Steady Light, Many Names: Five Faces of Venus

After several months as the Morning Star, Venus has returned to the twilight side. It’s still low in the Northern Hemisphere sky, but you might be able to catch a glimpse near sunset. Back when I kept a star journal, this bright light was one of the first I learned to identify and track. It has received many faces and stories throughout the world, with sometimes quite different personalities. To celebrate the return of the Evening Star, I’d like to share a selection of these faces with you. Though I only have room to go into five in detail, I’ll include some of their close relatives or neighbors as well as a few media appearances.

The “Star” of the Show

Even without the myths connected to it, Venus stands out. Like all “wandering stars” or visible planets, the strength of its light varies throughout its orbit. At times, it is the brightest celestial object aside from the moon and sun.1 This is partly because of how close it orbits to Earth and partly because its thick cloud covering reflects the sun’s light in a steady glow. Like all planets, Venus sometimes disappears altogether as its orbit carries it around the sun. Its motion also creates the tendency to rise and set within either the morning or evening half of the night, which led to it being labeled the Morning and Evening Star. Technically, all planets can be morning and evening stars,2 but Venus is usually the one that rates a capitalized version of the title.

The true color of Venus. Required text: “Image processing by R. Nunes”, link to http://www.astrosurf.com/nunes, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Because there is a gap between its morning and evening appearances, Venus was not always seen as a single object. Many cultures gave different names to these two seemingly separate lights. Even those who later came to see it as singular may have a divided version in their past. Mayan lore, whose diverse people held several different interpretations of even common mythical figures, had a whole suite of “Venus gods.”3 I can’t possibly cover the full depth of all these complicated evolutions in the following cultures, but I’ll try to present the basics.

Let’s start with Venus herself, since that’s the sort of base name I’ll use for the planet beneath any mythical identity.

Roman: Venus

Venus is best known as the Roman goddess of love. In fact, her name may come directly from the Roman word for “sexual love or desire.”4 Or possibly it meant “poison” or “intoxicating potion.” Most of her traits and backstory are borrowed directly from the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Before this borrowing, Venus may have been an Italian goddess of “cultivated fields and gardens,” but she wasn’t really worshiped in Rome.5 Though most Roman deities were more than simple Greek imports, Venus seems to be one of the more strongly derived. Even using her name for the brightest planet in the sky was likely Greek influence.

After her Greek-ification, Venus developed a wide range of manifestations. The first known Venus temple was dedicated to Venus Obsequens/Indulgent Venus in 295 B.C.E.6 This Venus seems fairly similar to Aphrodite. Yet as Venus Cloacina/Venus the Purifier, she presided over the cleansing of a sewer. Venus Genetrix and Venus Physica were both motherly figures, the first ruling mothers and their household role while the second was creative on a cosmic scale. Her Genetrix version is seen as the mother of the Roman hero Aeneas and therefore an ancestor to emperors like Julius Caesar. All these different interpretations created a mixed sense of her character in legend. She’s a devoted mother to Aeneas, but a jealous monster-in-law in Apuleius’ “Cupid and Psyche” story. “Psyche” is a Greek name (the Roman version is “Anima”),7 so the tale probably has Greek roots. The Roman retelling was better recorded, however.

Statue of Venus Genetrix at the Hearst Castle, San Simeon, California, USA. Daderot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Relatives and Neighbors: Aphrodite herself may trace back to the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, also associated with the planet Venus as well as love and war.8 Before the 5th century, ancient Greeks identified the morning version as Phosphorus or Eosphorus and the evening one as Hesperus, half-brothers and sons of the dawn goddess Eos.9 Only after they were recognized as one object did the planet get a new, female identity.

Media Appearances: Venus as an ultra-feminine symbol appears throughout media, from the Dutch rock band Shocking Blue’s hit “I’m Your Venus” to the K-drama “Oh My Venus.” The planet Venus also appears in science fiction, such as the 1958 American film Queen of Outer Space. As an actual goddess character, however, she’s surprisingly rare. A couple Venuses appear in Marvel Comics, and she is also involved in the novels Goddess of Love by P.C. Cast and Cupid’s Match by Lauren Palphreyman.

