One need only stroll through any major art museum to come to the conclusion that many great artists are inspired by mythology. At first blush, the fascination with mythology might seem as if the artists are hiding from reality and retreating into fantasy. However, one who believes that has only a limited understanding of the role of mythology in culture, because myths “are not childish stories or mere pre-scientific explanations of the world, but serious insights into reality.” This is because mythical themes help explain cultural norms, and how various cultural groups approach major issues like sex, death, marriage, childbirth, and war.
One of the more interesting characters in mythology is the Roman goddess Venus. Venus was the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, and the Roman version of the goddess was largely influenced by the earlier Greek myths about Aphrodite. Venus played a major role in Roman culture during the Roman Republic and empire, and was associated with love, beauty and fertility. She was also considered the literal ancestor of the Roman people. The Birth of Venus was painted by Italian artist Sandro Botticelli in 1484 or 1485, though its origin and patron are otherwise unknown.
The myth of the birth of Venus is incredibly symbolic. According to both Greek and Roman mythology, Uranus, the ruler of the universe, was killed by his son Saturn. Uranus had been intent upon hiding some of his children, which enraged Gaia, Saturn’s mother. Saturn used a giant sickle and ambushed Uranus, cutting off his genitals, castrating Uranus, and casting the severed member into the sea. Accounts vary, but either Uranus’ blood or semen created several different varieties of mythical demi-gods. In addition, either from the member or the testicles cast into the sea, Venus rose, fully formed, from the sea foam. She was transported by a shell to the shore, which is thought to symbolize the human vulva.
The most significant theme in the birth of Venus myth is the idea of patricide and infanticide, themes that dominated much of both Greek and Roman mythology. Although Saturn is originally praised for his actions against Uranus, he is eventually subjected to the same type of treatment from his children, when he seeks to dominate them as Uranus had done to his children. In this way, the myth issues a powerful warning against the accumulation of too much power, and justifies the use of force against those who would abuse their power. In addition, the myth features an immaculate conception, as Venus is born from the sea foam and is born fully-grown. She becomes one of the more significant goddesses in this manner, because she is the sibling of...