APHRODITE

Muse, tell me the deeds of golden Aphrodite the Cyprian,

Who stirs up sweet passion in the gods

 And subdues the tribes of mortal men and birds that fly in air

 Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite

Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love; she has one duty and one only: to make love.[1] She is supremely feminine, sublimely beautiful and so attractive that no man [or woman] can resist her charms. Her dominion is desire, the rapture of love and sexual ecstasy.

Aphrodite was 'foam-born' [aphros] from the sea when the castrated genitals of Uranus [the father of the gods] were thrown into it by his son Cronos. The ocean began to churn about them, until the lovely Aphrodite arose from the spume, naked and accompanied by doves and sparrows. She sailed to shore on a scallop shell, blown by the east wind, emerging from the sea at Paphos on the island of Cyprus. Flowers sprang from her footsteps. Cyprus was certainly her cult centre, and there are many sanctuaries of Aphrodite spread throughout the island. Her temple at Paphos was renowned throughout the ancient world. It probably blended oriental and Aegean influences in its rites, combining elements of traditions originating with the Mesopotamian Ishtar and the Phoenician Astarte. Excavations have shown that her cult there was certainly established by the Late Bronze Age [c. 1200 BCE] and continued unbroken for 1500 years to the Late Roman period at the end of the 4th century CE. However, it is possible that the cult predates even this, being already present in the Chalcolithic period.

Aphrodite's chief festival was called the 'Aphrodisiac', a word that is still familiar to us today. Its modern meaning concerns substances that arouse sexual desire, and this is not very different from the worship of Aphrodite, whose rites included sexual congress between her priestesses and her worshippers. Because she was sea born, sea food is still widely considered to be an aphrodisiac.

When Zeus, the chief of the gods, beheld the joyful and glamorous young goddess, he was afraid that the gods would fight over her. In consequence, and somewhat against her will, he married her to the lame smith god, Hephaestus, who instantly adored her. He put his skills to work, making her exquisite jewellery. Say she possesses a magic girdle of his design, which makes her irresistible, and which she usually refuses to lend to the other goddesses. However, the ugly god was no maiden's dream of love, and, given her nature, it is perhaps not surprising that she had a series of affairs. Hephaestus thought that the children she bore were his, but the truth was that they were all the offspring of other gods and even human men. Hermes was the father of the androgynous Hermaphroditus, Poseidon the father of Rhodus ['Rose'] and Herophilus ['Lover of Hera']. Her favourite lover, the handsome and impetuous war god Ares was the father of Phobus ['Fear'], Deimus ['Fearful'], and Harmonia, goddess of harmonious marriage. To the wild god Dionysus [or some say Adonis] she bore Priapus, a comic figure with huge genitals, which were inflicted on him by Hera as a sign of her disapproval of Aphrodite's promiscuity.

A story of Aphrodite and Ares appears in Homer's Odyssey and relates how they secretly lay together. Now Helios, the sun, could see everything that happened everywhere, and told Hephaestus what was going on. The angry smith went to his workshop and invented an ingenious net, as fine as gossamer but unbreakable, which he fixed to his marriage bed, telling Aphrodite that he was going away to Corinth on business. As soon as he was gone, Aphrodite sent for Ares. The two lovers, oblivious to all but their mutual lust, fell into the trap. Hephaestus summoned the gods to witness his dishonour. They gathered around to see the two lovers in such an undignified position. Apollo asked Hermes how he would feel in such a situation. Hermes answered that he would suffer thrice the number of bonds if only he could share the bed of Aphrodite the Golden. Hephaestus refused to free the lovers until the Zeus returned his bridal gifts. Zeus was disgusted that Hephaestus should have made the affair so public and refused. Poseidon, seeing the naked Aphrodite, fell in love with her and promised that Ares would return the price, and agreed to stand surety if he defaulted and marry Aphrodite himself. After being freed, Aphrodite went to her sacred precinct on Cyprus where she was bathed in the sea by the Graces to renew her virginity, as she was after every sexual adventure. Naturally, her husband could not live without her, and forgave her before long.

Her adventures often caused troubles and a great deal of bloodshed, which is probably the origin of her association with the god of war. Unrequited love and frustrated desire are at the bottom of a great deal of trouble. She caused the Trojan war by promising the married Helen to Paris, prince of Troy, who stole her away from her husband, Menelaos. She interfered several times in the subsequent war, once to save the life of Paris, and once to save the life of her own son by a mortal, Aeneas, thus prolonging the war.

Another of her lovers was Adonis, a vegetation god. Now it happened that both Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld, and Aphrodite fell in love with the beautiful youth, and they quarrelled over who should have him. Zeus appointed the muse Calliope to arbitrate, and she decided that Aphrodite should have Adonis for one third of the year, Persephone for another third, and that he should have one third to himself. However, Aphrodite was not happy with this and decided to cheat. She donned her magic girdle, making Adonis want to be with her all the time. Persephone reported this to Ares, who flared up in a jealous rage. He transformed himself into a wild boar and tore Adonis to pieces. From each drop of blood that fell, a red flower bloomed. Zeus decreed that Adonis must spend the winter with Persephone, but could spend the summer with Aphrodite. When Adonis was with his beloved Aphrodite the land bloomed and the people rejoiced, but when he was with Persephone in the Underworld winter came and the people mourned.

As the world grew more patriarchal and prudish, Aphrodite's gifts and orgiastic nature were looked upon with contempt or horror, but originally her rites were sacred. Sex constituted a sacred act, and was the proper way to honour the goddess of love and desire. Though at first she seems to be a simple goddess of love, Aphrodite is a complex figure. Her domain seems to have encompassed the fertility of animals, plants and human beings. The fact that she renews her virginity in a spring after each sexual encounter proclaims her to be an earth mother/fertility goddess, who gives birth each year to the crops, and is renewed in the springtime, washed clean by the spring rains.

Aphrodite has one sphere of influence- love in all its forms. As Aphrodite Benetrix she rules married love, and as Aphrodite Porne [which gives us our word pornography] she rules erotic love. These different types of love may sometimes be incompatible. Love gives us the opportunity to unite with another, with a lover or as part of a family or community, uniting to make a single whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. Aphrodite Urania ['Heavenly Aphrodite'] rules spiritual love, which is unconditional and which embraces the whole of creation. This kind of love is eternally flowing and perpetually available to you whenever you open your heart to receive it.

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NB: This short article is not from my more comprehensive Goddess Encyclopaedia


[1] Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1955