Venus was a Nun

Venus was a Nun: and Other Things Your Mother Never Told You

Though my post‘s title may sound like a Monty Python quip, it derives from a real phenomenon, that of syncretism. Syncretism is the reconciliation of disparate or contradictory beliefs, a term first coined by Plutarch (“Fraternal Love,” Moralia [2.490b], 1st c. AD).  It regularly occurs in visual, literary and philosophical arenas as a means to unite in difference; it is a means to forge powerful compromise in cosmopolitan cultures.

On this subject, back in 1953 W.S. Heckscher published “Aphrodite as a Nun,” an interesting article written in the heyday of the faddish pursuit of tracing the Afterlife of Antiquity down through the Ages.1  Heckscher’s project charts the direct lineage of Cesare Ripa’s emblem of PVDICITIA (Chastity) from its unlikely antique roots in Venus iconography; he begins with the ancient authors Pausanias and Plutarch, continues with the Italian humanist Alciati, et al, and ends with the fertile imagination of Ripa – “the encyclopaedist of emblem makers.” The resultant chaste goddess of love thus epitomizes the cleverly described “strange unity in disparity” that characterized much of the Baroque period in Europe.2

In the headlining example, we can see how two virtually opposing ideas can circuitously be combined into a hybrid symbol.  If Antique ideas could be morphed so completely by the time of their absorption during the Renaissance and Baroque, just imagine how changed some of our ideas of the past have become today, another five centuries later.

Take, for example, the mistaken idea that the three great Monotheistic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) have nothing in common, that they are singular and irreconcilable.  In fact, as Karen Armstrong demonstrates in A History of God: the 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (NY: A. A. Knopf, 1993), each of these religions share parts of their history, scripture, and modes of religious experience.  These Abrahamic religions, as revealed religions, have much to share with each other about how to find divinity within each individual and how to build a community of respect.  That is, if we would take the time to familiarize ourselves with our own storied, received traditions rather than simply reading contemporary, often fundamentalist gloss. In doing so, we might recognize their intersections rather than their divisions.

It will be interesting, following the Olympics and the national election this year, to see how the popular rapport between the Middle East, Far East and West will continue to stir our imagination and perhaps syncretize our cultures over the next few years.  I have great hope it will show us how similar we all are in our humanity, especially as natural and manmade tragedies loom large in the collective consciousness.

For, when faced with great tribulation—as Erasmus of Rotterdam put it—“Concord is a mighty rampart.”


1. W.S. Heckscher, “Aphrodite as a Nun,” Phoenix 7, no. 3 (Autumn 1953), 105-117.

2. Ibid., 105.

8 Responses to “Venus was a Nun”
  1. Kristine says:

    I really believe that by digging to the depths of one’s faith they can see the same in others. It’s so difficult though to decifer what is religion and what is a relationship with God. Because, as you said, over time humans have put themselves into the teachings of Jesus and swayed people away from what I feel was intended between believers and Christ…and into something stagnant. I’ve been at/ and have known people at points where we just went through the motions of being a Christian and feeling nothing, because initiative hadn’t been taken to figure things out for oneself. I’m sure that many believers go through similar situations, but I think in those circumstance people should be encouraged to think on their own. That’s how faith is ultimately strengthened. So many churches seem to warn against that maybe in fear of someone being pulled away, as if to encourage blindly following something. Probably a factor in a separation between religions, is that blind following that boxes people in without belief. There is definitely something beneath it all that calls people to just accept and celebrate each other. Maybe people of all backgrounds can have the same faith they put in their belief system, in each other and practice the same respect there.

    I really like that you mentioned what will come out of the Olympics…and what is shared in the collective. Doesn’t it seem like people are becoming more aware but things are also seeming more and more corrupted in the world? I’m sure it’s always felt like that though.

    Ha-everything’s SO epic…I think I’ve been reading too much about the Rainbow Warriors (North American Indian Hopi prophecy telling of “warriors” who will save the world when human greed leads to its end.)

    hahahaha…very far out there but it’s great. it definitely brings up an idea that most religions/ ways of thought collectively do.

