for the remains of Osiris: "She sought him without wearying; full of mourning she traversed the land, and took no rest until she found him."40

Similar traditions surround the Norse goddess Freya, commonly identified with Venus.  As Briffault recognized many years ago, Freya's lamentations conform to a universal archetype:

The same idea is apparent in the New World, where the goddess Itzpapalotl (otherwise known as Obsidian Knife Butterfly) is said to have "wandered off—combing her hair, painting her face, and lamenting the loss of Arrow Fish."42

The Phrygian Cybele offers a classic example of the goddess as mourner.  According to Diodorus, the goddess wandered the world with disheveled hair while lamenting the death of Attis.43 Significantly, Cybele was identified with Aphrodite.44 

There is good reason to think that Diodorus' account preserves archetypal motifs of great significance, as the mourning goddess' habit of wandering around with flowing hair forms a recurring feature in ancient myth.  The Greek Electra, for example, is said to have loosed her hair and streamed across heaven as a comet while lamenting the destruction of Troy.  Electra's plight is recounted as follows:

As Carl Sagan observed, a goddess with flowing hair is a perfectly natural interpretation of a comet: "When we see a picture of a comet some of us are immediately reminded of a woman with long, straight hair being blown back behind her, the reason, as we have said, for the very name comet, derived from the Greek word for hair."46

In the account of Bion, a Greek poet of c. 100 BC, Aphrodite herself is said to have unbound her hair and embarked upon a period of wandering in the wake of Adonis' death:

Indeed, it is our opinion that Hyginus' report offers the decisive clue to understanding these ancient traditions of lamenting goddesses--the goddess' lamentations occurred in the sky and had reference to a comet-like apparition.  Here we would point to a passage from a Sumerian hymn, "Dumuzi's Dream," wherein the hero's sister Geshtinanna announces in the wake of his death that "my hair will whirl in heaven for you."48  That this image had reference to something actually seen in the sky is supported by a subsequent passage in the same hymn:

The goddess' comet-like form left a trace in ancient ritual as well.  Thus, various early Christian authors described a Phoenician ritual at Aphaca associated with Astarte in which the goddess was represented as a falling star.  Astour summarized this ritual as follows: "It was believed that once a year the goddess descended into the pool as a fiery falling star, or that on solemn feast days, when people assembled in the shrine, a fire-globe was lit in the vicinity of the temple and probably rolled into the pool."50

Here a passage from Philo warrants mention: "The Phoenicians say that Astarte is Aphrodite."51

As the "star of lamentation" was judged to be of female form, we find that mourning rites were typically the special province of females: "Those rites and 'lamentations' are thoughout the primitive society performed by women."52  Nor is it without interest to note that mourning rites around the globe feature women whose hair is purposefully loosened in order to appear disheveled and flow with the wind.  Arab mourners, for example, are described as follows by one scholar: "Then our women bewail (the dead) with voices, hoarse with weeping…with dishevelled hair."53  In the Mahabharata, women wearing their hair loose is a sign of mourning.54  Ancient Egyptian monuments likewise show women mourners with disheveled hair.55 Given this practice and the general belief that disheveled hair was a token of mourning, it is doubtless no accident that various words for "mourning" in the Egyptian hieroglyphic language have the hair-sign as a determinative— P. 56

The same visual effect, of course, could be produced by tearing at the hair or by leaving it uncombed or otherwise uncared for.  Women upon the islands of Leti, Moa and Lakor are expressly forbidden from combing their hair during the period of mourning, in order to appear all that more dishevelled.57  During the same time, they dress in old, black clothes.  Similar practices prevailed in ancient Greece: "In Greece, as elsewhere, the dirge was sung and accompanied with an ecstatic dance in which women beat their breasts and tore their hair."58 

Lion of Heaven

In the same hymn in which she is described as a "star of lamentation," Ishtar is compared to a raging lion: "Irninitum [an epithet of Ishtar], raging lion, may your heart be calmed."59  That the planet Venus was the object of this imagery is confirmed by various lines of evidence, not the least of which is that Inanna (as Venus) is explicitly described as a lion in heaven.  Thus one hymn invokes Inanna as the "lion who shines in the sky."60  In another early hymn, Inanna and Ebih, the goddess is invoked as follows:

Again and again, the planet-goddess is compared to a lion raging in heaven: "Inanna, great brightness, celestial lion…"  Here the signs translated as "great brightness"--U4-gal--are elsewhere used to signify "hurricane, or raging storm" a startling extension of meaning.  Several questions present themselves at this point.  What is there about a lion that would make it an appropriate symbol for a planet-goddess located in heaven?  And if Inanna-Venus was described as a "raging lion," is it not possible that the expression U4-gal should be translated as "raging storm"?  Support for this interpretation comes from the various hymns in which Inanna is described in conjunction with storm-like imagery.  Witness the following passage:

Now I ask: Would anyone viewing the planet Venus in its current manifestations ever be moved to describe it in such terms?  It is also noteworthy that storm-like imagery attaches to the mourning goddess' hair.  Witness the passage from Dumuzi's Dream describing Geshinanna's lamentations, quoted here in full: "My hair will whirl around in heaven for you like a hurricane."63

To return to the "Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar," the word rendered "lioness" is Labbatu.  Interestingly enough, however, the epithet Labbatu likewise signifies a goddess of lamentation: 

If we recall that Venus was elsewhere described as a "long-haired" star65, or as the star with "disheveled hair,"66 the possibility arises that it was the planet's abundant "hair" which provided the necessary link between Ishtar's role as star of lamentation and lion of heaven.  The Latin scholar Varro, in a discussion of the planet Venus, noted that it was called Iubar "because it is iubata 'maned'."67  Varro elsewhere compares the light of Venus to a lion's mane: "The morning-star is called iubar, because it has at the top a diffused light, just as a lion has on his head a iuba 'mane.'"68  Nor is it without interest to our discussion of the lamenting goddess that various Greek and Latin authors used the word iubar to describe a comet.69

In the sacred iconography surrounding Ishtar, lions are conspicuous.70  A popular motif finds lions being marked with a "hair-star" on their bodies, various authorities noting of the star that "the motive was a token of possession marking…animals [with it] as the property of Ishtar."71  (See figure one)  The "hair-star," of course, is a common term for "comet" throughout the ancient world.  That the "hair-star" would appear among the religious iconography associated with Ishtar/Venus makes perfect sense if that planet-goddess once presented the appearance of a comet-like body. 

 Aphrodite Areia

In ancient Greece, especially in Sparta, Aphrodite was worshipped as a warrior, as attested by the epithet Areia.  As Graz has pointed out, this cult was considered strange by the Greeks themselves: "The armed Aphrodite of Sparta challenged the wits of Hellenistic epigrammists and Roman students of rhetoric: for both, she was a puzzling paradox."72  Yet the Spartan cult finds a parallel on the island of Cythera, where Aphrodite Urania was represented as armed.  And this cult, it will be remembered, was esteemed the oldest cult of the goddess.  Farnell's conclusion seems perfectly warranted: "We may believe that the cult of the armed Aphrodite belongs to the first period of her worship in Greece."73

How are we to understand Aphrodite's role as a warrior?  Here the Greek evidence is of little help, being relatively scarce, due in no small part to the fact that by the time of our earliest Greek testimony the goddess had become "civilized."  As always, our surest guide is comparative mythology.

As we have elsewhere argued, the lamenting goddess is closely related to the warrior-goddess.  If, in one text, Inanna is described as a great warrior whose "raging" threatens to destroy heaven and earth, another text describes her as a mourner whose lamentations shake the foundations of the world:

Inanna's celestial war-mongering, in fact, is directly related to her "troubled heart" and otherworldly dirge:

Why Inanna would be represented as a raging warrior-goddess receives scant attention from scholars.  Jacobsen, in introducing Inanna's warrior aspect, remarks: "In the process of humanization, gods of rain and thunderstorms tended…to be envisaged as warriors riding their chariots into battle."77  Why this should be the case is not addressed.  Another leading scholar offered the following explanation of Ishtar's role as warrior: "Since in early nomadic society the young women egged on the young warriors in battle with praise and taunts, she could also be seen as the personification of the rage of battle."78

The ad hoc nature of such hypotheses is readily apparent: Not only is the specific imagery surrounding the goddess' warring rampage ignored, so too is its cosmological setting.  The fact that Inanna is explicitly identified with the planet Venus but also as a warrior already at the dawn of history is likewise ignored.79  That scholars have been motivated to divorce the goddess' warrior-aspect from the planet Venus stands to reason, for what could such imagery have to do with the planet known to modern astronomers, which typically presents a beautiful, tranquil appearance and never ever rages, storms, laments, wars, or otherwise offers a threatening apparition?  Indeed, it is the incongruity between Inanna's dual appearance as Venus and as a warrior which, in part, has led scholars to speak of a "coalescence" of originally disparate cults under the name of Inanna.80 

Incongruous or not, goddesses everywhere are represented as warriors.  In addition to Inanna and Aphrodite, Hathor, Anat, Astarte, and Freya81 are all represented as warriors.  The traditions surrounding Ishtar are exemplary here.  The destruction wrought by the raging lioness knew no bounds, extending to the sacred domain of the gods as well:

Other hymns confirm that it was the goddess' cries which shook the world:

Ancient India presents the scholar with several examples of the warrior-goddess, the most interesting of which is Durga-Kali, who shares numerous characteristics with Ishtar.  Witness the following hymn:

Although Kali is occasionally described as beautiful, it is more common to find her presented in repulsive terms:

As battle was described as the "dance" of Ishtar86, so too does Kali dance during battle:

Kali's dancing, moreover, like that of Ishtar, threatens the foundations of the world:

As this last passage indicates, Kali's disheveled hair was explicitly linked to a period of great catastrophe threatening the world.  According to Hiltebeitel, the goddess' "disheveled hair is thus itself an image of Kalaratri, the Night of Time, the night of the dissolution (pralaya) of the universe."89 

There is a recurring emphasis in the Hindu texts on the disheveled hair of the warring goddess.  Indeed, an epithet of the goddess--Muktakesi--commemorates her loosened and disheveled hair.90  When it is reported that Kali's "streaming tresses hang in vast disorder,"91 or that her disheveled hair blackens the skies, "sweeping away sun and stars," is it not apparent that the imagery of the comet is once more upon us? 

As repulsive as Kali appears to the Western reader, her cult continues to exert a strange fascination over the people of India.  Thus Zimmer describes her as "today the most cherished and widespread of the personalizations of Indian cult."92

Kali's monstrous form, bizarre as it is, can be shown to have striking parallels throughout the ancient world.  Consider the example provided by the Aztec mourning goddess Itzpapalotl, who was commonly represented as a warrior:

What, then, is a Tzitzimitl?  According to Brundage, the demonic creature in question "is an eerie goddess in the night sky…[whose] hair is madly disheveled."94  A picture of a Tzitzimitl is shown in figure two.  Notice the necklace of hearts and hands.  Notice the grotesquely protruding tongue.  The resemblance to Kali is apparent.

In Aztec myth, Itzpapalotl was said to have been thrown from heaven for sinning against the gods.  This tradition finds a close parallel in ancient Babylon, where Lamashtu--an avatar of Inanna/Ishtar95--was said to have been thrown from heaven, whereupon she displayed wildly disheveled hair.  An Assyrian incantation alludes to this theme:

The image of Ishtar-Lamashtu being hurled from heaven with disheveled hair once again recalls cometary imagery, comets having long been compared to women with streaming or disheveled hair.97  Lamashtu's disheveled hair and tattered clothes, likewise, recalls the appearance and attire traditionally accorded mourners.

A witch-like goddess renowned for her chimeric form and ogre-like appetites, Lamashtu was said to have the head of a lion: 

Significantly, one hymn compares the goddess to a lion with disheveled hair:

As Budge pointed out, Lamashtu eventually became demonized to the point at which her original identification with Inanna/Ishtar is difficult to recognize:

The fact that the image of the warrior-goddess with disheveled hair can be found in both the Old World and New strongly suggests that the imagery originated as a direct result of common experience, presumably being inspired by a particularly memorable comet-like apparition.  Yet as the example provided by Ishtar-Lamashtu attests, there is also an indissoluble connection with the planet Venus.   Here, too, New World traditions provide a remarkable correspondence.  Thus, an Inca name for Venus was chasca coyllur, signifying the "star (coyllur) with tangled or disheveled hair."101  The modern descendents of the Inca, moreover, continue to observe "the day of disheveled hair," presumably because of its cosmological import: "In the Andes, the modern lexicographer Lara has noted a Quechua neologism, ch'askachau--literally 'the day of disheveled hair'--meaning viernes, the Spanish word for Venus's day."102

The conclusion seems inescapable: It was the planet Venus itself, explicitly identified with the mother goddess, which once displayed disheveled hair while participating in a spectacular cataclysm shaking the very foundations of heaven and earth, recalled as Inanna's lamentations, Ishtar's battle dance, or Kali's terrible "night of the dissolution of the universe."103

Aphrodite Melaina   

Prominent in the accounts of Kali and Lamashtu is an emphasis upon the goddess' disheveled appearance and black color.  Kali's name, in fact, signifies the "black one."  Here, too, it can be shown that the goddess' dark form belongs to the most archaic stratum of myth.  In the New World, for example, the Aztecs celebrated a mother goddess known as Coatlicue, "Serpent Skirt," who was described as "black, dirty, disheveled, and of shocking ugliness."104  Figure three shows a statue of the goddess in the National Museum of Mexico.  Brundage offered the following commentary with regard to this monument:

Here, once again, it is impossible not to notice the striking parallels with the iconography and literature surrounding the Hindu Kali and Canaanite Anat.  More than likely, Coatlicue was the Aztec counterpart of the Chicamec Itzpapalotl.

Aphrodite's epithet Melaina is of interest here.106  Signifying "the black one," this name hardly seems appropriate for an Indo-European goddess of love and beauty.  The epithet Skotia, "dark one," is of similar import. 

