"Priestess of the goddess Pitho in the rich Corinth, it is you who, in causing the incense to burn before the image of Venus and in inviting the mother of love, often merit for us her celestial aid and procure for us the sweet moments which we taste on the luxurious couches where is gathered the delicate fruit of beauty."
— B. F. Goldberg, "The Sacred Fire: The Story of Sex in Religion"
Throughout the human history, there have been notable, great women, who, among other things, became known for their beauty rituals. The most famous of those was probably the great Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. Her beauty rituals, just like her whole existence, have almost become a myth. Was she swimming in the pool of rosewater? Did she request for the donkey milk from a very specific farmer? How did she look walking in and out of her bath? Did the handmaidens massage her feet and palms with scented oils? All of these, and probably many more, appear in our imagination. Cleopatra, was not known for being a particularly beautiful woman; it was her wit, intellect, and her wide knowledge that made her the patron saint of seduction. But the historical facts do not matter as much as the collective memory and imagination in shaping the stories. And we all know, that stories are how we relate to reality, not the facts.
The beauty rituals have been subject of much interest to male painters and poets. Many have fantasised about the world of the boudoir, wondering, what kind of microcosm exists there. What ritual makes a Cleopatra come to her throne as the Cleopatra the world remembers? The same beauty rituals, were also, a target of criticism. Whatever the collective connects to the feminine, will find its criticism in both the religious and anti-religious. The religious puritan will see it as vanity, as crude obsession with one's carnal beauty, and therefore a sin. The others, may point towards the chemical toxicity of beauty products. The third group, usually the ones belonging to the second wave of radical feminism (by "radical" here, I mean radical in its theoretical formation, and as opposed to liberal or ecofeminist perspectives), will see beauty rituals and any beautification as a form of patriarchal oppression. They will claim that there is a social expectation from women to wear make up, and therefore that female natural face is considered socially offensive. For many women, accepting the fact that they are incarnated in a female body may be difficult. It comes from various sources. The fact that one is a woman, may often make the person feel as "The Other". The sense of "Otherness" may appear very early - a girl may play with her friends who are boys, and then one day, they may suddenly reject her for the fact that she is a girl. This definition of womanhood, is often nothing but a collective anima that is projected onto each and every individual woman. Associating womanhood with "Otherness" and the alienation from it has some of its roots there as well. Eventually, to bear the collective anima, becomes very difficult and exhausting, and there happens the rejection and desire to be liberated from her. This is not without a danger, especially if a woman has not developed a healthy relationship with her own anima - she may fall, without knowing into the hands of animus and continue to be a character, a projection, just this time of her inner man. She can become detached from her heart, intuition and authentic feeling as a result. From this, it can be understood why many women have body issues, or why they often reject anything that they or the collective associates with the feminine. They identify it as "othering" because it does not come from her inner being. But neither does rejection of it. In today's essay, I shall explore the metaphysical and esoteric meanings of beauty rituals, beautification, without any ideological lens, and how they can actually help a woman to connect with herself.
Shukra, Venus & Refinement
Many traditions and cultures are familiar with the Vensuian or Aphroditean archetype. In the Vedic tradition, Venus is known as Shukra, and while in that tradition, it is a male who embodies the archetype, it stands for similar things like the archetype does in the West. The Vedas also consider Venus to be the guru of asuras, who are something like demigods, who unlike devas, are involved in the worldly matters, and may also be evil or manipulative. Venus, therefore teaches or instructs in the philosophy and knowledge of the world - how to speak, how to dress, how to earn money, how to negotiate a good deal, how to be just in a worldly sense, not just a heavenly one. Jupiter, also known as Guru, is the guru or teacher of the devas or gods, his principles are heavenly, not worldly. He is the Divine, universal law and not the particular law of worldly concerns. In the Western thought, Venus or Aphrodite is also related to earthly matters. As an archetype, and not only as a deity, she is connected with beauty, fertility, harmony, and love. Similar ideas stand in the Vedic thought as well - Venus is of refinement. To honour the Venus, or to create a positive Venus Karma, is to engage with the Venusian in balance. It is to have the best, highest quality clothes one can have, to eat the most quality food, but not without restriction, because indulgence creates a negative Venus Karma. To deny Venus, if there is a desire, is also to create, the negative Karma with it. To be completely free from Venusian Karma would mean that one desires nothing and wants nothing other than God, and certainly it is only a very few people who are so.
