Curious readers gathered to hear historian and author Professor Bettany Hughes discuss her latest literary undertaking, Venus and Aphrodite, History of a Goddess. The event took place in the fitting setting of The Beaumont’s Lotos Room, named after the American literary club that counts Mark Twain as an early member. Hughes’s critically acclaimed book is a biographical account of the Roman goddess Venus and her relationship to the Greek goddess Aphrodite – uncovering their ancient origins, decoding the myths surrounding them and exploring their relevance in modern culture.
The inspiration behind the project can be traced back to Sparta, 26 years ago, when Hughes was researching a book on Helen of Troy and the goddess Aphrodite kept cropping up in her findings. ‘What an extraordinary character,’ she said. ‘She is a beautiful idea given a name and a face by the Ancient World. And that idea is how we manage to live together as a species, through the good and the bad.’
The book, which all guests received on the night, charts the journey of Venus from the Early Bronze Age to today by drawing on several sources, including an abundant archaeological trail. During her talk, Hughes entertained readers with funny and fascinating anecdotes of her time in Greece, including a tea-time encounter with a nun and the somewhat surprising effects of inhaling the scent of the blue lotus flower. Travelling to the location of the source is crucial to unlocking the historical narrative, according to Hughes: ‘I find, as a historian, I can’t write history unless I go to the place where it happened. You need to go there and feel the warmth of the wind, the chill of the mountains above Sparta. If something is mentioned in a source, I have to go there.’
For Hughes, it is unsurprising that Aphrodite, the patron of beauty, nurturing and community, originated in Mycenaean Greece and has a strong presence in Athens. ‘This notion of “everything we need is love” is something that the Greeks are very clear on,’ she explained. However, her book also reveals a darker side to the goddess, concluding that there is more to the sensuous and luminous Aphrodite that we are so familiar with: ‘She is the ultimate sponsor of compassion and cohesion in society, but if we abuse that, we end up in a dark place.’
Venus and Aphrodite, History of a Goddess is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99. To find out more about Greece, visit visitgreece.gr
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