Yucatán Mayan: Kukulkan

Though hardly the only Mayan deity or mythical figure associated with the planet Venus, Kukulkan is one of most iconic. Also spelled K’uk’ulkan, this mythic figure has been described variously as being a “half jaguar,”10 a man, and, as his name translates, a “feathered serpent.”11 His name was at times shared with the planet,12 though it has also been called “nohec” meaning “north” and “noh ek” meaning “great star.” There may have been a historical Kukulkan credited with founding the cities of Chich’en Itza and Mayapán. As a god, he was associated with fertility as well as war. During the disappearance between morning and evening roles, priests of Kukulkan could send specially chosen warriors into battle for religious causes.13 These disappearances may have been interpreted as Kukulkan descending into the underworld before being reborn.

Probably his most important association, though, was rain. The feathered serpent was frequently seen as a bringer of rain in Mesoamerica,14 which in turn brought crops. The eight-year cycle of Venus/Kukulkan was especially important in that regard. The planet traces a predictable pattern relative to Earth every eight years, described as “the pentagram of Venus” today.15 Mesoamerican rainy seasons do indeed correlate with the Venus cycle, often starting when the evening star reaches its northernmost point and ending at the southernmost.16 Little wonder, then, that the Temple of K’uk’ulkan  (modern El Castillo) appears to be built to frame the eight-year cycle,17 with the planet appearing to rise from an eastern cenote and set in a western one.

Feathered snake, ancient post-classic era, 900 – 1250 CE, limestone. From Chichén Itzá, Yucatán, Mexico. Musée du quai Branly, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Relatives and Neighbors: For a more complete discussion of Mayan Venus deities and rain observations, I suggest this article. Those closely connected to Kukulkan include Jun Ajaw, a maize deity believed to be “honoured as Venus” before Kukulkan,18 and K’ucumats, another feathered serpent from Quiché Mayan tradition.19 “Xulab” was another god whose name was used for Venus.20 He ruled several rain gods, including the Mam. Hunahpu, the deified version of Hero Twin Hun Hunahpu, is also seen as morning star Venus.21 Finally, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is viewed as nearly identical to Kukulkan.  

Media Appearances: Kukulkan may not show up in media as much as the more famous Quetzalcoatl, but he does have some interesting appearances. He’s a playable character in Smite, a video game where players battle each other as gods from around the world. Much of the lore discussed in this video has a stronger resemblance to Quetzalcoatl than Kukulkan, but he does look pretty awesome. He also puts the crew of the Enterprise on trial in Star Trek: the Animated Series.

Maasai: Kileken

The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania are among the cultures who traditionally give the planet Venus two faces, one for the morning star and one for the evening. The morning persona is Kileken or Kileghen and the evening is Leken/Leghen.22 Both are likely male. Kileken appears as a boy in the one full legend I’ve found, and I’ve seen Leken used as a male name. Leken seems to have been mainly a herald of the rising moon. Kileken had a more active role, such as being invoked by women praying for the safe return of warriors. There’s also a post-birth prayer to Kileken recorded.23 Both suggest he brought strength and fortune.

A similar theme appears in a Kileken tale retold by Tanzanian author Tololwa M. Mollel in the children’s book, The Orphan Boy. In the story, an old man who loves looking at the stars finds one missing the same night that a boy named Kileken appears. Saying he is an orphan, the boy asks if the man will adopt him. The man eagerly agrees and Kileken is tasked with caring for the cows. Every morning he rises early and every day he returns with well-fed cows despite a terrible drought. When asked how, he only answers, “It’s something I learned from my father.”24 At first the old man accepts the secrets, but curiosity eventually drives him to sneak after Kileken, where he witnesses the boy’s powers. Kileken promptly transforms back into a star and returns to the sky.