  2. percyflage says:

    Dear Kristine,
    Thanks so much for your fabulous comment.
    There is a “collective consciousness” that seems to be flowing ever more swiftly, a trickle becoming a stream, then a river becoming a tide. If we add together the thinking of Karl Jaspers, Teilhard de Chardin and others, we seem to be in a second “Axial Age”—that of the Noosphere: a web of human consciousness that reflects upon itself, its future and its relationship to the rest of the cosmos. It is, as you say, “SO epic”! If the world’s teleology is a growing consciousness, as Teilhard argues, we might compare it to the East’s concept of progressive chakras, ever rising towards insight, harmony and peace.
    In the end, I don’t think we’ll have to resort to warriors…just abiding compassion.

  3. Kristine says:

    Progressive chakras? Does that mean enhancing the energy of the chakras…or just more of an awareness among people as to what their”chakras” are?

  4. percyflage says:

    Hi Kristine,
    What I was trying to convey was the upward progression of the “seven chakras” from the lowest “root chakra” (which relates to instinctual bodily survival), all the way up to the “crown chakra” (which relates to ultra-phenomenal spiritual knowledge). Thus, the chakras become a metaphor for moving through levels of consciousness—from the most basic and material to the most complex and spiritual.
    The Jesuit scholar Teilhard de Chardin describes a similar progressive process (in different terms) first manifested in natural evolution and now in human history (the “noosphere”).
    So, it follows from his assertions that we can progress both personally and collectively (as a species). Does that make sense?

  5. Kristine says:

    It makes sense…but are you saying that focusing all energy into the upper chakras is the highest level of consciousness? Because I feel that by doing that, one would become ungrounded. The idea of super-awareness is actually what I’ve been kind of terrifyed of lately. Maybe some people reach it but remain in a constant state of heightened awareness (I’ve met a few of these people lately). Language is incapable of explaining being in that state, so isolation is felt. Or maybe one should feel more connected actually, as they are tapping into a consciousness that everyone has at their core and which can be applied to everyday choices. It’s all subjective I guess.

    Is it generally thought that a person should balance out their chakras to reach their full potential?

  6. percyflage says:

    Dear Kristine,
    To my mind, chakras make a great *metaphor* of different elements in our human nature. They might be symbols to chart our growth as a species and our personal growth as well. Each of the facets they represent are always in us, as human beings we are all of them simultaneously.
    Even when you attempt to empty your ego and become more compassionate, you can never “lose” any part of your unique self, but only try to harmonize your instincts with overwhelming love and compassion in an echo of the divine.
    It is said that everyone is given different “gifts” of the Spirit; each has his or her own ways of serving and abilities to perform service. Some are given wisdom, others knowledge, faith, healing, preaching, discerning the true Spirit, etc. (I Corinthians 12: 1-11) Not everyone is a mystic. And, even though we are all individuals Christianity is a community, a family, and so isolation is not part of the bargain. We are all working together. Christ also spoke of God as our loving “Abba”, Daddy, and that is hardly something to feel terrified of.
    By opening up your mind and spirit—in the Christian tradition—you can only become more aware of your own self and more grounded in your relationships with divinity, our neighbors and the world. (Divinity considered immanent [present] in all times and places, of course.)
    Yes, there is the ineffable (indesribable) aspect to the superempirical—to divinity—and some Christian traditions have tried to alienate human passion, laughter, enjoyment and festivity. But, others have used song, dance and art to tap into that aspect. Many have, in fact, argued that we need to recognize both the “high” and the “low” to balance each other. You can have an ecstatic and enjoyable experience. Christ’s first miracle was to change water into wine for a wedding feast, after all. He “got it”.
    Seeking God is a homecoming to our roots, a happy return to our beginning. By challenging ourselves to be a greater echo of our divine roots, we are never given more than we can handle.

  7. Kristine says:

    Whoa. You just answered quite a bit of things for me. Thank you so much. I love that you said He “got it”…hahaha. I know what you mean. I am so grateful for your comment. I don’t even think I’ll be needing to ask people crazy questions for a while…maybe haha.


  8. percyflage says:

    You’re most welcome.
    And, please check-out the Salon articles I just listed in my latest post. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them, and then have plenty more questions…I sure did!!!!

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