The Chemical Marriage

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. That is is a myth that still has some power today. It links the Goddess of Love, Venus or Aphrodite, with Mars or Ares, the God of War.

Yet, of course, that is is not the original myth. The true consort of the Goddess of Love is not the God of War but the Smith God, Vulcan or Hephaestus. That is undoubtedly the older story. And if there is any myth that clearly references a technology, ‘a magic that works’ it is surely the marriage of Aphrodite and Hephaestus.

Vulcan surprises Venus and Mars by Alexandre Guillemot via Wikipedia Commons Vulcan catches Venus dallying with Mars and traps them in a cunningly wrought net of bronze

Vulcan surprises Venus and Mars by Alexandre Guillemot
via Wikipedia Commons
Vulcan catches Venus dallying with Mars and traps them in a cunningly wrought net of bronze

Aphrodite, as the Greeks understood her was the Goddess the island of Cyprus. Cyprus, specifically Paphos, was believed to be where she first came to land when she arose from the sea. While the original conception of Aphrodite may owe much to the Phoenician Ashtaroth or Astarte, on Cyprus she became indissolubly linked with the most important product of the island in ancient times – copper. The very names of the metal and the island are derived from the same root.

Copper is one of the earliest metals to have been worked, only gold may have been used earlier. Natural copper nuggets can be found, but it is also relatively easy to extract from its ores and cast.into objects. Copper tools were made on Cyprus from the fourth millennium B.C.E. Copper however is a relatively soft metal. Its hardness and ability to hold an edge is much improved when it is alloyed with tin to form bronze.

There is evidence that the first bronzes were made where tin and copper ores naturally occurred together and thus were both smelted and mixed accidentally. A similar result can be produced when arsenic ores occur alongside copper, to produce arsenical bronze – though that is more detrimental to the health of the smith. On Cyprus however such mixed ores do not occur. By the time the Cypriots were producing true bronzes, from around 2000 B.C.E, they had to have been importing tin and deliberately alloying it with copper.

Tin is a shining metal, even its ores are shiny. The name Hephaestus includes an element phaestos which relates to shining. It has been suggested that the name is a worn down version of hemeraphaestos meaning ‘he who shines by day’ and thus that it was originally the name of a sun god. Hephaestus, however, became indisputably the Smith God. Perhaps he gained this role through association with the shining metal, the tin, that had to be married with the copper of Aphrodite.

Cassiterite - the commonest ore of tin Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0

Cassiterite – the commonest ore of tin
Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com – CC-BY-SA-3.0

The idea of Alchemy is another myth that has long had a hold on the Western imagination. Some have seen it as pure allegory, the attempt to change base metal into gold standing for the attempt to purify the human soul, through a spiritual quest. Yet their is little doubt that would be alchemists carried out real chemical processes and sometimes even learned about the materials were using. Another recurring theme in alchemical texts is the Chemical Wedding. This is supposed to be the mystical union of male and female principles, the moon and the sun, the red and the white to produce a miraculous result. Does this elaborate metaphor stand for nothing more (or nothing less) than the first consciously-sought chemical process, the union of copper and tin to make the miracle of bronze?

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