Watching over cattle was a common chore for Maasai boys. Low resolution screenshot from the American public domain film Africa Speaks! (1930). Walter Futter Productions, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Relatives and Neighbors: Of the Maasai’s cultural relatives, I could only find the Nuer names for morning and evening star Venus. The morning version—ciermokni—warns “buffaloes” to move away from humans because dawn is coming, while evening star lipghokpai watches over cattle when the moon is late to this duty.25

Media Appearances: Other than Mollel’s book, Kileken makes few media appearances. In her short story “Brothers are the Same,” English-born aviatrix and Kenyan adventurer Beryl Markham has a woman named Kileghen “after the star Venus.”26 Kileken is also the name of a character from the Iron Lyons graphic novels series by E. M. Kinsey, set in a world populated by anthropomorphic and sometimes magical lions.

Hindu: Shukra

Shukra has some interesting similarities to the Roman Venus. He is generally male, but at times he appears feminine or even fully female.27 Bearing the full title Shukracharya, his base name means “white,” “clear,”28 or “semen.”29 That last one probably has something to do with Shukra ruling sexuality as well as arts, luxury, nature mysticism, and lovers. The “mind-born son” of a sage in some stories, he is considered a sage himself as well as a Navagraha, one of “nine celestial bodies” who is both deity and planet.30 The Hindu calendar even uses his name for Shukravara, the same weekday as Friday, which happens to be associated with Venus in Western tradition too.

Though Shukra does play the lover in his stories, he also has a strong theme of rebirth. He was a spiritual instructor to both devas and asuras (roughly translated as gods and demons), but he clearly favored the asuras since he taught them sanjivani, a technique that resurrected the dead.31 His preference for the asuras comes in part from his rivalry with Brihaspati, who personifies the planet Jupiter. He learned this skill from the god Shiva. Well, in one version he gains it after being swallowed and then ejected by Shiva.32 In others, Shiva swallows him because he has used the secret to give the asuras an advantage in the war with devas. Another time, Shukra agrees to die so that Kacha, beloved by Shukra’s daughter Devayani, can be reborn from his stomach.33 This unfortunately makes Kacha and Devayani technically siblings, so they can’t actually be a couple, but they make the best of it after resurrecting Shukra.

Shukra and Rambha. Shukra doesn’t look very impressed by her attempt to seduce him. Chromolithograph by R. Varma, 1894. Wellcome Library, London. A.K. Joshi & Co.:Bombay/Raja Ravi Varma, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Relatives and Neighbors: Like Shukra, Suvidhinath or Pushpadanta in Jainism is associated with the planet Venus.34 Suvidhinath is a tirthankar, a human with high spiritual development, rather than a sage or deity.35 He is, however, associated with crocodiles, and Shukra sometimes rides a crocodile.

Media Appearances: Despite being part of the epic Mahabharata, Shukra is hard to find in media. The “guardian of the Bridge of Forgetting” is named Shukra in Roshani Chokshi’s middle-grade novel Aru Shah and the End of Time.36 He seems very different from the mythological Shukra, having started out as extremely ugly before gaining beauty through love only to kill his wife when his vanity came between them. Even his curse to Aru echoes Karna’s curse from Parshurama more than anything Shukra did in the Mahabharata.

Chinese: Taibai Jinxing

This final face is a bit changeable. Tàibái Jīnxīng (太白金星, literally “great white gold star”) is a Taoist deity originally described as female, dressed in yellow robes with a hat resembling a rooster’s comb and playing a musical instrument called the pipa.37 However, in the 16th century novel Journey to the West, Tàibái Jīnxīng became an old man in a white robe, and that image has stuck ever since. In charge of conveying the orders of the Jade Emperor,38 Tàibái wields a great deal of power. Thankfully, he is usually friendly and fair-minded. In Journey to the West, he is an important supporter of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. He was specifically associated with the Western sky,39 and since the 金 character can also mean “metal” in general, he likely rules that element to some extent.

