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Book + Seltzer Review: Venus and Aphrodite: A Biography of Desire by Bettany Hughes + TRULY Sparkling Pomegranate Hard Seltzer

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Thank you to Netgalley, the author, and the publisher for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

I’m excited to review my first book received from Netgalley, which is a site where book reviewers and other professional readers can read and review books before they are published. (Yes, I am now officially a “Professional Reader.” You can even check out my official badge on my About Me page). 

I set up a Netgalley account about a week ago and started looking for interesting books that were marked as “Read Now,” which means I wouldn’t have to request and be approved by publishers. With a bare bones blog, no prior Netgalley reviews, and no social media followers at the time, I thought it would be better to start with a “Read Now” book.

[I would like to take a moment to thank everyone who has followed me on social media and all of my new readers! Y’all are awesome!!]

One of the first books I saw was Venus and Aphrodite: A Biography of Desire by Bettany Hughes, published by Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a Hatchette Book Group company, which will be released on September 22, 2020. I’m a classicist by profession and a general fan of Aphrodite, so I was thrilled to get my hands on this book! After a few clicks, the e-book was delivered to my brand-new Kindle, and I was off to reading!

And what do I owe Netgalley and the publisher for sending me this book? Only an honest review.

With my review of Venus and Aphrodite: A Biography of Desire, I have paired TRULY Sparkling Pomegranate Hard Seltzer. As the myth goes, Aphrodite supposedly (though not likely) planted the first pomegranate tree on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, and forever after the fruit symbolized fertility, beauty, love, eternity, and prosperity. Could there be a perfect pairing? You can find my review below.

Venus and Aphrodite: A Biography of Desire

               

Title: Venus and Aphrodite: A Biography of Desire

Author: Bettany Hughes

Release Date: September 22, 2020

Publisher: Perseus Books, Basic Books

Length: 208 Pages

ISBN-13: 978-1541674233

I’ve had a special affinity for Aphrodite after spending a Fulbright year on Cyprus, the legendary birthplace of the goddess of love and beauty. It’s hard to overstate the cultural importance of Aphrodite on the island. The Cyprus Tourism Board even has an Aphrodite Cultural Route, and I’m happy to report I’ve been to every stop. I highly suggest it when planning your next trip to Cyprus! 

It’s clear that Hughes has also journeyed this route around the island of Cyprus and traveled  the wider Mediterranean in search of the cultural and material legacy of Aphrodite. A standout feature of Venus and Aphrodite is Hughes’s incorporation of her own travels and experiences of her research. Not only does this add narrative interest, but it also underscores one of the main arguments of the book, namely that the material record of Aphrodite can provide an “alternative to the myth” by complicating and challenging our assumptions about the goddess. Hughes extracts the goddess from the realm of the synchronic imaginary and portrays her in an array of spatial and temporal contexts.

By focusing on the materiality of Aphrodite’s legacy, Hughes is able to draw out the second of her major themes, namely that Aphrodite “acts as a barometer for the way the world has viewed desire and lust and the pleasures, purpose, and preoccupations of flesh-and-blood women and men–and indeed of those who inhabited diverse points across the spectrum of sex and sexuality.”

 

Hughes sketches this legacy in time and space through twelve short chapters starting with Aphrodite’s birth and ending with her place in contemporary society. The chapters are filled with brief anecdotes and bold, thought-provoking claims, though not all are, in my opinion, sufficiently argued. This is in part because the book is for a popular audience, not for professional classicists, and also because the book is, in my opinion, too short. Hughes is clearly thoughtful about the ancient world and has dedicated significant time, effort, and travel to pursuing Aphrodite’s legacy. I feel, however, that this book doesn’t always reflect her skills and effort, which is unexpected given the quality of the author’s previous books.

Bettany Hughes is an English historian, writer, and broadcaster with a specialty in classical history. Her previous books on classical topics, Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life, were well-received, with the latter, a New York Times’ bestseller, shortlisted for the Writer’s Guild Award. She has won numerous awards for her writing, broadcasting, and work as an historian, including an OBE for services to history. Hughes is currently a Professor of History at the New College of the Humanities and a research fellow at King’s College, London.

I found the book overly short. There could be some benefits to such a short book (e.g. great for an airplane, great weekend book, could assign in full to undergraduate students), but I think the costs are too great to outweigh the benefits. While her major themes are valuable contributions to the public conversation about Aphrodite and gender more widely, Hughes spends a significant portion of the book repeating her rather bold (and undoubtedly important) claims, while not actually providing sufficient discussion or evidence for these claims.

