Aphrodite (Greek: Ἀφροδίτη; Latin: Venus) is the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality. According to Greek poet Hesiod, she was born when Cronus cut off Uranus' genitals and threw them into the sea, and from the aphros (sea foam) arose Aphrodite.
Because of her beauty other gods feared that jealousy would interrupt the peace among them and lead to war, and so Zeus married her to Hephaestus, who was not viewed as a threat. Her unhappiness in marriage caused her to frequently seek out the companionship of her lover Ares. Aphrodite also became instrumental in the Eros and Psyche legend, and later was both Adonis' lover and his surrogate mother.
Aphrodite is also known as Cytherea (Lady of Cythera) and Cypris (Lady of Cyprus) after the two places, Cythera and Cyprus, which claimed her birth. Her Roman equivalent is the goddess Venus. Myrtles, doves, sparrows, horses, and swans are sacred to her. The Greeks identified the Ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor with Aphrodite.
Aphrodite has numerous equivalents: Inanna (Sumerian counterpart), Astarte (Phoenician), Astghik (Armenian), Turan (Etruscan), and Venus (Roman). She has parallels with Indo-European dawn goddesses such as Ushas or Aurora. The Hellenes were well aware that her origins lay in the East: according to Pausanias, the first to establish her cult were the Assyrians, after the Assyrians the Paphians of Cyprus and the Phoenicians who live at Ascalon in Palestine; the Phoenicians taught her worship to the people of Cythera. It was said Aphrodite could make any man fall in love with her at his first sight of her.
Aphrodite also has many other names, such as Acidalia, Cytherea, Pandemos and Cerigo. These names were used in specific areas of Greece. When the Greek cities combined, these lesser names were abandoned and a single name, Aphrodite, was adopted. Each goddess represented a slightly different religion but with overall similarities.
The name Άφροδίτη was connected by folk etymology with ἀφρός (aphros) "foam," interpreting it as "risen from the foam" and embodying it in an etiological myth that was already known to Hesiod. Another folk etymology found in the Etymologicum Magnum and attributed to Didymus attempts to etymologize Aphrodite from the Greek compound ἁβροδίαιτος habrodiaitos ("she who lives delicately" from ἁβρός habros + δίαιτα diaita) explaining the alternation between b and ph as a "familiar" characteristic of Greek "obvious from the Macedonians". Aphros has reflexes in Messapic and Etruscan (whence April), which were probably borrowed from Greek.
Though Herodotus was aware of the Phoenician origins of Aphrodite, linguistic attempts to derive the name Aphrodite from Semitic Aštoret, via undocumented Hittite transmission, remain inconclusive. If Semitic, a not implausible etymology would be from Assyrian barīrītu, a female demon found in Middle Babylonian and Late Babylonian texts (see Chicago Assyrian Dictionary vol. 2 p. 111). The name probably means "she who (comes) at dusk," a manifestation of the planet Venus as the evening star, a well known attribute of the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna/Ishtar.
A suggestion by M. Hammarström, rejected by Hjalmar Frisk, connects the name with prytaneis (πρύτανις), a loan into Greek from a cognate of Etruscan (e)pruni, "lord" or similar. An etymology from Indo-European abhor "very" + dhei "to shine" is offered by J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams.
Aphrodite Ourania and Aphrodite Pandemos
By the late 5th century BCE, philosophers might separate Aphrodite into two separate goddesses, not individuated in cult: Aphrodite Ourania, born from the sea foam after Cronus castrated Uranus, and Aphrodite Pandemos, the common Aphrodite "of all the folk," born from Zeus and Dione. Among the neo-Platonists and eventually their Christian interpreters, Aphrodite Ourania figures as the celestial Aphrodite, representing the love of body and soul, while Aphrodite Pandemos is associated with mere physical love. The representation of Aphrodite Ourania, with a foot resting on a tortoise, was read later as emblematic of discretion in conjugal love; the image is credited to Phidias, in a chryselephantine sculpture made for Elis, of which we have only a passing remark by Pausanias.