Tàibái’s earlier versions were not always so kindly. The planet once had two names, Qĭmíng (启明) in the eastern or morning sky and Cháng Gēng (长庚) to the west.40 Their names were used as a metaphor for brothers who would never meet. If sighted during the day, either one was considered ominous. This may be because they were considered military deities.41 I can’t help wondering if the goddess version of Tàibái was also a warrior figure. She certainly doesn’t look very aggressive.

Tàibái Jīnxīng originally looked something like this. Female Figure as Venus, Tàibái JīnXīng , T’ang Dynasty Chang Huai-hsing (張淮興), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Relatives and Neighbors: Qĭmíng, Cháng Gēng, and possibly Tàibái migrated to Japan to become Taihakujin, Konjin, and Daishogun. In Onmyodo (Japanese Yin-Yang) tradition, they are “malignant” in that whatever direction they occupied was considered unlucky, especially for Daishogun. In Korea, the “gold” part of Tàibái Jīnxīng may have influenced the name Geumseong (금성) or “gold star.”42 As with Shukravara, the Korean weekday Geumyoil is equivalent to Friday and named for Geumseong.

Media Appearances: Tàibái Jīnxīng shows up in many modern retellings of Journey to the West, including the 1996 and 2010 TV series Journey to the West and the comedy show Sunny Piggy. One of my favorites, however, is in The Iron Will of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee, where he goes by “Great White Planet” instead of Tàibái Jīnxīng. He is tasked with holding all beings accountable, wielding a “big red pen” that has “caused the fall of empires” by writing heavenly judgement,43 yet he’s also a sweet old man who likes bubble tea.