From this, it is seen that Venus is not just beauty in a static sense, it is also the process of beautification. Connected with this archetype, we do not eat just to fill the belly - we eat food that is quality, we assemble and arrange it beautifully, we place it on a beautiful plate. There is harmony and beauty. This refined, sophisticated Venusian beauty is present in our religions as well - temples are usually beautifully designed, with art, colours, music, sound, incense and smell involved. These sensory elements of temples, serve in creating a certain atmosphere, which as a result, has an impact on our whole being.
The beauty rituals also embody this sentiment of refinement and beautification. Indeed, body, face or anything else may be naturally beautiful, and perfectly enough. Yet, the Venusian spirit desires to enhance it, to dramatise it, to direct a light to a specific part, area or act. Venus, unlike the other symbol of the feminine, the Moon, is warm and active. Unlike the Moon which is cold and seeks to receive warmth from some external source, Venus is libidinous, warm, and seeks to release the energy into something. Aphrodite/Venus as a deity, and also the nymphs or sirens who are the same archetype, were often assertive and pursuing. Sometimes, even forcing themselves on the male object of their affection. Shakespeare in his "Venus and Adonis" describes the advances of Venus even after Adonis tries to reject her or push her away: "Never did passenger in summer’s heat
More thirst for drink than she for this good turn.
Her help she sees, but help she cannot get;
She bathes in water, yet her fire must burn:
‘O! pity,’ ‘gan she cry, ‘flint-hearted boy:
‘Tis but a kiss I beg; why art thou coy?"
Similar imagery can be found in Ovid's "Metamorphoses", in which a nymph forces herself on a young man. The Venusian warmth, must find its outlet, and very often it finds it in art, but it can also be directed towards one's self. It is a common imagery that the goddess Aphrodite or Venus is beautifying herself, even if nobody will come around or even if she has no one to meet. In Ovid's poems, she is sometimes interrupted while she is bathing or brushing her hair.
Taking part in a beauty ritual, is the physical appearance of this mythological image, as a beauty ritual is not just about decorative cosmetics. Often, those rituals involve an array of sensory experiences - the scents of the oils, milks, lotions, or perfumes, the texture of the fabric, the texture of the skin and hair. It is to experience one's own bodily existence, to love it, to adorn it and to refine with the same love.
Illusion and Reality
According to the Vedic myth and in particular, the epic Mahabharata, the god Vishnu decided to take a female avatar Mohini, in order to take from asuras, the elixir of immortality called the Amrita. Mohini was to bring it back to devas. This female avatar is known as the goddess of Enchantment. Dancing and tricking the asuras into giving her the Amrita, she gives it back to devas. There are a few retellings of the story, and in some of them, Mohini is described as Maya, illusion of the Vishnu or even his false appearance. But in either case, the Maya or Illusion is used to serve the dharma, that is, the righteous action.
Whenever one faces an appearance, mystery or illusion, one is consumed with desire to search for what is behind it. The illusion invites him or her to penetrate into it and to explore it. It sparks a curiosity, a sense of longing and eventually imagination and fantasy. The world of imagination is not a mere subjective projection - it is a realm of the intuitive intellect. For the non-dual tradition, the Illusion and Reality are one and the same. Desiring to see beyond the illusion, and fantasising about what is beyond it, a person, without even knowing, actually desires to see the Truth or the Supreme Reality. Chasing the Illusion, the person involved actually comes at the gate of the Truth. It was the Truth, the Divine that was desired the whole time. It was the Divine that was chased by chasing the Illusion. Beautifying rituals, cosmetics in particular, have the Maya or illusionary characteristic. They conceal the purely natural. The response to this can be manifold - from wondering how the woman looks without it or what she does to achieve it, to accusing her of deception, vanity and lying. Whatever the reaction, the Maya in that situation serves its spiritual purpose - it shows to one reacting to it, his or her own assumptions and expectations. Assumptions come from past experience and future projections, and therefore, show to each of us our own conditioning or "programming". If one can stop before the Maya and contemplate it, while being aware of the Reality behind it, that means that one has learned to look with the eye of the heart. The same way, if one is completely entrapped by it, one can know that their own perception does not see beyond the immediate. The Maya serves the Truth. The dancing Mohini shows herself to be one and the same as Vishnu; she is no one else but he. The Maya, the Avatar, is no one else but the God.