Thus, according to the character Pausanias in Plato's Symposium, Aphrodite is two goddesses, one older the other younger. The older, Urania, is the "heavenly" daughter of Uranus, and inspires homosexual male (and more specifically, ephebic) love/eros; the younger is named Pandemos, the daughter of Zeus and Dione, and all love for women comes from her. Pandemos is the common Aphrodite. The speech of Pausanias distinguishes two manifestations of Aphrodite, represented by the two stories: Aphrodite Ourania ("heavenly" Aphrodite), and Aphrodite Pandemos ("Common" Aphrodite).
"Foam-arisen" Aphrodite was born of the sea foam near Paphos, Cyprus after Cronus severed Uranus' genitals and threw them behind him into the sea, while the Erinyes emerged from the drops of blood. Hesiod's Theogony described that the genitals "were carried over the sea a long time, and white foam arose from the immortal flesh; with it a girl grew" to become Aphrodite. Aphrodite floated in on a scallop shell. When she arose, she was hailed as "Cyprian," and is referred to as such often, especially in the poetic works of Sappho. This myth of a fully mature Venus (the Roman name for Aphrodite), Venus Anadyomene ("Venus Rising From the Sea") was one of the iconic representations of Aphrodite, made famous in a much-admired painting by Apelles, now lost, but described in the Natural History of Pliny the Elder.
Thus Aphrodite is of an older generation than Zeus. Iliad (Book V) expresses another version of her origin, by which she was considered a daughter of Dione, who was the original oracular goddess ("Dione" being simply "the goddess, the feminine form of Δíος, "Dios," the genitive of Zeus) at Dodona. Aphrodite herself was sometimes referred to as "Dione." Once the worship of Zeus had usurped the oak-grove oracle at Dodona, some poets made him out to be the father of Aphrodite.
In Homer, Aphrodite, venturing into battle to protect her son, Aeneas, is wounded by Diomedes and returns to her mother, to sink down at her knee and be comforted. "Dione" seems to be an equivalent of Rhea, the Earth Mother, whom Homer has relocated to Olympus, and refers to a hypothesized original Proto-Indo-European pantheon, with the chief male god (Di-) represented by the sky and thunder, and the chief female god (feminine form of Di-) represented as the earth or fertile soil.
Aphrodite's chief center of worship remained at Paphos, on the south-western coast of Cyprus, where the goddess of desire had been worshipped from the early Iron Age as Ishtar and Ashtaroth. It was said that, as Kythereia, she first tentatively came ashore at Cythera, a stopping place for trade and culture between Crete and the Peloponesus. Thus perhaps we have hints of the track of Aphrodite's original cult from the Levant to mainland Greece.
Aphrodite had no childhood: in every image and each reference she is born as an adult, nubile, and infinitely desirable. Aphrodite, in many of the late anecdotal myths involving her, is characterized as vain, ill-tempered and easily offended. Though she is one of the few gods of the Greek Pantheon to be actually married, she is frequently unfaithful to her husband. Hephaestus is one of the most even-tempered of the Hellenic deities; in the narrative embedded in the Odyssey Aphrodite seems to prefer Ares, the volatile god of war. She is one of a few characters who played a major part in the original cause of the Trojan War itself: not only did she offer Helen of Troy to Paris, but the abduction was accomplished when Paris, seeing Helen for the first time, was inflamed with desire to have her—which is Aphrodite's realm.
Due to her immense beauty, Zeus was frightened that she would be the cause of violence between the other gods. He married her off to Hephaestus, the dour, humorless god of smithing. In another version of this story, Hera, Hephaestus' mother, had cast him off Olympus; deeming him ugly and deformed. His revenge was to trap her in a magic throne, and then to demand Aphrodite's hand in return for Hera's release. Hephaestus was overjoyed at being married to the goddess of beauty and forged her beautiful jewelry, including the cestus, a girdle that made her even more irresistible to men. Her unhappiness with her marriage caused Aphrodite to seek out companionship from others, most frequently Ares, but also Adonis.
