Erotic love: From eros = the feeling we describe as ‘falling in love'; it is restless and passionate desire; refers to finding someone physically beautiful.
Theogony: Hesiod’s account of the origins and genealogies of the Greek gods.
Epithet: Descriptive term accompanying or replacing a name that indicates qualities of character, mostly seen with heroes and gods in ancient epic. Examples: swift-footed Achilles, laughter-loving Aphrodite, etc.
Symposium (pl: symposia): Banquet and drinking party attended by elite Greek males.
Kronos: King of the titans and god of time (Κρονος = time in Ancient Greek). Father of the Olympians.
The goddess of beauty and love is arguably the most well known of the Greco-Roman goddesses. Aphrodite was a large part of everyday life in Greek culture and she remains the embodiment of love and beauty in modern society. While she is no longer a main part of the education curriculum across the globe, people grow up knowing her name and her main attributes. Aphrodite is represented as a symbol of desire in Ancient Greece and she is always described as divinely beautiful in an almost untouchable way. However, the goddess was worshipped for more than her beauty and physical appeal.
In Ancient Greece, the goddess Aphrodite had a duality of character due to her two birth myths. In Hesiod’s Theogony, he tells us of Aphrodite Urania (also spelt Ourania), born from the castration of the titan Kronos and seafoam (aphros = foam); she embodies pure and spiritual love. The other is Aphrodite Pandemos, Aphrodite of All the People (pan = all; demos = people), born from the union of Zeus and a mortal woman named Dione. She is more commonly known as the latter, as the goddess of physical love, attraction and procreation. Plato elaborates on this distinction in his Symposium: Urania is clearly his preference as he praises this love as a more heavenly, spiritual, strong and intellectual love; Pandemos, on the other hand, is primarily a common, physical satisfaction of a sexual nature described by Plato as ‘vulgar’. As one of the most profound archetypes in history, it is important to understand why Pandemos is seen as inferior to Urania: Urania was older and therefore more mature and wise, and since she was born of solely a father, she was partaking in the single, superior male nature; whereas Common Love, Pandemos, was born from a father and a mother, making it a mixed, imperfect love that will fade with age and time. Essentially, we are comparing a sacred, heavenly love to a profane, common love.
Botticelli, Sandro. Birth of Venus. ca 1485. Tempera on canvas, 175.2 x 278.5 cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. Image is from Uffizi Gallery: https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/birth-of-venus.
Mythology and Literature
The goddess is represented as the embodiment of sex and desire. In Homer’s Iliad, the sexual nature of Aphrodite is apparent when she lends her magic girdle of irresistible enticement to Hera, allowing her to seduce her husband Zeus and distract him from the war. Another well-known myth including the goddess is known as the Judgment of Paris: Paris, a Prince of Troy, has to choose who the most beautiful goddess is between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, all of whom have offered him different yet appealing rewards for his choosing them: Hera promised royal power, Athena, victory in war, and Aphrodite, the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife. With his choice of Aphrodite, he is gifted Helen, the Queen of Sparta (spoiler: she’s already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta) which starts the decade-long Trojan War.
In Ancient Greece, Aphrodite is always described as untouchably beautiful while seductive and lustful. Even when she appears as a mortal she cannot hide her exceptional beauty from those who lay eyes on her, illustrated in the story of Anchises from Aphrodite’s Homeric Hymn: Zeus causes her to fall in love with the mortal man Anchises after she boasts about being able to sway all immortal hearts but three: Athena, Hestia and Artemis. Due to her immense beauty, Anchises immediately recognizes her as a goddess, but Aphrodite spins a tale of mortality and her destiny to be his wife. He believes her until he sees her in all her divine glory and he pleads with her to not leave him with the mortals and to “have pity, for no man retains his full strength who sleeps with an immortal goddess” (translation by Morford p.202). Together they have a son, the hero Aeneas, whose ancestors will found the city of Rome in 753 BCE, after the fall of Troy.