No doubt it will be objected here that this is hardly a fitting epithet for the brilliant planet Venus.  And this is quite true, at least with respect to the present Venus.  Once again, however, there is compelling testimony that Venus once assumed a dark color.  Witness the following tradition of the Zinacantecans, heirs to the Maya, in which the planet Venus is compared to an ugly black form when sweeping a path for the sun:

Aphrodite's black form and warrior-aspect are best understood as vestiges of her one-time role as a terrrible goddess, long since suppressed in her popular cult.  Both features would appear to reflect the goddess' original identification with the planet Venus.

Aphrodite Comaetho

One of the most famous myths associated with Durga-Kali finds her slaying Mahisa, a would-be lover of bovine form.  There the goddess can be found threatening her victim as follows: "I will take away your life's breath."108 It is possible, perhaps, to recognize here a widespread theme whereby the mother goddess steals the life-breath, soul, or heart of a great king. 

The classic example of this mythological genre is that of Scylla, who secures the death of her father Nisus by stealing the purple lock of hair upon which his life and kingdom depended.109  As various scholars have recognized, the myth of Scylla represents a variation upon the widespread theme of the external soul.110

A similar deed is elsewhere attributed to one Camaetho, who is said to have brought about the demise of Pterelaus by stealing the golden lock of hair wherein resided his soul. 111  Yet the name Comaetho, signifying "fiery-haired,112 is otherwise attested as an epithet of Aphrodite.113

Here it is important to remember the widespread tradition which recognizes comets as the "souls" of great kings or heroes.114  Comets were also expressly compared to "locks" of hair and said to portend the fall of kingdoms.  The following report from an Italian writer of the first century reflects what appears to be a universal belief: "Many a comet with bright tresses, destroyer of kingdoms, gleamed red and deadly.115  Such traditions raise the possibility that behind the epithet Comaetho we should recognize Aphrodite as the planet Venus while displaying a comet-like phase.  

Ovid's account of Scylla, upon further scrutiny, seems to preserve more than a trace of that harpie's cometary nature.  Thus it is that, after stealing Nisus' lock, Scylla is said to have become "enraged," whereupon she appeared with "streaming hair.116  Scylla's end is worth quoting at length:

Ovid's comparison of Scylla to a "hated spirit," quite possibly, preserves archetypal elements of the goddess' cult.  In Greek tradition, the departing soul of a human being was compared to an angry Erinys.118  Yet the Erinys was elsewhere personified as a goddess of wrath and rage, having a black form and bloodthirsty appetite.  Indeed, the name itself is thought to commemorate the goddess' wrath.119  Aphrodite herself, moreover, was likened to an Erinys.  Thus, Farnell refers to a puzzling passage in Hesychius in which an Erinys "is explained as an infernal power or as an eidolon of Aphrodite; eidolon in this context must either mean 'phantom' or 'image'.120

Aphrodite's role as an Erinys, like her role as Comaetho, confirms her intimate relation to the soul, a role which is crucial to understanding the ultimate significance of the terrible goddess, for it is as a departing "soul" that the goddess assumes her terrible aspect while threatening the world with destruction.  Once again, one can point to a parallel in the cult of Ishtar, where the goddess' name came to signify the external soul (istaru).121  


In the compelling image of Comaetho escaping with the life-soul of Pterelaus it is possible to recognize the archetypal witch.  From time immemorial, in both the Old World and New, witches have been blamed for the theft of hearts or souls (in ancient symbology, hearts are typically synonymous with "souls").122  Hultkrantz offered the following summary of Pueblo conceptions of the heart-soul:

And, one might add, in peoples from distant areas of the globe.

A seldom noticed fact is how often the great mother goddesses are described in terms otherwise befitting a witch.  Ishtar-Lamashtu, as we have seen, was presented as a witch-like demon, swooping down from the sky and making off with children.  The Norse Freya, similarly, was described as a witch as well as a warrior and mourner.124 

While witch-like characteristics can be found within the cults of most great goddesses, they are particularly prominent in the cults of the Norse Holda and Greek Hecate.  Grimm described Holda's transformation into a witch as follows:

Holle-riding, "to ride with Holle," was equivalent to the nocturnal ride of witches, the latter being accompanied by departed souls.126 

The patron-goddess of witches and sorceresses, Hecate was described as having serpentine hair and brandishing torches whilst riding through the air on flying serpents.127    Like Holda, Hecate was intimately associated with a train of souls and ghost-like beings, the latter said to accompany the goddess on her nocturnal jaunts: "Queen of the spirits of the dead, she was active at night, accompanied by a retinue of dogs and ghosts of suicides or those who had died a violent death.128  This tradition recalls the Medieval belief that the souls of children and barking dogs accompanied the nocturnal haunts of witches.