I thoroughly enjoyed Hughes’ style and approach and honestly would have been thrilled to read hundreds of more pages on this topic from her. Given the brevity of the book, I was flummoxed by the sparse citations and lack of further reading suggestions. Not all readers will know how to find additional sources to continue their engagement with Hughes’s fascinating material. Either the book should have been more thorough or should have helped readers connect to additional resources.

Before I conclude my review, I would like to discuss three specific criticisms I have with the book. I intended to be brief, but…here we go:

1. The epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter: I love how Hughes incorporates quotations from a broad range of ancient texts, especially because she focuses more on material culture in the chapters themselves. I, however, could not stand and was terribly annoyed by the fact that the identifying information about the texts (author, title, date, original language, etc.) were banished to the endnotes and not in the text itself (like pretty much every epigraph ever). Could you imagine quoting Benjamin Franklin in the epigraph of a text and then making your readers flip to the back of the book to find out lo-and-behold it’s a quote by Benjamin Franklin. No! Benjamin Franklin’s name would be right there below the quotation. So why not do this for ancient texts. It devalues the ancient texts, and it’s a disservice to the readers. Sure, put the translator and edition in the endnote but contextualize the quotes. Doing so would also further Hughes’s arguments. Just like Aphrodite, ancient texts themselves don’t live merely in the imaginary. They were written in a specific time (even if we don’t always know it), by a specific person (even if we don’t always know that person), and in a specific cultural context (even if we don’t always understand it). Divorcing the text from its identification divorces the texts from these contexts for the reader. 

2. The inclusion with no contextualization nor qualification of the provenance of Sappho’s “Kypris Song,” especially its acquisition by Dirk Obbink. (For all not in the know about this controversy surrounding Dirk Obbink, the articles by Charlotte Higgins and Ariel Sabar are good starting places; and trust me, the ride is worth it.). This text is controversial, and non-specialists NEED to know why.

As Charlotte Higgins says in her 2020 article in the Guardian,

“Now, in the light of the revelations of the alleged thefts of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, scholars are looking at the Sappho story with new eyes, and asking, with a fresh sense of urgency, whether the manuscript can have been legally obtained. There are even doubts as to its authenticity. The latest gossip in classical circles is that it might even be a fake. “Everything about it seems too good to be true,” one senior Cambridge classicist told me. Doubts about the Sappho papyrus have niggled away at scholars because Obbink’s account of how it was acquired – all the time reporting, he said, what he had been told by its nameless owner – has been at best sketchy, and at times contradictory.”

I believe it is unethical and misleading to mention this text without also mentioning the problems surrounding its provenance and acquisition. Hughes discusses political and controversial contexts around other materials and is remiss in not mentioning this one.

3. Not discussing Aphrodite-Isis in her Egyptian and Nubian contexts. Hughes briefly discusses the relationship between Aphrodite and the Egyptian goddess Isis in Chapter 8: Eastern Queens. She mentions that Ptolemaic queens were shown as Aphrodite-Isis, including Cleopatra VII, who Hughes states, “actively exploited the connection between herself and this deity who was sex and power incarnate.”

I think Hughes missed an important opportunity to discuss Isis-Aphrodite in her Egyptian context outside of the elite, Greco-Macedonian ruling class. Moreover, she neglects to discuss Isis-Aphrodite in her Nubian context. I know this is not a book about Isis, but Hughes herself includes Isis in her discussion as well as a vast array of other Mediterranean and Near Eastern goddesses. 

Temple of Isis at Philae, Egypt

A hieroglyphic inscription at the Temple of Isis at Philae (read more here) from the Ptolemaic period provides evidence for an important aspect of Isis’ mythological and political power. In the inscription, Isis says to Ptolemy II, a Greco-Macedonian pharaoh of Egypt,

“I have given you the kingship of Atum on earth; I have given you the land with what is in it; I have given you victory over the north”

(Žabkar (1988) 31). Isis is the arbiter of royal power. Furthermore, in a hymn inscribed on the same temple, Isis is shown to share the same bellicose and incandescent features Hughes attributes to Aphrodite: Isis is she,

“Who attacks the powerful ones,

Mightier than the mighty, stronger than the strong; 

Who smites millions (by) cutting off (their) heads, 

Great of massacre against her Enemy

Mistress of flame who assaults the rebels, 

Who slays Apopis in an instant” 

(Hymn V on the Temple of Isis at Philae, (Žabkar (1988) 58)

Such Egyptian sources, written in hieroglyphs, would have both complicated and enhanced Hughes’ argument. I was disappointed with the choice of Greek and Latin sources about Egyptian Isis over Egyptian-language sources.

