Ancient Love Deities From Around The World

Societies across time and around the world have their own deities and figures that symbolize many aspects and interpretations of love. In this post, you will find the YouTube video exploring the ancient love deities from around the world and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

In the U.S., the designated day for love is Valentine’s Day, named for the Roman Catholic Saint Valentine. But intertwined with the holiday are depictions of Cupid, a Roman god associated with attraction and erotic love, and who shoots arrows with powers of desire.

But he’s not the only love deity out there. In fact, societies across time and around the world have their own deities and figures that symbolize many aspects and interpretations of love.

 I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist. In this video, we’re going to explore the archeology of a handful of love deities from around the world. So let’s get into it.

Aphrodite

In ancient Greece, Aphrodite was not born, but rose out of seafoam, at least according to one origin story. She was the goddess of many realms, including beauty, fertility, motherhood, marriage, sex, power, war, and of course, love. Archaeologists today have found traces of Aphrodite worship across the ancient world, including at the iconic Athenian Acropolis in Greece. Fragments of pottery show the goddess’s image in shrines dedicated to her.

 In Western Turkey, archeologists found a 2,500 year old temple dedicated to a goddess of love and beauty. They recovered a piece of a statue of a woman, a terracotta bust, and inscriptions that suggest a sacred area dedicated to Aphrodite.

Aphrodite was also the mother of Eros, another deity of love who made people fall in love by shooting them with an arrow. And if that sounds familiar, it might be because the Roman counterpart of Eros is Cupid.

Venus

Cupid’s mother is Venus, the Roman version of Aphrodite. Venus is the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, and she was one of the most important deities in the vast Roman pantheon.

And yes, the planet Venus is named after her.

There were shrines and temples dedicated to Venus across the Roman Empire, including in the city of Pompeii, which is famous for having been buried in Ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 CE. Archaeologists in Pompeii excavated a temple for Venus in one of the most sacred areas of the city Porta Marina. This sanctuary for Venus is set atop a terrace with spectacular views of the Gulf of Naples.

Inanna & Ishtar

But before there was Venus or even Aphrodite, there was Inana and Ishtar. Now Inanna was a Sumerian goddess often associated with love and war, while Ishtar was a Mesopotamian goddess with similar domains.

Their relationship with one another is a bit confusing, with some folks thinking they are essentially the same while others thinking they are distinct. Inanna and Ishtar might even be an example of an important concept when it comes to analyzing ancient deities, and that concept is syncretism. This is when different schools of thoughts, religions, and in this case, deities, merge together to form a hybrid of sorts.

This is the common theme, and you’ll see it again in other parts of this video.

So while Inanna and Ishtar’s history is both confusing and complex, we do see references to them in the archaeological record. Inana appears in poetry written over 4,000 years ago, including works attributed to an Akkadian priestess named Enheduanna, but more on her later. Various poems often depict Inana as a beautiful young woman, and we also learn about her lover, Dumuzi. The story of Inana and Dumuzi is considered one of the earliest written love stories, and like many great romances, theirs ends in tragedy.

We also learn a lot about Enheduanna through her poems to Inanna.

In the poem, Exaltation of Inanna, Enheduanna both praises the goddess and asks her for help in reclaiming her high priestess position after being exiled.

Enheduanna is sometimes considered the first known named author in literary history. We have archeological evidence showing the existence of Enheduanna in the form of an alabaster disk, a carving that shows the poet in a flowing garment and circlet around her head, pouring an offering over an altar.

Freya

Like Aphrodite, Venus, Inanna, and Ishtar, Freya, the Norse goddess, not only symbolized romantic love, but fertility and battle, and was known as a great warrior. She also rode a chariot pulled by two cats. Archaeologists recently identified a two-inch tall gilded silver figurine from a field in Denmark.

And based on some of the details, like pulled-back hair and embellished garments, they believe this figurine might represent Freya. However, there are some elements that might suggest a more masculine representation, like the placement of a brooch. It’s likely that we’ll never know who is represented by this figurine, but it does point to how many deities in the Norse pantheon embodied androgynous elements.

Neolithic Figurines

Speaking of not knowing what a figurine might represent, you might have seen figurines from archaeological sites that look like this.

These depictions of full-figured women have historically been thought to represent fertility or love goddesses of some kind. These kinds of figurines have been found at Neolithic sites from across the world, including the Middle East and Europe. However, when archaeologists in Turkey at the ancient city of Çatalhöyük found an 8 000-year-old limestone figurine depicting a voluptuous lady, they weren’t sure whether she actually represented a goddess.