The epithet Aphrodite Acidalia was occasionally added to her name, after the spring she used to bathe in, located in Boeotia (Virgil I, 720). She was also called Kypris or Cytherea after her birth-places in Cyprus and Cythera, respectively, both centers of her cult. She was associated with Hesperia and frequently accompanied by the Oreads, nymphs of the mountains. Her festival, Aphrodisia, was celebrated across Greece but particularly in Athens and Corinth. At the temple of Aphrodite on the summit of Acrocorinth (before the Roman destruction of the city in 146 BCE) intercourse with her priestesses was considered a method of worshiping Aphrodite. This temple was not rebuilt when the city was reestablished under Roman rule in 44 BCE, but it is likely that the fertility rituals continued in the main city near the agora.
Aphrodite was associated with, and often depicted with, the sea, dolphins, doves, swans, pomegranates,sceptres, apples, myrtle, rose trees, lime trees, clams, scallop shells, and pearls.
Cult of Aphrodite
One aspect of the cult of Aphrodite and her precedents that Thomas Bulfinch's much-reprinted The Age of Fable; or Stories of Gods and Heroes (1855 etc.) elided was the practice of ritual prostitution in her shrines and temples. The euphemism in Greek is hierodule, "sacred servant." The practice was an inherent part of the rituals owed to Aphrodite's Near Eastern forebears, Sumerian Inanna and Akkadian Ishtar, whose temple priestesses were the "women of Ishtar," ishtaritum. The practice has been documented in Babylon, Syria and Palestine, in Phoenician cities and the Tyrian colony Carthage, and for Hellenic Aphrodite in Cyprus, the center of her cult, Cythera, Corinth and in Sicily (Marcovich 1996:49). Aphrodite is everywhere the patroness of the hetaira and courtesan. In Ionia on the coast of Asia Minor, hierodules served in the temple of Artemis. The practice however is not attested in Athens and can be considered a foreign import.
Aphrodite and Psyche
Aphrodite figures as a secondary character in the Tale of Eros and Psyche, which first appeared as a digressive story told by an old woman in Lucius Apuleius' novel, The Golden Ass, written in the second century CE. In the novel Aphrodite was jealous of the beauty of a mortal woman named Psyche. She asked Eros to use his golden arrows to cause Psyche to fall in love with the ugliest man on earth. Eros agreed, but then fell in love with Psyche on his own, by accidentally pricking himself with a golden arrow.
Meanwhile, Psyche's parents were anxious that their daughter remained unmarried. They consulted an oracle who told them she was destined for no mortal lover, but a creature that lived on top of a particular mountain, that even the gods themselves feared. Eros had arranged for the oracle to say this. Psyche was resigned to her fate and climbed to the top of the mountain. She told the townsfolk that followed her to leave and let her face her fate on her own. There, Zephyrus, the west wind, gently floated her downwards. She entered a cave on the appointed mountain, surprised to find it full of jewelry and finery. Eros visited her every night in the cave and they made passionate love; he demanded only that she never light any lamps because he did not want her to know who he was (having wings made him distinctive). Her two sisters, jealous of Psyche, convinced her that her husband was a monster, and she should strike him with a dagger. So one night she lit a lamp, but recognizing Eros instantly, she dropped her dagger. Oil spilled from the lamp onto his shoulder, awaking him, and he fled, saying "Love cannot live where there is no trust!"
When Psyche told her two jealous elder sisters what had happened, they rejoiced secretly and each separately walked to the top of the mountain and did as Psyche described her entry to the cave, hoping Eros would pick them instead. Eros was still heart broken and did not pick them and they fell to their deaths at the base of the mountain.
Psyche searched for her love across much of Greece, finally stumbling into a temple to Demeter, where the floor was covered with piles of mixed grains. She started sorting the grains into organized piles and, when she finished, Demeter spoke to her, telling her that the best way to find Eros was to find his mother, Aphrodite, and earn her blessing. Psyche found a temple to Aphrodite and entered it. Aphrodite assigned her a similar task to Demeter's temple, but gave her an impossible deadline to finish it by. Eros intervened, for he still loved her, and caused some ants to organize the grains for her. Aphrodite was outraged at her success and told her to go to a field where deadly golden sheep grazed and get some golden wool. Psyche went to the field and saw the sheep but was stopped by a river-god, whose river she had to cross to enter the field. He told her the sheep were mean and vicious and would kill her, but if she waited until noontime, the sheep would go into the shade on the other side of the field and sleep; she could pick the wool that stuck to the branches and bark of the trees. Psyche did so and Aphrodite was even more outraged at her survival and success.
