Joachim Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, 1601. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Sex Scenes: Capitalism Ruined Cuckoldry

The myth of Aphrodite caught cheating by her husband Hephaestus with Ares offers a distinction between cuckoldry play and the nationalist, right-wing paranoia of emasculation.

by Rachel Rabbit White
Jul 11 2018, 6:26pm

Joachim Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, 1601. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan (1601, by Dutch painter Joachim Wtewael) we are called to witness an act of cuckoldry. The goddess Aphrodite (whose Roman name is Venus) is in the arms of her lover Ares (Mars). A green curtain is pulled back to reveal the lovers’ nude and twisted bodies; Hephaestus, Aphrodite’s husband, catches her in the act, while other gods look on and laugh. This famous sex scene is depicted in many classical artworks each version giving the story lasting power, creating a multi-voiced ode to Aphrodite as the original “hot wife.”

Aphrodite is the goddess of mixis, the many “minglings” of bodies in sexual fusion, who incited passion in both gods and men. According to what is known as the Near East hypothesis, she was adopted into the Greek pantheon around 8th or 7th century BCE, migrating from either Persia or Phoenicia. According to some historians, even the name Aphrodite was a mispronunciation of the Babylonian warrior goddess Astarte.

At the demand of her father Zeus, Aphrodite was married off to the only god who was physically ugly, Hephaestus, who had won her hand with the promise of offering his skill as a master blacksmith to create weapons for the gods. Hephaestus was also the only god to be described as disabled; as a child, he was thrown off Mt. Olympus by his mother Hera, upset that she’d birthed an ugly son. Incapable of proving his valor in battle, Hephaestus became the symbol of a rising Greek middle class of skilled workers taking their place among the ruling class of aristocratic warriors. In fact, Hephaestus was the only god who had a commute between his forge in Mount Etna and Olympus, leaving his (hot) wife Aphrodite—who was adored for her persuasive abilities, who loved to laugh and socialize—alone at home with plenty of occasions to take up the invitation of any suitor that piqued her fantasies.

The cuckolding of Hephaestus is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: Aphrodite invites her favorite lover, the beautiful Ares, God of War, into her gold and silk bedroom chambers. Hephaestus is tipped off to his wife’s infidelity by the Sun, who sees everything and apparently is a cop, and he crafts an invisible bronze net to catch his wife and her lover in the act; once captured, he calls the other gods to come and witness the scene and shame the cheating couple. But when the gods arrived, their reaction wasn’t scandalized disapproval, but laughter—Ovid writes that one of the gods even remarked that he too wished to be shamed this way!

Joachim Wtewael, Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, 1601. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Aphrodite is the patron of all “hot wives,” of anyone who finds pleasure in the fantasy of cuckolding, in that reminder of a partner’s desirability mixed with a sense of competitiveness, or humiliation, even a shared happiness in a partner’s pleasure and pride in their sexual prowess. Humiliation play in BDSM gets its power from transgressing societal identities: It works best not by attacking a core aspect of a partner’s self-image, but by making fun of an imposed societal identity, one that is prescribed and might be a burden. In the cuckolding fantasy, it’s the dissolution of the toxic masculine notion of “owning” a partner that gives the kink its power and playfulness.

Distinct both in origin and substance is the fear of being cuckolded, only superficially related to the sexual fetish. This paranoia is not a libidinal fantasy, but an economic fixation, a response to the risk of investing resources into a project whose fruits will be enjoyed by someone else. Hephaestus works hard, and while he’s away, Ares enjoys his wife. Virgil tells us that Eros, the cherubic god of desire, was the child of Hephaestus and Aphrodite but subsequent commentators were quick to correct that the god’s paternity belongs to Ares; Hephaestus had only adopted him.

The term “cuck” has resurfaced in recent years as an insult in right-wing political discourse, first used against politicians who weren’t “conservative enough” and later, against any defender of “multiculturalism,” a term that terrifies the far right for its implication that it’s neither acceptable nor possible to maintain a society of white privilege. The fear is still about being “taken advantage of,” but the conservative lens distorts it to view the foreigners, migrants, and “moochers”—in short, the outsiders—as those who supposedly benefit, all with the help of “unfaithful” women. In their view, the only way to regain control over the imaginary borders of the nation and the real bodies of women is to put faith in an authoritarian leader.

Jacopo Tintoretto, Venus, Vulcan and Cupid. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

But the myth of Aphrodite and Ares was also an expression of the real anxieties of an ancient Greek working class whose profits were siphoned by a privileged elite: In times of peace, the powerful classes, valued for their skill as warriors, began to live lavishly off the labor of everyone else in society. Today’s economic landscape is similar: Eight people own half of the world’s wealth and the U.S. economic recovery has largely benefited the 1%. Fears of being taken advantage are rampant—and, to some extent, well founded.

With social rifts between rich and poor widening, these problems feel vast and intangible. When it can be hard, by design, to identify who is to blame, those who feel they have been cheated by society may find it easy to gravitate toward the right-wing narrative of the nation as a cheating wife. (Easy because it is a familiar, cowardly narrative that won't put them in conflict with power.)

But Aphrodite, a migrant herself, suggests another narrative, one where those who shaped society through power and money are held accountable, one where we find solidarity in mixing and mingling, one that does away with borders and property.

Aphrodite, in her various forms, was worshipped in all port towns and in all ancient cosmopolitan centers; in Ancient Greece, she was revered as “pandemos,” “she who belongs to all the people,” or “she who belongs to every body”—a sort of double entendre. Especially revered by sex workers and sailors, Aphrodite is the protector of those who are displaced and find themselves far away from home.

She is the goddess of mingling and mixing, of the flow of desire that unites new bodies and experiences, of nature intertwining to create unique forms. It is because of these flows that we meet strangers or begin journeys. Her vision stands at odds with the right-wing fantasy of bordering desire and controlling who enjoys what; it’s a vision perfectly expressed by that unidentified god who said, “I wish I were to be shamed like that!” He didn’t specify how he would like to be shamed—being caught with Aphrodite or “cucked” like Hephaestus. It leaves the narrative open for a more inclusive sexuality, where everyone is welcome to enjoy the many mingling ecstasies of many bodies.