Worship Across Greece
In different parts of Greece, different aspects of the gods were worshipped. Therefore, Aphrodite, like all the immortals, had multiple purposes and epithets. The Spartan acropolis had a sanctuary for Aphrodite Areia (‘warlike’) that included a xoanon – a wooden cult statue of the goddess. There was another ancient sanctuary on the periphery of Sparta dedicated to the goddess, portraying her armed and possibly ready for battle. In Athens, she was worshipped as a deity of marriage and married love: Pandemos had the role of uniting all people in the city, such as husbands and wives or courtesans and their clients, and it refers to her role of unification in politics as well as in marriage. She is seen to have the powerful ability to unite people and their bodies in both a sexual and non-sexual way. The epithet Peitho, meaning persuasion, showcases the erotic love side of her power and the seductive aspect of her as a goddess, she was a prominent figure in the city of Athens though was probably a later addition to the small sanctuary of Aphrodite Pandemos.
Hellenistic copy of the original fifth century BCE statue of Aphrodite; Made in Attica (Greece), found at the Theatre of Dionysos; image is from British Museum: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1866-0319-1
In Alexandria and the surrounding area, she was associated with the Ptolemaic Queen Arsinoe II, and there were multiple temples erected in her honour. On Cape Zephyrion, between Alexandria and Canopus, there was a temple dedicated to Arsinoe Aphrodite Zephrytis, where underwater excavations found a statue of her being born from sea foam. The birthplace of Aphrodite Urania is the island of Cyprus; here the Greeks built a large temple where inhabitants of the island and sailors would worship the goddess. Both men and women praised her, some dedicating their children to the goddess. Somewhat surprisingly, Aphrodite was also a patron of mariners as she was born from the mixture of Kronos’ bits and the sea. She provided her worshippers with calm seas, favourable winds, protection, and successful profitable business in exchange for offerings like incense and small cakes. These sanctuaries and cults appeared along the coasts of the Mediterranean throughout the late eighth and early fourth centuries and attracted a wide range of devotees from colonists, merchants and navy commanders to courtesans, metalworkers and fishermen. They usually included shrines and cult statues near the harbour that were visible from the sea with the purpose of looking out over it.
Aphrodisias Aphrodite Temple of the Acrocorinth (Acropolis of Corinth). Image from: https://unsplash.com/photos/Sm2IjyvrzDk
Aphrodite embodies various unique but related personalities, giving her many diverse epithets and characteristics. Because of this, she is altered and incorporated into many facets of Ancient Greek culture. She had a large cult following in the ancient world, and there are plenty of myths written about the goddess about sex and physical aspects of beauty. She went from being highly worshipped by a variety of people to having no religious connection with mortals and becoming a thing of the past to learn from. Today, she is an icon – her name evokes beauty and heightened sexuality. She is known by almost every individual as a sexual, beautiful deity and while they are not worshippers or followers of the goddess they all want her in their lives in some way or another.
Sources and Further Reading
Cooksey, Thomas L. Plato's 'Symposium' : A Reader's Guide. New York, NY, USA: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ualberta/detail.action?docID=601691.
Paphos, Cyprus: The birthplace of Aphrodite [Video file]. 2000.
The Renaissance: The nude in art [Video file]. 2000.
Clark Liassis, N. Aphrodite and Venus in Myth and Mimesis. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.
Morford, Mark, Robert J. Lenardon, and Michael Sham. Classical Mythology. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, Inc, 2011.
Ogden, Daniel. A Companion to Greek Religion. Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007.
Brown, Amelia R., and Rebecca Smith. “Guardian Goddess of the Surf-Beaten Shore: The Influence of Mariners on Sanctuaries of Aphrodite in Magna Graecia.” In Religious Convergence in the Ancient Mediterranean, edited by Sandra Blakely and Billie Jean Collins, 19-42. Atlanta, GA, USA: Lockwood Press, 2019. doi:10.2307/j.ctvd1c9d4.6.
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