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Venus: A Biography by Andrew Dalby

Book Review by Ursus

Sex. Despite several potentially hazardous side effects, people still seem to practice it regularly, and pursue it with vigor when they are not receiving it. What drives men and women to such madness? Scientists serve us some tripe on hormones and biological impulses, but our ancestors knew the truth. Love and beauty, and the all consuming desire they produce, are the products of a sensual goddess and her boy archer. Really, who could believe otherwise? Andrew Dalby leaves all doubt behind as he serves us a highly readable biography of the goddess Venus.

Following up on his success with Bacchus, Andrew Dalby follows a similar format in this work. He compiles the various, and often contradictory, primary sources on the lives of the Olympian deities, those tales that fall under the heading of mythology. He pulls from both the Greek and the Roman literature, and when necessary also references the Near Eastern corpus of mythology. Then thoughtfully he details the life and times of Venus from birth in archaic Greece to her position as a celebrated motif of Renaissance art or Elizabethan poetry.

Chapter one examines the competing tales of the birth of Venus, a renowned subject of art. Nearly all agree she was born from the sea, emerging in her full grown glory from a blanket of foam. However, she is ascribed different parents depending on the poet, and the reader is left to judge for himself what to believe. Chapter two examines the newly arrived goddess' life in Olympus. Venus was married to the lame smith god Vulcan. But that did not stop her from having affairs with Ares. And Hermes. And Poseidon. And .. well, Venus seems to have bestowed her blessings on quite a few deserving male divinities. As you might expect, the end product of all these trysts was a diversified line of children, discussed in chapter three. The most famous of these offspring, and nearly equal in fame to his own mother, is Cupid. The mischievous boy with his quiver full of arrows is responsible for many an illogical and doomed attraction - both between mortals, and between mortals and gods. He also has his own celebrated affair with a mortal female named Psyche.

The story of Adonis is the subject of chapter four. The goddess who inspires passion is herself consumed with desire regarding a young male hunter who has little time for lascivious pleasures. The mythology of Adonis is complicated and rich, and Dalby walks us through its origins in Ancient Mesopotamia, tracing its eventual adoption by the Greeks and later Romans.

Chapters five and six become epic in scope as we see the Trojan War unfold from its distant origins through its cataclysmic conclusion. Venus sleeps with the immortal Anchises and begets Aeneas, destined to become the progenitor of the Roman race and the Julian clan. In the meantime, a beauty contest judged by another Trojan, Paris, yields some unintended consequences when the Spartan princess Helen is brought into the fold. Venus spends the Trojan War dutifully rescuing Aeneas and Paris from harm, but is wounded in the process from a mortal, much to the amusement of the other gods.

Chapter seven takes us beyond classical myth and views how Venus is honored in a variety of ways. The lascivious Roman poet Ovid joked that the ancestress of the Roman race still imparted her presence in the capitol, if all the whores and sexual trysts were any indication. In cult, Venus has various shrines throughout the Greco-Roman world, and she was identified with both Egyptian and Near Eastern deities. Finally, as any stargazer knows, the brightest star in the sky bears her name, an eternal sigil of her celestial grandeur.

Dalby gives notes on the sources used for this biography, as well a bibliography for further reading. However, aside from that there are no further resources. There are no photos or illustrations of sculptures, paintings and temples to the goddess, which might have offered a complimentary visual survey of this most beautiful subject.

That is a minor point, though. This emphasis of the work is on the actual writing. Dalby is a classically trained scholar and his written numerous books on the literature and culture of the ancient world. He knows his material. But more to the point, he can deliver it with wit and aplomb. As I mentioned in my review of Dalby's Bacchus, sometimes classical myth is treated with too much scholarly objectivity and whitewashing, which all too often wrings the colorful life from what had been a hell of a story. Dalby, by contrast, sees the humor, the verve, the sometimes sheer lewdness of classical myth, and manages to convey this to a modern audience without being over the top about it. He draws you into the magic and the mystery of it all.

Much like the goddess of love, Dalby is a wanton seducer. I spent an enjoyable evening with Venus. And I am sure, if given a chance, she can find ways to pleasure you as well.

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