Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, but unlike her Roman counterpart Venus, not only sexual love but also of affection and all impulses that are basic to social life. A legend concerning her birth may explain why these virtues were attributed to her. When Cronus cut off Ouranos’ phallus with a sickle, he flung the immortal member into the sea, where it floated among white foam. Inside the divine flesh a goddess matured, whom the Greeks called Aphrodite, ‘she who came from foam.” This was the way that she reached the “sea-grit Cyprus,” where two important sanctuaries were built at Paphos and Amathos, the latter being dedicated to bearded form reminiscent of the Assyrian Ishtar.
However, according to others, despite the above legend, Aphrodite, in fact, traveled the opposite way. She came from Cyprus, an island under West Asian influence since earliest times. It was competition with Hera, the indigenous earth mother and wife of Zeus, which caused her to specialize as a love goddess.
Older aspects of her cult, which support a Greek metamorphosis of the Sumerian Inanna, survive in her names: Aphrodite was Apostrophia, “she who turns herself away”; Androphonos, “man killer”: Tymborychos, “gravedigger”; Anosia, “the unholy”; Epitymbidia, “she upon the tombs”; and, above all Pasiphaessa, “‘the shining’ queen of the underworld.” The Athenians regarded her as “the oldest Moirai,” that is, senior of the Fates. Aphrodite collected special epithets too, such as Kallipygos, “she of the beautiful buttocks”; Morpho, “the shapely”; and Ambolodera, “she postpones old age.” At Corinth there were even temple prostitutes.
Because Aphrodite was the goddess of the act of love she was portrayed, according to the custom of that time, as a naked or a draped figure, holding in her hand a dove, her favorite bird. Surrounding her were her servants, especially the Graces and the Horae, who were together in her entourage, particularly from the Hellenistic period onwards. She was depicted as floating in the sea with the nereids and all the minor deities around her.
Being the goddess of love, myth would have it that Aphrodite took many lovers. From her Oriental period Aphrodite’s most beloved the Syrian god Adonis, who was adopted by Greek mythology. The Adonis myth is usually told as follows: the king of Syria, Theias, had a daughter named Myrrha or Smyrna who was cursed by Aphrodite and forced to commit incest with her father when she was twelve; with the complicity of her nurse she succeeded in deceiving him for eleven nights, but on the twelfth night Theias discovered who she really was and prepared to kill her. Myrrha fled, and the gods taking pity on her, turned her into a tree, the myrrh tree. Ten months later the bark peeled off and an infant emerged and was named Adonis. Aphrodite was very moved by the beauty of the child, and she gave him to Persephone to bring up. Becoming infatuated with the beautiful child Persephone refused to give him back to Aphrodite. Zeus became the arbitrator in settling the dispute between the two goddesses, and it was decided that Adonis should live one-third of the year with Aphrodite, one-third with Persephone, and the final third with whichever he pleased. Adonis chose to live two-thirds of the year with Aphrodite, and one-third with Persephone in the underworld.
Several years later Adonis was hunting when a bore, sent to harm him by Artemis (her reason is unknown) or by Ares (who was jealous of the young man), gored the youth in the thigh and killed him. When Aphrodite hurried to help him she scratched her foot on a thorn, and the rose, which until that moment had always been white, became a deep red. From the blood of Adonis rose the anemone flower that is so often seen in spring in the eastern Mediterranean lands.
In honor of Adonis, Aphrodite founded a funeral cult, which was celebrated each spring by Syrian women, and it spread throughout the ancient world. Seeds were planted in vases and carefully watered with warm water. These plants quickly sprouted, but died soon; they were known as “gardens of Adonis.”
Aphrodite proved an unfaithful wife to Hephaestus, the crippled smithy god, and had several children by Ares, the god of war. As described in the Odyssey Aphrodite became the mistress of Ares, and so the Sun who can see everything, reported it to Hephaestus, who decided to take revenge. He placed an invisible around his wife’s bed, which closed over the guilty pair and made them completely helpless. Then Hephaestus beckoned all of the gods to come and see the entrapped couple. The all laughed, except Poseidon, who promised a fitting atonement on behalf of the gods. Only then did Hephaestus release the pair.
On another occasion Aphrodite developed a great passion for Anchises, a Trojan prince who watched his herds on Mount Ida. She wished him to fall in love with her, and going to him she claimed to be the daughter of the king of Phrygia, who had been abducted and left on the mountainside by Hermes. Anchises was taken by her beauty and laid with her. Afterwards she reveled who she really was to him and promised to bear him a son who would had a great destiny. This son was Aeneas. However, Aphrodite forbade Anchises to tell anyone of their love. Anchises kept their secret until one night when he had too much wine. When Zeus heard of it he punished Anchises, for to sleep with a goddess was a costly privilege for any mortal, according to some, either by making him lame, or by depriving him of his eyesight. Aeneas would become the founder of Italy.
It is alleged that Aphrodite sparked the Trojan War when she promised the hand of Helen to Paris in order to win the contest of beauty on Mount Ida. Paris’ abduction of Helen brought about the war.
Aphrodite could be both rewarding and revengeful. She inspired in Eos (Dawn) an insurmountable love for Orion. But, she chastised the women of Lemnos for failing to worship her by sending an unbearable smell to plague them; and finally she forced the daughters of King Cinyras of Paphos to give themselves to strangers. The characteristics of Aphrodite have bewildered philosophers who, like Plato, made a distinction between the two aspects of the goddess, one Uranian “celestial,” as the goddess of pure love, and Pandemian, or “popular,” as the goddess presiding over ordinary love affairs.
Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart was Venus. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 129-132 Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 131-133