Finally, Aphrodite claimed that the stress of caring for her son, depressed and ill as a result of Psyche's unfaithfulness, had caused her to lose some of her beauty. Psyche was to go to Hades and ask Persephone, the queen of the underworld, for a bit of her beauty in a black box that Aphrodite gave to Psyche. Psyche walked to a tower, deciding that the quickest way to the underworld would be to die. A voice stopped her at the last moment and told her a route that would allow her to enter and return still living, as well as telling her how to pass the three-headed dog Cerberus, Charon and the other dangers of the route. She was to not lend a hand to anyone in need. She baked two barley cakes for Cerberus, and took two coins for Charon. She pacified Cerberus with the barley cake and paid Charon to take her to Hades. On the way there, she saw hands reaching out of the water. A voice told her to toss a barley cake to them. She refused. Once there, Persephone said she would be glad to do Aphrodite a favor. She once more paid Charon, and gave the other barley cake to Cerberus.
Psyche left the underworld and decided to open the box and take a little bit of the beauty for herself, thinking that if she did so, Eros would surely love her. Inside was a "Stygian sleep," which overtook her. Eros, who had forgiven her, flew to her body and wiped the sleep from her eyes, then begged Zeus and Aphrodite for their consent to his wedding of Psyche. They agreed and Zeus made her immortal. Aphrodite danced at the wedding of Eros and Psyche, and their subsequent child was named Pleasure, or (in the Roman mythology) Voluptas.
Aphrodite was Adonis' lover and a surrogate mother to him. Cinyras, the King of Cyprus, had an intoxicatingly beautiful daughter named Myrrha. When Myrrha's mother commits Hubris against Aphrodite by claiming her daughter is more beautiful than the famed goddess, Myrrha is punished with a never ending lust for her own father. Cinyras is repulsed by this, but Myrrha disguises herself as a prostitute, and secretly sleeps with her father at night. Eventually, Myrrha becomes pregnant and is discovered by Cinyras. In a rage, he chases her out of the house with a knife. Myrrha flees from him, praying to the gods for mercy as she runs. The gods hear her plea, and change her into a Myrrh tree so her father cannot kill her. Eventually, Cinyras takes his own life in an attempt to restore the family's honor.
Myrrha gives birth to a baby boy named Adonis. Aphrodite happens by the Myrrh tree and, seeing him, takes pity on the infant. She places Adonis in a box, and takes him down to Hades so that Persephone can care for him. Adonis grows into a strikingly handsome young man, and Aphrodite eventually returns for him. Persephone, however, is loath to give him up, and wishes Adonis would stay with her in the underworld. The two goddesses begin such a quarrel that Zeus is forced to intercede. He decrees that Adonis will spend a third of the year with Aphrodite, a third of the year with Persephone, and a third of the year with whomever he wishes. Adonis, of course, chooses Aphrodite.
Adonis begins his year on the earth with Aphrodite. One of his greatest passions is hunting, and although Aphrodite is not naturally a hunter, she takes up the sport just so she can be with Adonis. They spend every waking hour with one another, and Aphrodite is enraptured with him. However, her anxiety begins to grow over her neglected duties, and she is forced to leave him for a short time. Before she leaves, she gives Adonis one warning: do not attack an animal who shows no fear. Adonis agrees to her advice, but, secretly doubting her skills as a huntress, quickly forgets her warning.
Not long after Aphrodite leaves, Adonis comes across an enormous wild boar, much larger than any he has ever seen. It is suggested that the boar is the god Ares, one of Aphrodite's lovers made jealous through her constant doting on Adonis. Although boars are dangerous and will charge a hunter if provoked, Adonis disregards Aphrodite's warning and pursues the giant creature. Soon, however, Adonis is the one being pursued; he is no match for the giant boar. In the attack, Adonis is castrated by the boar, and dies from a loss of blood. Aphrodite rushes back to his side, but she is too late to save him and can only mourn over his body. Wherever Adonis' blood falls, Aphrodite causes anemones to grow in his memory. She vows that on the anniversary of his death, every year there will be a festival held in his honor.