That Rose, among other scholars, has called attention to the fundamental affinity of Hecate with Aphrodite is baffling at first sight, for what could the goddess of love have to do with a witch goddess?  Yet Aphrodite's affinity to Hecate makes perfect sense in light of her intimate relationship to Erinys and Comaetho, both of whom share witch-like attributes.129 

If indeed the witch-like characteristics associated with the cult of the mother goddesses reflect their identification with the planet Venus, one would expect to see an explicit connection between that planet and witchcraft.  Once again, the ancient sources will not disappoint--the planet Venus was equated with the "witch-star" (kakkab kassaptu) in ancient Babylonian astronomical texts.130  The same planet was compared to a witch in ancient Norse lore as well.131 

It is precisely these terrible or "negative" images of the goddess which have proven difficult to understand or discover in the natural world.132  Not surprisingly, investigators have had little recourse but to attempt an explanation in terms of subjective psychological factors.  Erich Neumann's analysis is typical in this regard:

Our hypothesis turns that of Neumann on its head: The archetypal images of the terrible goddess--Kali, Lamashtu, raging lioness, Scylla, the witch--have an objective basis in historical fact, being directly traceable to the ancient appearance of the planet Venus while displaying a comet-like phase.134  In order to understand the terrible aspect of the various Venus-goddesses, all that is required is to allow for the possibility that Venus hasn't always presented such a beautiful face.  To date, only Velikovsky dared to ask the question whether the cataclysmic imagery apparent in the cults of Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte and others had its original reference in atypical behavior associated with the planet Venus.  On this score, Velikovsky stands vindicated. 


As indicated by her title Urania, Aphrodite is to be identified with the planet Venus, known throughout the ancient Near East as the "Queen of Heaven."  In this celestial identification the Greek goddess conforms to what amounts to a universal rule.  Thus, a systematic analysis of the various mother goddesses will reveal an indissoluble connection with the planet Venus.  Virtually every aspect of the mother goddess' cult, rightly understood, will trace to the Cytherean planet.  As the mourning goddess is described as wandering the world with disheveled hair, so too is Venus described in no uncertain terms as the "star of lamentation" and as "the star with disheveled hair."  As the mother goddess is commonly regarded as a great warrior, whose dance threatened the very foundations of the world, so too have various cultures around the world described Venus as an agent of war especially linked to apocalyptic disaster.  As the warrior goddess is compared to a raging lioness, so too is the planet Venus described as the "lion of heaven."  As the raging goddess is described as having assumed a black form, so too is the planet Venus.  As mother goddesses everywhere are described with witch-like attributes, so too is Venus likened to a "witch-star."  And so it is with countless other mythical motifs surrounding the mother goddess. 

Considered in isolation and with reference to the current skies, there is no conceivable reason to link the planet Venus to rites of lamentation, disheveled "comet-like" hair, leonine imagery, war, the color black, or witches.  Such associations would be puzzling enough were they confined to one region of the world alone, yet they are to be found in the New World as well as the Old.  Only the Saturn thesis, and the Saturn thesis alone, I dare say, can explain these peculiar traditions surrounding Venus.  As Talbott and I have documented, a key to understanding these traditions is that Venus formed the celestial prototype for the heart-soul of the ancient sun-god (Saturn), the escape or theft of which constituted a great cataclysm associated with the kingdom of that planet-god.   During a spectacular series of events, Venus took on the appearance of a comet-like apparition, its long disheveled "hair" spanning the heavens and obscuring the sun while throwing the cosmos into darkness and chaos.  During this disturbance of the polar configuration, Venus circled about the polar axis for an indeterminant period of time, ostensibly looking for her lost consort and lamenting his loss.  Only with the realignment of the polar configuration was the terrible goddess pacified and order restored.

If true, our thesis allows for the ready understanding of the various universal traditions surrounding comets, none of which makes any sense otherwise: (1) the comparison of comets to the souls of great kings; (2) the association of the appearance of comets with the death of kings and the fall of great kingdoms; (3) the association of comets with great eclipses or with the end of an age.  It is because of Venus' specific role within the evolving polar configuration that that planet and comets came to share numerous attributes and terminology in common.


1. See here R. Briffault, The Mothers (New York, 1963), pp. 378, 429; R. Graves, The White Goddess (New York, 1948), pp. 393-397; and H. Hislop, The Two Babylons (Neptune, N.J., 1959).

2. R. Graves, The White Goddess (New York, 1948), p. 482.

3. Ibid.

4. R. Briffault, The Mothers (New York, 1963).

5. W. Helck, Betrachtungen zur Grossen Göttin (Munich, 1971) 

6. E. Neumann, The Great Mother (Princeton, 1974), p. 6.

7. Iliad 14:216.

8. W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge, 1985), p. 152.  Odyssey 22:444.

9. Odyssey 8:266-364.

10. See the discussion in L. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States, Vol. II (New Rochelle, 1977), p. 650.

11. Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, 53ff.

12. T. Gantz, Early Greek Myth (Baltimore, 1993), p. 104.

13. J. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (New York, 1975), p. 308.

14. C. Penglase, Greek Myths and Mesopotamia (London, 1994), pp. 176ff.

15. W. Burkert, op. cit., p. 153.

16. Ibid., p. 153.  According to C. Penglase, op. cit., p. 176, "The earliest evidence for Aphrodite in the Greek and Mycenaean area is the temple in Paphos."

17. W. Burkert, op. cit., p. 152.  Burkert goes so far as to suggest that the goddesses' name derives from that of Ashtoreth: "It is possible that the name Aphrodite itself is a Greek form of western Semitic Ashtorith, who in turn is identical with Ishtar."  See W. Burkert, The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in Early Archaic Age (Cambridge, 1992), p. 98.  Carl Kerenyi, F. Hommel, and others anticipated this derivation many years previously.  See The Gods of the Greeks (London, 1981), p. 67.

18. Book I:14:7. 

19. C. Penglase, op. cit., p. 163, citing Strabo 378 for Corinthian cults of prostitution associated with Aphrodite.  Notice also the epithet Porne.

20. W. Heimpel, "A Catalog of Near Eastern Venus Deities," Syro-Mesopotamian Studies 4:3 (1982), p. 22, writes that "Originally, Aphrodite was not connected with Venus."

21. G. Nagy, "The White Rock of Leukas," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973), p. 174.

22. Epinomis 986e-987a.

23. L. Farnell, op. cit., p. 629.

24. See L. Bobrova & A. Militarev, "From Mesopotamia to Greece: to the Origin of Semitic and Greek Star Names," ed. by H. Galter, Die Rolle der Astronomie in den Kulturen Mesopotamiens (Graz, 1993), p. 315.

25. F. Bruschweiler, Innana.  La déesse triomphante et vaincue dans la cosmologie sumérienne (Leuwen, 1988), p. 105.  Translation of the French text by Birgit Liesching.

26. W. Heimpel, op. cit., pp. 9-13.

27. S. Langdon, "Semitic Mythology," in The Mythology of All Races, ed. L. Gray (New York, 1964), p. 25.

28. P. Gössman, Planetarium Babylonicum (Rome, 1950), p. 35.  See also L. Bobrova & A. Militarev, "From Mesopotamia to Greece: to the Origin of Semitic and Greek Star Names," ed. by H. Galter, Die Rolle der Astronomie in den Kulturen Mesopotamiens (Graz, 1993), p. 315.

29. On Anat's identification with the Queen of Heaven, see L. Handy, Among the Host of Heaven (Winona Lake, 1997), p. 103.  A. Eaton, The Goddess Anat: The History of Her Cult, Her Mythology and Her Iconography (New Haven, 1964), dissertation, pp. 99 and 125, notes that the same epithet was possibly associated with the goddess in Ugarit, where she was also called "Lady of the High Heavens." 

30. On Anat's identification with Venus, see M. Astour, Hellenosemitica (Leiden, 1967), p. 261. 

31. Jeremiah 44:17-25. 

32. W. Heimpel, op. cit., p. 21.

33. J. Henninger, "Zum Problem der Venussterngottheit bei den Semiten," Anthropos 71 (1976), pp. 153ff.  See also M. Astour, op. cit., p. 116.

34. W. Heimpel, op. cit., p. 21. 

35. L. Farnell, op. cit., p. 637, adds: "We meet also with ceremonies of mourning and sadness in the worship of Leucothea at Thebes, and perhaps in Crete, as we find them elsewhere in the worship of Aphrodite."

36. G. Nagy, "The White Rock of Leukas," Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973), p. 175.

37. F. Stephens, "Prayer of Lamentation to Ishtar," in J. Pritchard ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, 1969), p. 384.

38. N. Walls, The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Cult (Atlanta, 1992), p. 67.

39. Ibid., pp. 68-69.

40. A. Erman, A Handbook of Egyptian Religion (London, 1907), p. 33.

41. R. Briffault, The Mothers, Vol. 3 (New York, 1927), p. 66.

42. B. Brundage, The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World (Austin, 1983), p. 171.

43. Library 3:59:1-2.

44. L. Farnell, op. cit., pp. 633, 641.

45. De Astronomia, as translated by Milad Doueihi in C. Sagan & A. Druyan, Comet (New York, 1985), p. 18.

46. C. Sagan & A. Druyan, op. cit., p. 122.

47. T. Gaster, Thespis (New York, 1961), p. 214.

48. B. Alster, Dumuzi's Dream (Copenhagen, 1972), p. 61.

49. Ibid., p. 81.

50. M. Astour, Hellenosemitica (Leiden, 1967), pp. 115-116, citing Sozomenos, II:5; Zosimos, I:58. 

51. Fragment 2, D32.  See here H. Attridge & R. Oden, "Philo of Byblos: The Phoenician History," in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 9 (1981), p. 55.