I was similarly disappointed in Hughes’s lack of engagement with ancient Nubia. Isis-Aphrodite worship was an important feature of Nubian culture and religion. Just as in Ptolemaic Egypt, Isis was equated with the Nubian queens, called Kandake (the origin of the name Candace), and had a significant role in Nubian kingship. There are inscriptions to Isis in the Meroitic language, statues found of Aphrodite in the capital of Meroë, and evidence for Nubian presence at the Temple of Isis at Philae (you can read more about this in Dr. Solange Ashby’s forthcoming book Calling Out to Isis: The Enduring Nubian Presence at Philae, based on her excellent dissertation from the University of Chicago in 2016), just to name a few examples. 

Nubian Kandake Amanitore

In my opinion it’s a significant oversight not to mention the political, culture, and religious importance of Aphrodite-Isis in Nubia. Since the book is otherwise holistic in its approach, the exclusion of a black ancient society is very troubling. 

This omission seems to me especially stark because the only time Hughes mentions black interactions with Venus-Aphrodite is during her discussion of the colonial  “black Venuses” and Sarah Baartman, the so-called “Hottentot Venus” in Chapter 11.

Hughes rightly repudiates these colonialist sins: “Venus was a thinly veiled excuse for disturbing and degenerate sexism and racism.” However, if she had previously included a discussion of ancient Nubians, Hughes would have found a much stronger argument for her overarching theme of Aphrodite as a societal mirror and her specific claim in Chapter 11 that “the once-feisty goddess had become a functionary.” Aphrodite-Venus-Isis, who had once been a force of black political power, had, through millenia in the hands and minds of white, patriarchal, European societies, morphed into a weapon of orientalism, colonialism, and misogyny used to objectify and exploit black women and black cultures. I believe this could have been a valuable addition to her book.

Despite these (not-so-minor) gripes, I think Venus and Aphrodite: A Biography of Desire provides a valuable addition to the public discourse about Aphrodite and gender in the longe durée. As mentioned before, this topic would have been better served in a longer format with more room to flesh out the important claims made by the author. Nevertheless, I think many readers will enjoy this book and will be a valuable addition to many bookshelves. 

I would recommend this book to readers interested in the ancient world, mythology, and gender, especially those readers who might be new to the topic. This book is enjoyable to read and is short, so I would recommend this book to people who want to dip their toes into the topic but might not have the time to commit to more detail. Finally, I think this book should be required reading for people preparing to travel to Cyprus. It is chock full of details about ancient Cyprus, including interesting anecdotes from the author’s own travels to Aphrodite’s island.

And now...It's Seltzer Time!

As I mentioned, I’ve decided to pair this book with a TRULY Sparkling Pomegranate Hard Seltzer. When I lived on Cyprus and for years afterward, I wore a necklace with three charms on it: a silver figurine of the “Lady of Lemba,” the Cypriot phallic-headed predecessor to Aphrodite discussed in some detail in the book; a reproduction of a coin of Alexander the Great; and a silver pomegranate in traditional Cypriot filigree. Everytime I eat a pomegranate, I am reminded of Cyprus and, of course, Aphrodite. So, when I decided to review this book, I knew I had to pair it with a pomegranate seltzer. 

TRULY Sparkling Pomegranate Hard Seltzer is gluten free, 5% Alc./Vol., 100 calories with 2 g of carbs and 1 g of sugar. I like that it isn’t too sweet. It feels very nice and refreshing and wouldn’t make you feel too sticky (or icky) on a hot day. However, pomegranate is a hard flavor to capture. I find eating pomegranate seeds is often more about the experience than about the taste, because unless you get a perfectly ripe pomegranate, they can be a bit bitter or sour. Unfortunately, TRULY has hit those notes perfectly but with an additional fake, chemically finish. The good thing is that there’s only “a hint” of flavor. 

The TRULY ad copy suggests to make a cocktail, so maybe the seltzer could be redeemed with the addition of some pomegranate juice but alone, I recommend skipping this one. Instead, stick with a more tried-and-true pomegranate sparkling cocktail!

Let me know your favorite image of Aphrodite & pomegranate cocktails on social media or in the comments below!

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