On his death, Adonis goes back to the underworld, and Persephone is delighted to see him again. Eventually, Aphrodite realizes that he is there, and rushes back to retrieve him. Again, she and Persephone bicker over who is allowed to keep Adonis until Zeus intervenes. This time, he says that Adonis must spend six months with Aphrodite and six months with Persephone, the way it should have been in the first place.
The Judgement of Paris
The gods and goddesses as well as various mortals were invited to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis (the eventual parents of Achilles). Only the goddess Eris (Discord) was not invited, but she arrived with a golden apple inscribed with the word kallistēi ("to the fairest one"), which she threw among the goddesses. Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena all claimed to be the fairest, and thus the rightful owner of the apple.
The goddesses chose to place the matter before Zeus, who, not wanting to favor one of the goddesses, put the choice into the hands of Paris. Hera tried to bribe Paris with Asia Minor, while Athena offered wisdom, fame and glory in battle, but Aphrodite whispered to Paris that if he were to choose her as the fairest he would have the most beautiful mortal woman in the world as a wife, and he accordingly chose her. This woman was Helen. The other goddesses were enraged by this and through Helen's abduction by Paris they brought about the Trojan War.
Pygmalion and Deediela
Pygmalion was a sculptor who had never found a woman worthy of his love. Aphrodite took pity on him and decided to give him a woman he would be proud of. She gave him Deediela. Sad to say, Deediela was the ugliest woman in the whole village. Pygmalion was forced to marry Deediela. After their first child, Pygmalion took the child up to the highest point in the village and set it down. He said, "Aphrodite, why have you done this to me? This child does not deserve to be hideous. Please, take it as a sacrifice." Aphrodite took pity on the child and took it as her own. She used her powers to make the child beautiful and as the child grew up, all it knew was love. Aphrodite loved the child, and then the child grew up a little less beautiful than the God of Beauty herself. When the child was grown, Aphrodite gave it back to Deediela, because Pygmalion had long since died. Deediela asked, "Why, beautiful Goddess, have you done this for me? Everyone knows I'm the ugliest woman in the village." Aphrodite said, "Poor Deediela. I have given you this beautiful child so you do not have to be brought down with your hideousness. When you look at this child, think of me and the wonderful thing I have given you. I have given you a beautiful child. When she marries and has her own children, they will be beautiful as well." Deediela was so happy. After watching the child for a week, Deediela suddenly started to envy her. She was such a beautiful child. So, Deediela locked her up in the cellar one day and said, "You never come out, do you hear? Never!" Aphrodite saw this and came to the child's rescue. Aphrodite unlocked the door and turned to Deediela. "Deediela! How could you have done such a dreadful thing!" Deediela said, "You should have never given me a child prettier than myself. Jealousy is green and it boils inside of you until it bursts." Aphrodite considered this, but said, "You will have to be punished for your dreadful act." So they stripped her naked and tied her hands behind her back and made her stand in the streets, humiliated by all the handsome men and women that walked by.
Another version of a myth similar to this, one that still mentions Pygmalion, tells that the women of the village where Pygmalion lived grew angry that he had not married. They asked Aphrodite to force him to marry. Aphrodite agreed and went that very night to Pygmalion, and asked him to pick a woman to marry. She told him that if he did not pick one, she would do so for him. Not wanting to be married, he begged her for more time, asking that he be allowed to make a sculpture of Aphrodite before he had to choose his bride. Flattered, she accepted.
Pygmalion spent a lot of time making small clay sculptures of the Goddess, claiming it was needed so he could pick the right pose. As he started making the actual sculpture he was shocked to discover he actually wanted to finish, even though he knew he would have to marry someone when he finished. The reason he wanted to finish it was that he had fallen in love with the sculpture. The more he worked on it, the more it changed, until it no longer resembled Aphrodite at all.
At the very moment Pygmalion stepped away from the finished sculpture Aphrodite appeared and told him to choose his bride. Pygmalion chose the statue. Aphrodite told him that could not be, and asked him again to choose a bride. Pygmalion put his arms around the statue, and asked Aphrodite to turn him into a statue so he could be with her. Aphrodite took pity on him and brought the statue to life instead.