52. R. Briffault, op. cit., p. 173.

53. A. Wensinck, Some Semitic Rites of Mourning and Religion: Studies on Their Origin and Mutual Relation (Amsterdam, 1917), p. 50.

54. 2.71.18-20

55. In a death scene from a tomb at Saqqara, for example.  See the discussion in A. Burton, Diodorus Siculus: Book One, A Commentary (Leiden, 1972), pp. 211, 261.

56. W. W. "Trauer," in Reallexikon der Ägyptologie, Vol. V (Berlin, 1977), p. 744.

57. A. Wensinck, op. cit., p. 51.

58. R. Willetts, Cretan Cults and Festivals (New York, 1962), p. 189.

59. B. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, Vol. 1 (Bethesda, 1993), p. 512.

60. F. Bruschweiler, op. cit., p. 150.

61. Quoted from N. Walls, op. cit., p. 43.

62. W. Hallo & J. van Dyk, Exaltation of Inanna (New Haven, 1968), pp. 17-19.

63. Translation in B. Alster, "The Mythology of Mourning," Acta Sumerologica 5 (1983), p. 6.

64. W. Lambert, "Labbatu" in E. Ebeling & B. Meissner, eds., Reallexikon der Assyriologie, Vol. 6 (Berlin, 1980-1983), p. 411.

65. I. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision (New York, 1950), pp. 174-176.  See the discussion in D. Talbott, "The Comet Venus," Aeon 3:5 (1994), pp. 18-21.

66. The Inca described Venus as follows: "The morning star, Chasca (The Disheveled One), dispensed stores of freshness and loveliness upon flowers, princesses, and virgins below.  She was the deity of the rosy cloud rack of morning, and when she shook out her long hair she scattered the dew upon the earth."  See B. C. Brundage, Empire of the Inca (Norman, Oklahoma, 1963), p. 50.

67. De lingua latina VI:6.  See here J. Sammer, "An Ancient Latin Name for Venus," Kronos 6:2 (Winter 1981), p. 61. 

68. Ibid., 7:76.

69. Pliny, Natural History 2:90 reads: "Up to now it has happened once that a comet in the form of a mane [iubae] has changed into one in the form of a spear."  See also R. Onians, The Origins of European Thought (Cambridge, 1954), pp. 164-166.

70. I. Cornelius, "The Lion in the Art of the Ancient Near East: A Study of Selected Motifs," Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages XV (1989), pp. 59-63.

71. E. van Buren, "An Additional Note on the Hair-Whirl," JNES IX (1950), p. 55.  That the symbol was indeed connected to Ishtar has been doubted, but the fact that rosettes and 8-pointed stars are also placed on lion's shoulders—both of which are sacred to Ishtar—would appear to dispel such doubts.  Rightly understood, the rosette, 8-pointed star, and "hair-star" each alike serve as sacred symbols of the planet associated with the great goddess.

72. F. Graz, "Women, War, and Warlike Divinities," in W. Eck et al eds. Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 55, 1984, p. 250.

73. L. Farnell, op. cit., p. 653.

74. M. Cohen, Sumerian Hymnology (Cincinnati, 1981), p. 148.

75. D. Wolkstein & S. Kramer, Inanna (New York, 1983), p. 95.

76. W. Hallo & J. van Dyk, Exaltation of Inanna (New Haven, 1968), pp. 17-19.

77. T. Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness (New Haven, 1976), p. 137.

78. J. Roberts, The Earliest Semitic Pantheon (Baltimore, 1972), p. 40.

79. Thus, Edzard notes that the astral aspect of Inanna/Ishtar is frequently expressed together with the warlike aspect of the goddess.  See D. O. Edzard, "Mesopotamien: Die Mythologie der Sumerer und Akkader," in Wörterbuch der Mythologie, ed. by H. Haussig (Stuttgart, 1962), p. 85.  See also the discussion in H. Balz-Cochois, Inanna (Gutersloh, 1992), p. 46.

80. T. Jacobsen, The Treasures of Darkness (New Haven, 1976), p. 135, writes as follows: "Actually Inanna has a good many more aspects than those which characterize her in her relations with Dumuzi, so many different ones in fact that one is inclined to wonder whether several, originally different deities have not here coalesced into one, the many-faceted goddess Inanna."

81. E.O. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North (New York, 1964), p. 177.

82. B. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature, Vol. 1 (Bethesda, 1993), p. 512.

83. Ibid., p. 74.

84. J. Kripal, "Kali's Tongue and Ramakrishna," History of Religions, p. 161.

85. D. Kinsley, "Blood and Death Out of Place: Reflections on the Goddess Kali," in J. Hawley and D. Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort (Berkeley, 1982), pp. 144-145. 

