This particular connection is a multivalent one, that extends not only to Hadrian in a cultic sense on several occasions, but to Antinous in a mythic sense on at least one further occasion.
Very few people who speak English or any Romance Language today (and many besides) are ignorant of who Venus or Aphrodite happen to be–if someone knows nothing about Greek and Roman religion, they tend to know that these two goddess names are inextricably connected to love. Unfortunately, etymologies connect them to things that aren’t always looked on in the most favorable light these days: aphrodisiacs can be fun and flirty, but can also lead to coercive situations (what are “date-rape drugs” but the idea of aphrodisiacs taken to a horrific extreme?); and while sexually-transmitted diseases/infections tend to go by that name now, venereal disease was the term not too long ago. While love may be the ideal, lust and sex is often what is really meant when Venus and Aphrodite are concerned, at least in some people’s minds.
Hadrian had a connection to Venus very definitely in the fact that he founded the Temple of Venus and Roma in Rome, which was the largest temple in the city until it was destroyed (though a part of it still survives). I mentioned this temple in relation to the occasion of the bear hunt previously, and there are further connections to that date of April 21 to be detailed below. Hadrian re-founded the city of Rome on that date, which was the traditional date for celebrating its foundation in the festival of the Parilia, a herdsman’s festival which featured driving the flocks between two fires for purification and protection (sounds a bit like Beltaine, perhaps, which occurs ten days later?). The fact that the temple was to the city-goddess itself, Roma, but also to Venus, the goddess of amor, most certainly wasn’t something that Hadrian would have been ignorant of, and in fact in his particular form of cleverness, he was probably giggling at the prospect as he laid out the plans for the temple. To re-found one’s city on love is a bold statement, indeed.
But, Hadrian’s connection to Aphrodite was not merely through the interpretatio Romana syncretism/equation between Venus and Aphrodite. At Thespiae, Hadrian’s spoils from his earlier bear-hunt were dedicated at a temple with a prayer/poem to Aphrodite Ourania, the patroness of male homoerotic love, for the favor (kharis) of a youthful male lover, probably right about the time that Antinous came into the picture. (Eros and Narcissus are also mentioned on that occasion.) Antinous was an answer to Hadrian’s prayers, provided by Aphrodite herself. Interestingly, the date for the Temple of Venus and Roma by its brick-stamps, and the date of this dedication in Thespiae, are about the same: c. 123-124 CE. Could it be that one inspired the other, or more specifically, that Antinous’ reciprocated love and kharis for Hadrian prompted the Emperor to found the temple? An intriguing suggestion, but pure speculation and conjecture in any case.
Antinous himself is connected to Aphrodite through the inscription from Curium on Cyprus, which not only names him as Adonis and connects him further to Eros, but suggests that since he is “offspring of the gold-winged mother” (i.e. Aphrodite), that he is more Eros than Adonis.
Antinous is also connected to other deities with whom Aphrodite was said to have had relationships, particularly Hermes and Dionysos. The offspring of these various relationships were said to have been Hermaphroditos and Priapus, respectively. And yet, there is very little resemblance between these figures and Antinous, and only the most tenuous connections at best.
Priapus, of course, is known primarily for his excessive phallic endowment, but he is otherwise regarded as ugly and even deformed, which Antinous certainly never was. Antinous is never shown ithyphallic, or even significantly phallic (!?!), in any of his extant statuary (though, since some of them have been specifically damaged in that regard, it’s impossible to say if this has always been the case), as this would be in keeping with ideas of Greek beauty, and restraint and curbing of passions physically as being reflected in modest penis size. Perhaps a metaphor that can be understood there is that drunken excess and unbridled lust do not yield beautiful children…or perhaps not. There is said to be one coin issue with a reverse showing an ithyphallic Antinous, but I have yet to see it.
Hermaphroditos was said to have been a beautiful male child of Hermes and Aphrodite, combining their names together. He eventually became fused with the Narcissus-like nymph Salmakis, and thus the combined male/female figures of art and in biology, who in humanoid form are often presented as an androgynous figure with breasts and a penis, came to be known through the name “hermaphrodite” after Hermaphroditos. Though Antinous might sometimes be portrayed as not conventionally masculine, it is only the Christian critics of his cultus that consider him to be “soft” and somehow less than “a man.” However, Caroline Vout has suggested that Antinous’ portrayal at Leptis Magna may show similarities to or suggest a possible connection with Hermaphroditos, which is intriguing to consider. While he doesn’t have to have an androgynous/hermaphroditic/bisexual form to sanction or acknowledge, either himself or within the views and theologies of the Ekklesía Antínoou, the inclusion of trans, genderqueer, and intersexed people, nonetheless the possibility might be appealing to consider for a wide variety of people as yet another option.
Sannion has written quite eloquently on his own connections to Aphrodite lately, and I highly suggest reading his reflections!
So, whether Antinous is Aphrodite’s lover Adonis or her son Eros, and whether Hadrian honors her as Venus or asks for her favor as Aphrodite Ourania, she is very much connected to the cultus of Antinous, and should thus be honored accordingly. On April 21, the Megala Antinoeia, we not only recognize Hadrian’s foundation of the Temple of Venus and Roma, and the re-foundation of the city, but also the Parilia, and the Venatio Ursae/bear hunt, thus further commemorating the occasion of Hadrian’s Thespiae inscription and the success of the prayer expressed in it. I’ve often characterized that date further as the Erotikon, and it is the date upon which we recognize the transition of Antinous into the persona of Antinous the Lover. In any case, that holiday, and Venus/Aphrodite’s connection to various parts of it, is a major one in modern Ekklesía Antínoou practice, and thus the goddess is extremely important in our considerations.
Ave Venus Genetrix! Khaire Aphrodite Ourania! Ave Ave Antinoe!