In one version of the story of Hippolytus, she was the catalyst for his death. He scorned the worship of Aphrodite for Artemis and, in revenge, Aphrodite caused his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him, knowing Hippolytus would reject her. In the most popular version of the story, as told in the play Hippolytus by Euripides, Phaedra seeks revenge against Hippolytus by killing herself and, in her suicide note, telling Theseus, her husband and Hippolytus' father, that Hippolytus had raped her. Hippolytus is oath-bound not to mention Phaedra's love for him and nobly refuses to defend himself despite the consequences. Theseus then curses his son, a curse that Poseidon is bound to fulfill and so Hippolytus is laid low by a bull from the sea that causes his chariot-team to panic and wreck his vehicle. Hippolytus forgives his father before he dies and Artemis reveals the truth to Theseus before vowing to kill the one Aphrodite loves (Adonis) for revenge.
Glaucus of Corinth angered Aphrodite and she made her horses angry during the funeral games of King Pelias. They tore him apart. His ghost supposedly frightened horses during the Isthmian Games.
In one Greek myth, Aphrodite placed the curse of snakes for hair and the stone-gaze upon Medusa and her sisters. Aphrodite was jealous of the three sisters beauty, and she grew so jealous she cursed them.
Aphrodite and foreign goddesses
The Ancient Greeks and Romans often equated their deities with foreign ones. Aphrodite was equated by the Greeks to Egyptian Hathor, Assyrian Mylitta, Canaanite/Phoenician Astarte, Arabian Allāt, and Roman Venus.
- C. Kerényi (1951). The Gods of the Greeks.
- Walter Burkert (1985). Greek Religion (Harvard University Press).
- The implied etymology of Aphrodite is not considered authentic by modern linguists.
- Reginald Eldred Witt, Isis in the ancient world (Johns Hopkins University Press)1997:125. ISBN 0-8018-5642-6
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, XIV.7
- Hesiod, Theogony, 176ff.
- Etymologicum Magnum, Ἀφροδίτη
- Herodotus, I.105 and .131. The traditional resistance of nineteenth-century Hellenists to Eastern sources of Greek culture is expressed by A. Enmann, Kypros und der Ursprung des Aphroditekultes (1881), among others; the series of waves of resistance in favour of a "pure, classical Greece in splendid isolation" (Burkert) is discussed by Walter Burkert in his introduction to The Orientalizing Revolution: Near Eastern Influence on Greek Culture in the Early Archaic Age (1992), especially in pp 1-6.
- In Glotta: Zeitschrift für griechische und lateinische Sprache 11, 21 5f.
- Mallory, J.P. and D.Q. Adams. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishing, 1997.
- E.g. Plato, Symposium 181a-d.
- Pausanias, Periegesis vi.25.1; Aphrodite Pandemos was represented in the same temple riding on a goat, symbol of purely carnal rut: "The meaning of the tortoise and of the he-goat I leave to those who care to guess," Pausanias remarks. The image was taken up again after the Renaissance: see Andrea Alciato, Emblemata / Les emblemes (1584).
- Plato, Symposium 180e.
- Richard L. Hunter, Plato's Symposium, Oxford University Press: 2004, p. 44
- Αναδυόμενη (Anadyómenē), "rising up".
- Homer, Odyssey viii. 288; Herodotus i. 105; Pausanias iii. 23. § 1 ; Anacreon v. 9; Horace, Carmina i. 4. 5.
- "Our work is not for the learned, nor for the theologian, nor for the philosopher, but for the reader of English literature, of either sex, who wishes to comprehend the allusions so frequently made by public speakers, lecturers, essayists, and poets, and those which occur in polite conversation." Bulfinch's obituary in the Boston Evening Standard noted that the contents were "expurgated of all that would be offensive".
- Miroslav Marcovich, "From Ishtar to Aphrodite" Journal of Aesthetic Education 30.2, Special Issue: Distinguished Humanities Lectures II (Summer 1996) p 49.
- Media related to Aphrodite on Wikimedia Commons
- Theoi Project, Aphrodite information from classical literature, Greek and Roman art
- Greek Mythology: Who is Aphrodite?
- The Glory which Was Greece from a Female Perspective
- Sappho's Hymn to Aphrodite, with a brief explanation
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