Instead, the archaeologist suggests that this exceptionally well-crafted figurine actually represents an older woman in the community who achieved elite status.

Oshun

Now let’s go to West Africa.

In the outskirts of the city of Oshogbo in the thick forests of southern Nigeria, there are 40 shrines, sculptures, and other pieces of art dedicated to Oshun, the Yoruba goddess associated with femininity, fertility, love, and sensuality. The Osun-Oshogbo Sacred Grove has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.

It’s a religious site where people come to connect with the ancient deity Oshun.

The grove is thought to have been founded around 400 years ago. Archeological excavations have unearthed over 20,000 artifacts, including Bengals, lamps, knives, and more. People lived in this grove in the 17th century, and archaeological work has helped reveal a bit about their everyday lives.

This grove and worship of Oshun is still active today. In fact, much of the artwork at this site is recent and made in the 20th century. Oshun is also considered the river Orisha, and she’s not the only love deity with connections to water.

Benten

Benten, also known as Benzaiten, has strong associations with water and is one of the seven Japanese Buddhist deities of luck, as well as the only female deity in the bunch.

She also appears in Shinto shrines due to her syncretic nature.

Some of the oldest archaeological remnants we have of Benton worship are a temple dedicated to her appearing to date to the 7th century CE, as well as a statue dating to the 8th century CE. Her domains usually include music, wealth, literature, and art.

However, there are shrines where you can pray to the “Love Benten.”

In Kobe, Japan, at the Himuro Shrine, people can offer heart-shaped votive pictures and even send love mail to Benton in hopes that their love-related prayers will be answered.

 Worship of Benton at certain shrines seems to be a somewhat modern practice.

Benton is also thought to be a manifestation of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning and the arts.

Kamadeva

Now, the Hindu pantheon is extensive, and some of the deities have striking similarities to deities and other pantheons.

We mentioned Eros and Cupid a little while ago – classical deities who shoot people with arrows to get them to fall in love.

But did you know there’s a Hindu god that does just about the same thing but while riding a giant green parrot?

Kamadeva is the Hindu god of infatuation, desire, and love. While Eros and Cupid are often depicted as chubby little cherubic babies, Kamadeva is portrayed as a handsome young man. His female partner and consort, Rati, is the goddess of sensual love. According to 3,000 year old Hindu scriptures, Kamadeva makes his bows and arrows out of sugar cane, honeybees, and flowers.

Xochipilli

Speaking of flowers, in Mesoamerica, a prince of flowers presided over summer, pleasure, dancing, painting, feasting, creativity, and love.

His name comes from two Nahuatl words: Xochitl, which means flower, and Pili, which means prince. Xochipilli is also closely associated with maize and cacao, two really important indigenous American foods.

This lighthearted god of love and summer appeared in art like sculptures and murals across the Aztec world.

He also appears in multiple ancient Aztec written manuscripts known as codices alongside his twin sister Xochiquetzal, a goddess associated with fertility, beauty, and pregnancy. In western Mexico, there is an entire complex centered on the deity Xochipilli, and it was actually a major center of ancient cacao trade.

The archaeologists suggest that the majority of ceramic vessels found at sites that worshipped Xochipilli were used to prepare or consume cacao in observance of the deity, usually in the form of feasting.

In addition to being the protector of cacao, some scholars think that Xochipilli was also the god of homosexuality and male sex workers.

However, it’s important to bear in mind that conceptualizations of gender and sexuality varied across places and time.

So some of the frameworks that we use to describe and categorize gender, sexuality, and love might not capture the nuance, breadth, and ideas that people in the past envisioned.

Like many of the love deities we’ve mentioned, the worship of Xochipilli has transformed in the present day. For example, artists today have embraced Xochipilli and interpreted his story in the context of expressing individual gender identities.

Outro

When it comes to love deities, they are often complex and associated with all kinds of loves and things other than love.

 Often, there are different and conflicting versions and stories surrounding them, as well as an array of modern interpretations of their archeological record and worship practices.

Now if you’re interested in learning more about something with different versions, check out our video here on ancient calendars from around the world. That’s all for this video and we’ll catch you in the next one. Bye.

Credits

Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor

Thank you to all our fact-checkers and scholarly consultants for this video:


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

Add comment

Comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

Connect

Subscribe

Some links on this site are monetize through VigLink. For more information, please see this site’s Privacy Policy.

VigLink badge