86. T. Jacobsen, op. cit., p. 137.

87. D. Kinsley, op. cit., p. 144.

88. R. Tagore, Sacrifice and Other Plays (Bombay, 1917), p. 109.

89. A. Hiltebeitel, "Draupadi's Hair," in M. Biardeau ed., Autour de la déesse Hindoue (Paris, 1981), p. 207.

90. See J. Dowson, A Classical Dictionary of Hindu Mythology and Religion (London, 1961), p. 87.

91. D. Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute (Berkeley, 1975), p. 120.

92. H. Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (Princeton, 1972), p. 215.

93. B. Brundage, The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World (Austin, 1983), p. 173.

94. Ibid., p. 62.

95. W. Fauth, "Istar als Löwingottin und die löwenköpfige Lamastu," Die Welt des Orients 12 (1981), pp. 33-34. 

96. B. Foster, Before the Muses: An Anthology of Akkadian Literature (Bethesda, 1993), p. 59.

97. As Carl Sagan remarked in Comet (New York, 1985), p. 14, "A comet suggests flowing tresses."  See also the discussion in W. Gundel, "Kometen," RE, col. 1175-1176.

98. B. Foster, op. cit., p. 865.

99. Ibid., p. 864.

100. E. Budge, Amulets and Talismans (New York, 1968), pp. 104-109.

101. W. Sullivan, The Secret of the Incas (New York, 1996), p. 87, citing Diego Holguin's Vocabulario de la lengua general de todo el Peru llamada lengua Quichua o del Inca.

102. Ibid., p. 88.

103. D. Kinsley, The Sword and the Flute (Berkeley, 1975), p. 87.

104. B. Brundage, The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World (Austin, 1983), p. 166.

105. Ibid., p. 167.

106. Pausanias 2.2.4, 8.6.5, 9.27.5.

107. E. Vogt, Zinacantan (Cambridge, 1969), p. 317.

108. N. Walls, The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Cult (Atlanta, 1992), p. 35.

109. Ovid, Metamorphoses 8:1-100.  The story is first related in Aeschylus, Choephoroi, 613-622. 

110. J. Frazer, Folklore in the Old Testament (New York, 1988), p. 274.

111. Apollodorus, Library 2.4.5-8. 

112. H. Liddell & R. Scott, Greek-English Lexicon (New York, 1897), p. 827.

113. A. Room, Room's Classical Dictionary (London, ), p. 320.

114. See the discussion in E. Cochrane, "On Comets and Kings," Aeon 2:2 (1989), pp. 56-58.

115. Silius Italicus 8.636-7.

116. Ovid, Metamorphoses 8:105ff.

117. Ovid, The Metamorphoses (New York, 1958), p. 218. 

118. J. Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (New York, 1975), pp. 214-215.

119. Ibid., p. 214.

120. L. Farnell, op. cit., p. 651.

121. A. Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia (Chicago, 1964), pp. 205-206.

122. For such traditions in Europe, see J. Grimm, op. cit., Vol. 3, pp. 1077-1081.  Thus, T. Gaster, Thespis (New York, 1977), p. 264, reports: "In many cultures, the heart is believed to be the seat of the 'soul' or vital essence."  For analogous traditions in the New World, see A. Hultkrantz, Conceptions of the Soul Among North American Indians (Stockholm, 1953), pp. 168-172.

123. A. Hultkrantz, op. cit., p. 172.  As Hultkrantz notes, pp. 168-172, various American Indian tribes identified the heart with the soul. 

124. E. Turville, op. cit., pp. 158-159. 

125. J. Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. 1 (Gloucester, 1976), p. 269.

126. Ibid., p. 269.

127. L. Farnell, The Cults of the Greek States (New Rochele, 1977), Vol. 2, p. 505.

128. V. Newall, The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Magic (New York, 1974), p. 94.

129. H. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (New York, 1959), p. 122.

130. P. Gössmann, Planetarium Babylonicum (Rome, 1950), p. 62.

131. See J. Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vol. II (Gloucester, 1976), p. 723. 

132. In a discussion of Anat's furor, A. Eaton, The Goddess Anat: The History of Her Cult, Her Mythology and Her Iconography (New Haven, 1964), dissertation, p. 88 remarks: "How the same goddess came to have not only associations with the idea of maternal care and protectiveness, but with the idea of force and violence as well, is difficult to understand.  These aspects of the divine personality seem so completely contradictory."

133. E. Neumann, op. cit., pp. 148-149.

134. This said, there is no denying the truth of Neumann's observation—arrived at upon the basis of clinical findings—that many of the terrifying images of the mother goddess became imprinted upon the psyche of mankind, where they linger and continue to haunt.