Given the power of romantic love to disrupt our worlds and drive us into intimate relationships, sex and procreation it is not surprising that the gods of love exist, the surprising thing is that they are not more prominent. It seems that romantic love often fell under the auspices of the early goddesses of fertility. This is true of the Egyptian goddess, Hathor, who was depicted with the horns of a cow speaking to her roots in fertility and the mother archetype. Yet Hathor also becomes the one called upon by Egyptian lovers as evidenced in this ancient prayer found on a middle Kingdom Papyrus:
I praise the Golden, I worship Her Majesty,
I extol the Lady of Heaven; I give adoration to Hathor,
Laudations to my Mistress!
I called to Her, She heard my plea,
She sent my Mistress to me;
She came by Herself to see me,
O great wonder that happened to me!
I was joyful, exulting, elated,
When they said: “See, She is here!”
As She came, the young men bowed,
Out of great love for Her.
I make devotions to My Goddess,
That She grant me my sister as gift.
There is a process of differentiation going on here. The sphere of mating and marrying, of romance and child-bearing is sometimes focused on one archetype and in other places differentiated covered by two or more. So Hathor stood alongside Basset who as a feline goddess (represented first by the lion and later by the domestic cat) took on the attribute of fierce motherly protection as well as fertility and interestingly the goddess of dancing and singing.
But it appears that it was not just out of the fertility that the goddess of love come. Mythology tells how goddesses of love spring from the dawn, as personified in the Roman Venus, identified with the morning star and dawn. Here perhaps are allusions to the dual sides of romantic love, rooted in our fertility and sexuality yet intertwined with our heavenly aspirations. For love often comes to us like the dawn, gentle at first until it reaches its peak, gradually blazing in our lives until it softens in the evening. The Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, owes her name to its roots in the Greek words for “foam” (aphrós) and “shines” (déatai) meaning “she who shines from the foam of the ocean”. I find this a beautiful image that alludes to the most famous version of Aphrodite’s birth myth: Cronus severed Uranus’ genitals and threw them behind him into the sea, the foam from his genitals giving rise to Aphrodite. We have here a wonderful combination of an elemental image and a biological image coming together to shape and color an archetype, much as we might have with the gods such as Thor who combine father and thunder.
This tension between love’s earthly bodied nature and its more mental and spiritual forms seems to be continually at play. The Hindu gods and goddesses of love include Kamadeva, the god (deva) of love (kama, meaning longing or desire, especially in the sensual or sexual form). Like the Latin God of love Cupid, Kama carries a bow which he shoots at the unknowing to infect them with the passions of love. The arrows of love, like many archetypal symbols bridge the gap between the archetype and human experience, as many a lover can testify to the seemingly random nature of falling in love with someone and the feeling that it comes from outside our control. Rati is Kama’s chief consort and is associated with the arousal and the enjoyment of sexual pleasure; many sex techniques derive their name in Indian languages from variations of “Rati”. Her name probably came from the Sanskrit root “ram”, meaning “enjoy”. If Rati became associated with the physical and sexual side of romantic love Kama takes on its more mental dimension. Kama’s sphere of influence becomes widened to include any sort of desire especially intellectual desire for knowledge and spiritual desire. This tension is alluded to mythically when Kamadeva inspired Shiva with amorous thoughts of Parvati while he was engaged in penitential devotion, and for this offense the angry god reduced him to ashes by fire from his central eye. Siva afterwards relents and allowed Kama to be born again as Pradyumna, son of Krishna.
Interestingly both Jesus and Buddha become associated with love and compassion and Christianity and Buddhism seem to develop a more ambiguous attitude to the archetype of romantic love, at times repressing it in favour of monastic celibacy. Jesus and Buddha seemed to be betrayed with a more other worldly sexless love. Christianity has a tradition of speaking about “agapeic” love – a more disinterested love born not of desire but of wanting moral good for the other. But the tension is not just religious, it is also exhibited in the medieval cult of romantic love, where knights were encouraged to direct their romantic ardour to women with whom they had no chance of having a consummated relationship.
The gods of love have always had an uneasy relationship with the archetypes of war as testified to by the turbulent love affair between Ares and Aphrodite. Military culture, that was necessary for the survival of many tribes for millennia, is careful of too much devotion to the archetype of love. But the archetypes have their roots in being and will come in another form. Even where a god might be suppressed the archetype will find its expression in more minor figures such as St. Valentine in the West.
Love as a kind of worship as acknowledged in the Anglican marriage vows, “with my body I thee worship”. Love songs remain our most popular hymns, in this case sung to the goddesses and gods of love and religious language creeps back into the realm of romance with talk of “the one” my “soul mate” and destiny despite sciences attempts to turn it into a bio-chemical response at the mercy of evolution’s choices.