Readers, please enjoy this guest blog post by Liz Williams, author of the new Modern Handfasting.
Many of the couples whom we handfast ask us to acknowledge Venus in the ceremony. It’s a logical choice, since she’s one of the great Classical love goddesses. But lovely though the image is, there’s a lot more to Venus than a smiling naked woman on the half shell: her worship was found in many different forms across the Roman world, and in the Greek pantheon in her earlier form of Aphrodite. Paphos in Cyprus and Cythera in Crete were the centres of the worship of Aphrodite. Her statues were often modelled on courtesans, and were thus a little bit scandalous.
One of the oldest rituals still practiced among European Pagans is Roman in origin: we have a record of it in Latin. It is called the Night Watch of Venus, a ritual for the 1st of May that culminates in a gift of roses. But the Night Watch is not the only festivals of Venus held in the spring.
On the 1st April the Romans celebrated the Veneralia in honor of Venus Verticordia and Fortuna Virilis (a goddess of fortune). This festival was focused on the purity of love and the need to keep to sexual proprieties.
On the 23rd April, the Vinalia Urbana was held. This was a wine festival in honor of both Venus (goddess of profane wine) and Jupiter. Upper class women would make an offering of wine; lower class girls and prostitutes would gather at a different temple and offer mint, myrtle, and bunches of rushes and roses to the goddess in an effort to gain her favour and protection.
The Vinalia Rusticia was held on 10th August. This is the oldest festival dedicated to Venus in her form as Venus Obsequens; here, Venus is a garden goddess, and kitchen and market gardens are dedicated to her. A lamb was sacrificed in her honor in the old days but you might like simply to make an offering of a skein of wool.
Later in the year is the festival of Venus Genetrix, the mother and protector of Rome on the 26th September. Roman brides-to-be offered Venus a gift as an offering before the wedding.
You may also want to celebrate some aspects of the Afrodisia (Αφροδίσια) festival, dedicated to the goddess, in the year of your handfasting. In the ancient world, this took place during the month of Hekatombaion: the third week in July to the third week of August.
In late antiquity, Venus was sometimes seen as a mixture of male and female, and she was sometimes depicted as being bald (like the priests of Isis in nearby Egypt). The name “Venus” is masculine in origin and there was also a cult involving a Bearded Aphrodite, known as Venus Barbata. The writer Macrobius tells us that there was a statue to Venus in this form in Cyprus: bearded, wearing women’s attire but with a man’s body. This may refer to a claim that Ishtar is also sometimes bearded, and it could, also, be an astronomical allusion: sometimes the Morning or Evening Star seem blurred in the sky (the tail of a comet is also sometimes called a beard). There have been attempts to disprove this as a mistranslation, but what is definitely provable is that there is a male version of Aphrodite, named Aphroditus, who has a female form and is dressed like Aphrodite, but who also has a phallus. A statue of this deity in the museum at Stockholm depicts Aphroditus lifting their dress to display their genitalia, which rather than an obscene gesture, was carried out to avert evil influences and generate good luck. Philostratus tells us that this lunar, nonbinary figure was celebrated by women dressed in male attire and vice versa.
Our thanks to Liz for her guest post! For more from Liz Williams, read her article, “How to Use Correspondences to Plan a Handfasting.”