In 1896, Thomas Love Peacock published Gryll Grange, the last of his novels. He had written seven in all. Peacock’s circle of friends included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron. Together, they constituted a major force behind English romanticism, and yet Peacock, at least to contemporary American audiences—and perhaps to those across the pond—has fallen into obscurity. His literary achievements receive scant interest—if any interest at all. Unlike Shelley or Byron, he was not famous for poetry but for writing satirical novels that send-up all that struck him as pretentious, pompous, and prattling in English society. No doubt, he considered himself an aesthete—and judging from the content of his writings, he was a man possessed of many intellectual gifts—as well as a solid foundation in the Greco-Roman classical tradition.
I would never have come into contact with Peacock’s writing or Gryll Grange had I not been on the hunt for material related to the Venus Calva, or the bald Venus of Roman antiquity. To this day, she remains a mysterious figure, and one has to be grateful to an author who thought fit to make reference to her, even if only to debunk the theory that such a goddess existed in the Roman pantheon. Most historians consider the cult of the Venus Calva apocryphal. Venus is, after all, the goddess of love and beauty. Certainly, she must possess the flaxen tresses of a modern-day Hollywood starlet: long, flowing and, without question, luminous. In the chapter titled “The Forest. A Soliloquy on Hair,” in Gryll Grange, the reader is treated to a series of references meant to remind us of the absurdity of the very idea of a bald Venus.
A head without hair, says Ovid, is as a field without grass, and a shrub without leaves. Venus herself, if she had appeared with a bald head, would not have tempted Apuleius: and I am of his mind. A husband, in Menander, in a fit of jealous madness, shaves his wife's head; and when he sees what he has made of her, rolls at her feet in an agony of remorse. He was at any rate safe from jealousy till it grew again.
As if to drive home the point—a bald Venus would be as attractive as a grubby shrub—the subject is re-visited by Mr. Gryll, who asks one of the characters, a certain Reverend Doctor Opimian, the following:
‘I have heard you, doctor, more than once, very eulogistic of hair as indispensable to beauty. What say you to the bald Venus of the Romans—Venus Calva?'
Mr. Gryll. ‘In the first place, I find her in several dictionaries.’
The Rev. Dr. Opimian. ‘A dictionary is nothing without an authority. You have no authority but that of one or two very late writers, and two or three old grammarians, who had found the word and guessed at its meaning. You do not find her in any genuine classic. A bald Venus! It is as manifest a contradiction in terms as hot ice, or black snow.’
In no short order, the Venus Calva is dispatched by Rev. Dr. Opimian—or is she? Another character steps forward, Lord Curryfin, to defend her.
Yet I have certainly read, though I cannot at this moment where, that there was in Rome a temple to Venus Calva, and that it was so dedicated in consequence of one of two circumstances: the first being that through some divine anger the hair of the Roman women fell off, and that Ancus Martius set up a bald statue of his wife, which served as an expiation, for all the women recovered their hair, and the worship of the Bald Venus was instituted; the other being, that when Rome was taken by the Gauls, and when they had occupied the city, and were besieging the Capitol, the besieged having no materials to make bowstrings, the women cut off their hair for the purpose, and after the war a statue of the Bald Venus was raised in honour of the women.
In response, Rev. Dr. Opimian rattles off a number of reasons why Lord Curryfin knows nothing of Latin; if he did he would know that the word “calva” has numerous translations, one of them “alluring.” Venus Calva would then translate: Venus, the temptress.
Nonetheless, despite the Rev. Dr. Opimian’s best efforts, the myth of the Venus Calva, a goddess idolized not merely as a figure of love and beauty, but of war, still lingers—even if only by luck of the slightest of references by historians. S. Eitrem states that her cult did exist. Whether the Venus Calva was worshipped as a war goddess is another matter. Eitrem theorizes that a bald Venus, with all of its gender-bending implications, may have been significant as regards nuptial rituals. The symbolism of hair—or lack thereof—need not undergo much explanation in this case, as tresses (in the case of both men and women) have always been intertwined with sexual potency. To hold to this theory is to take a conservative view of the Venus Calva. I would go even further out on a limb: if the goddess of love’s hair is essential to her mystique—it also stands that a bald Venus would symbolize not only love and beauty—but the opposite as well: power and war. She would be loved and feared, and not revered exclusively as a sex-symbol.
Women’s participation in war during ancient Rome is a murky topic—one that intrigues historians but hard facts are difficult to come by. I would like to believe that the cult of the Venus Calva did exist. She may have pre-dated the Romans, who famously assimilated much of Greek culture. In which case, we would be dealing a cult that was more than just a flash in time—one in which women were valued not only as mothers, help-mates, or kept as slaves—but were, during exceptional times, associated with all the Greeks and Romans exalted in war: the classical virtues of sacrifice, honor, and heroism.
Kathryn A.Kopple is the author of Little Velásquez, a novel set in 15th century Spain.