Thank you for joining me on this short tour of Venus’ personas! It’s amazing seeing how different they can be. Which ones did you already know, and which were new to you? Do you have a favorite? Perhaps you know other faces, or have seen these faces in stories I didn’t cover. If so, please share! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sources
  1. EarthSky, “Why is Venus So Bright?,” EarthSky, posted Nov. 27, 2018, accessed Mar. 18, 2021, https://earthsky.org/space/brightest-planet-brightest-mirrors-venus.
  2. Rao, Joe, “What Is a ‘Morning Star,’ and What Is an ‘Evening Star’?,” Space.com, Feb. 6, 2016, accessed Mar. 18, 2021, https://www.space.com/31851-what-is-morning-star-evening-star.html.
  3. Šprajc, Ivan, “The Venus-Rain Maize Complex in the Mesoamerican World View: Part I,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 24, iss. 1-2 (May 1993): 17-66, http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/1993JHA….24…17S/0000017.000.html, 227.
  4. Apel, Thomas, “Venus,” Mythopedia, accessed Mar. 19, 2021, https://mythopedia.com/roman-mythology/gods/venus/.
  5. “Venus: Roman Goddess,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed May 1, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Venus-goddess.
  6. McIntosh, Matthew A., “I’m Your Venus: Examining the Ancient Roman Goddess of Love,” Brewminate, posted Feb. 14, 2021, accessed Apr. 30, 2021, https://brewminate.com/im-your-venus-examining-the-ancient-roman-goddess-of-love/.
  7. pyschedout, “Apuleius’ Psyche: An Ancient Fairytale Princess,” Women in Antiquity, posted Apr. 2, 2017, accessed May 4, 2021, https://womeninantiquity.wordpress.com/2017/04/02/psyched-out-apuleius-psyche/.
  8. Marcovich, Miroslav, “From Ishtar to Aphrodite,” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 30, no. 2, Distinguished Humanities Lectures II (Summer, 1996): 43-59. JSTOR (3333191). 45-46.
  9. “Hesperus,” Greek Mythology.com, accessed Mar. 19, 2021, https://www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/Minor_Gods/Hesperus/hesperus.html.
  10. Poot, José Antonio, “The Mayan and Venus,” Austin College, last modified May 2, 2002, accessed Mar 18, 2021, http://artemis.austincollege.edu/acad/physics/dsalis/NS/ns/poot/The_mayan_world_of_venus.1.html.
  11. Aldana, Gerardo, “K’uk’ulkan at Mayapán: Venus and Postclassic Maya Statecraft,” Journal for the History of Astronomy 34, part 1, no. 114 (2003): 33-51, http://articles.adsabs.harvard.edu//full/2003JHA….34…33A/0000033.000.html, 34.
  12. Aldana, 39.
  13. Poot.
  14. Šprajc, 22.
  15. Ottewell, Guy, “The 8-Year Cycle and 5 ‘Petals’ of Venus,” EarthSky, posted Aug. 6, 2020, accessed May. 1, 2021, https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/five-petals-of-venus.
  16. Šprajc, 21.
  17. Aldana, 42.
  18. Aldana, 39.
  19. Šprajc, 21.
  20. Šprajc, 27-28.
  21. Šprajc, 22.
  22. Hollis, A. C., The Masai: Their Language and Folklore (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1905), 276. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/dli.ministry.04199/mode/2up.
  23. Hollis, 345.
  24. Mollel, Tololwa M., The Orphan Boy (New York: Clarion Books, 1990), 16. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/orphanboy0000moll.
  25. Evans-Pritchard, E. E., “Nuer Time-Reckoning,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 12, no. 2 (Apr., 1939): 189-216. JSTOR (1155085). 194.
  26. Markham, Beryl, “Brothers are the Same,” in The Splendid Outcast: Beryl Markham’s African Stories (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 55. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/splendidoutcastb00mark.
  27. “Shukra,” Omkareshwara Temple, accessed Jan. 15, 2021, https://www.omkareshwara.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=13.
  28. Hoskeri, Arundhati, “Story of the Great Sage Shukracharya,” Ocean of Knowledge, posted May 12, 2017, accessed May 7, 2021, https://oceanofknowledgeweb.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/story-of-the-great-sage-shukracharya/.
  29. “Shukra.”
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  31. Agarwal, Abhinav, “Tales From The Mahabharata: A Profile Of Shukracharya,” #Swarajya, Feb. 28, 2015, https://swarajyamag.com/culture/tales-from-the-mahabharata-a-profile-of-shukracharya.
  32. Hoskeri.
  33. Agarwal.
  34. GaneshaSpeaks.com Team, “Know How Does Jain Astrology Match And Differ With Vedic Astrology,” GaneshaSpeaks.com, posted Mar. 29, 2018, accessed May 8, 2021, https://www.ganeshaspeaks.com/predictions/astrology/astrology-as-per-jainism/.
  35. “Pushpadanta Or Suvidhinath – The 9th Tirthankar,” Jain Kids, accessed May 8, 2021, https://kids.dfwjains.org/jain-tirthankars/pushpadanta-or-suvidhinath-the-9th-tirthankar.
  36. Chokshi, Roshani, Aru Shah and the End of Time (New York: Hyperion, 2018), 243.
  37. “太白金星是谁?,” Quilishi, Jul. 31, 2014, accessed May 8, 2021, http://www.qulishi.com/news/201407/16844.html.
  38. “Grand White — the Legate of the Jade Emperor,” ChinaCulture.org, accessed Mar. 18, 2021, http://en.chinaculture.org/library/2008-02/04/content_25169.htm.
  39. Mychistory, “太白金星是颗什么星?,” Sohu.com, June 16, 2017, accessed May 8, 2021, https://www.sohu.com/a/129586415_630067.
  40. Mychistory.
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  42. Harbinson, David, “Day 55: The Planets in Korean, Their Meanings in English & Korean,” A New Day, A New Thing, posted Feb. 24, 2014, accessed May 12, 2021, https://anewdayanewthing.wordpress.com/2015/02/24/day-55-the-planets-in-korean-their-meanings-in-english-korean/.
  43. Yee, F.C., The Iron Will of Genie Lo (New York: Amulet Books, 2020), 27.
  44. Yee, 23.

17 thoughts on “Steady Light, Many Names: Five Faces of Venus

  1. This was absolutely insightful. I really appreciate the wide range of symbolism associated with certain characters of mythology, and Venus being one of the best examples, is a wonderful choice to post.
    I suppose one of the most mesmerising appearances of Venus is in Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus.’
    “Venus was one of the twelve Olympian deities and presided over love and fertility. Depictions of her were especially popular in antiquity. The Venus seen in Botticelli’s painting derives from the “Venus Anadyomene” type — meaning “rising from the sea” — and shows her standing upright, wringing water from her hair. The form has its roots in classical sculpture and may derive from a lost work by Apelles, a renowned painter of ancient Greece.”

    Attaching an article about Botticelli’s ‘Birth of venus’ 👇
    View at Medium.com

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And thank you for sharing this article on Botticelli’s Venus. It really brings out the depths of the painting’s symbolism. It’s odd that while this painting is widely recognized, it often seems the watery nature of Venus is forgotten in modern symbolism. I once ran into a description of her as the beauty that arises after trauma and conflict, since the circumstances of her birth were far from harmonious. There’s certainly a potent metaphor in her rising above the agitated waters to float serenely to shore.

      Like

      1. My pleasure. It is actually one of the reasons why Botticelli’s masterpiece was applauded, like that in the article.
        I believe it is an excellent example of humanism, and love. After what happened to Uranus, I believe Botticelli, by using his bright shades and the Venus anadyomene, quite literally restored her virginity, while also making it a symbol of the reconnaissance. To add to your point, the fact that Venus rose from the sea and in Botticelli’s description, quite beautifully, just enhances the impact it has on the viewer. However, yes, currently Venus is limited to her traditional symbols of love and fertility.
        Thank you so much for the post. It was wonderful talking to you.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, it was fascinating seeing the differences (and sometimes surprising similarities) between various interpretations of Venus. I also stumbled on a few I couldn’t include, but maybe I can cover them in the future. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful post as usual! I really found the pre-Colombian feathered serpent deities and the Maasai tales fascinating. Also interesting that two Greek gods merged and incorporated into Venus’ identity.

    Aurvandill and his (arguable) links to Venus has been a point of interest for me for awhile. I wish I had a time machine so I could go back and see for sure. I swear I’d use it only for the most selfish purposes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I was quite surprised to find out about about Venus/Aphrodite being seen as two male figures before the 5th century. Pythagoras is credited with establishing the two stars as one.

      Ha, that honestly sounds like one of the best uses for a time machine! 😂 There are so many ideas I’d like to fact-check.

      Now that I look into it, resolving the Aurvandill question would be nice. Imagining Venus as somebody’ frostbitten sounds a little gross, but then again, myth is not for the squeamish. It does look like Tolkien went in for the Venus theory since he had half-Elf Eärendil strap a Silmaril to his head and sail around the sky as the Evening Star. 🤭

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess that’s just the transitory nature of deities… thanks again for the surprising information!

        Oh man, time machines are probably the perfect abuse of power! Lol.

        Yes, Tolkien used that name, though from what I recall the plot, minus the star-jewel, really did sound more like the Irish immrama of Bran or of Tadg mac Cian. More so than the Icelandic myth and a lot more so than the Middle German legend… Holy crap! I just looked now and Tolkien actually wrote a poem called Imram!!! These conversations turn up such great stuff, I always learn something!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Cool! I always learn new things too. I’d heard of King Brân in Welsh myth, but not of the Irish Immram of Bran. It does sound similar plot-wise, and also very interesting. I’ll have to see if I can find a full version. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Kukulkan appears in J.C. Cervantes’ Storm Runner series, from the Rick Riordan Presents label, along with pretty much all the other know Mayan gods. I’ve also heard that a Mesoamerican name for Venus was the Wasp Star, which is why the follow-up to XTC’s Apple Venus Volume 1 is called that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cool! That series sounds more and more awesome every time.

      Interesting connection with XTC. I noticed there was some variability between “Wasp Star” and “Ant Star” in the articles I read. I’ve gotta admit, Wasp Star sounds cooler, so that’s probably why they used that for their title. 😁

      Liked by 1 person

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