Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Aphrodite is the ancient Greek goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality. She is primarily associated with selfish sexual desire and lust. Thus, it is not surprising that Aphrodite is characterized in many myths as vain, ill-tempered, and easily offended. She is also often symbolized by the sea, dolphins, doves, swans, pomegranates, apples, myrtle, rose, sparrows, and lime trees. Her Roman equivalent is the goddess Venus. Her frequent relationships gave rise to various offspring including the mythological Eros, the origin of the word “Erotic” today.
When Christianity swept over the Greek world, the worship of Aphrodite diminished for “sacred prostitution” was no longer accepted; however, the allure of Aphrodite continued to be manifested in later mythological figures such as Venus and Cupid, which still resonate in western popular culture today.
Etymology and Origins
In popular etymology, the name Ἀφροδίτη was connected to ἀφρός (meaning “foam”), and interpreted as “risen from the foam,” alluding to the etiological myth of Aphrodite’s creation described in Hesiod’s Theogony. The name has reflexes in Messapic and Etruscan (whence April), which were probably loaned from Greek. Though Herodotus was aware of the Phoenician origins of Aphrodite, linguistic attempts to derive the name from Semitic Aštoret, via undocumented Hittite transmission, remain inconclusive. A suggestion by Hammarström, rejected by Hjalmar Frisk, connects the name with πρύτανις, a loan word introduced to Greek from a cognate of Etruscan (e)pruni, or “lord.”
It is likely that Aphrodite’s mythological origins derive from a number of Indo-European and Near Eastern goddesses. Aphrodite has numerous counterparts in legends of surrounding cultures, including Inanna among the Sumerians, Ishtar among the Mesopotamians, Hathor in the Ancient Egypt, Ashtart or Astarte among the Syro-Palestinians, and Turan in Etruscan mythology. Like Aphrodite, each of these goddesses is described as a beautiful female with jurisdiction over love, sexuality, fertility, and sacred prostitution. Herodotus recorded that at Aphrodite’s oldest foreign temple in the Syrian city of Ascalon, she was known as Ourania. Pausanias confirms this idea, suggesting that the cult to Aphrodite located at Cythera came from the Phonecians at Ascalon. The fact that one of Aphrodite’s chief centers of worship remained on the south-western coast of Cyprus, where the goddess of desire had long been worshiped as Ishtar and Ashtaroth, may suggest the transmission of Aphrodite’s original cult from Phoenicia to Cyprus and then mainland Greece.
By the late fifth century, philosophers and historians seem to have separated this older Phoenician Aphrodite Ourania from Aphrodite Pandemos, the Aphrodite “of the common people.” The former was typically thought to be born from the foam after Cronus castrated Uranus, while the latter was thought to be born from the union of Zeus and Dione. In Plato’s Symposium, Aphrodite Pandemos (“common” Aphrodite) is said to reign over primal love, while Aphrodite Ourania (“heavenly” Aphrodite) presides over a higher form of spiritual love. Although the two were distinct, they were ultimately one and the same goddess.
According to Greek Mythology, Aphrodite was born from the foam of the sea shore near Paphos, Cyprus. This miraculous creation resulted after Cronus castrated his father, Uranus. It is said that Cronus cut off Uranus’ genitals and threw them into the sea. As the genitals drifted over the water, the blood and/or semen that issued forth from the severed flesh set in motion the growth of the child who would become Aphrodite.
However, the Iliad (Book V) provides another explanation of Aphrodite’s origin, in which she was considered a daughter of Dione, the original oracular goddess at Dodona (“Dione” meaning quite simply “the goddess,” the feminine form of Δíος, “Dios,” the genitive of Zeus). “Dione” seems to be an equivalent of Rhea, the Earth Mother, whom Homer relocated to Olympus, and refers back 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 by the earth or the fertile soil. Aphrodite herself was sometimes referred to as “Dione.” Once the worship of Zeus had surpassed the oak-grove oracle at Dodona in popularity, some poets made him out to be the father of Aphrodite. Alternatively, Aphrodite was said to be a daughter of Zeus and Thalassa, a primordial sea goddess, since she was born of the Sea.
Marriage with Hephaestus
It is said that due to Aphrodite’s immense beauty, Zeus was frightened that she would be the cause of violence between the other gods. To remedy this situation, Zeus married her off to Hephaestus, the dour, humorless god of smithing. In another version of this story, Hephaestus demands Aphrodite’s’ hand as a ransom. Earlier on, Hera, Hephaestus’ mother, threw him off Olympus because he was too ugly. As revenge, he trapped his mother in a magic throne, proclaiming that Aphrodite’s hand in marriage would be the only means 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.
Though Aphrodite is one of the few members of the Greek Pantheon who was actually married, she was frequently unfaithful to Hephaestus. Her unhappiness with her marriage caused Aphrodite to seek out companionship from others, most frequently the god of war Ares, but also Adonis, Anchises, and more. Incensed, Hephaestus set up a net with unbreakable links and placed it in the room in which his marital couch was kept. When Ares and Aphrodite bedded down on the couch during one of their many trysts, the net fell, trapping the lovers. Hephaestus proceeded to bring all the other Olympian gods together to mock the pair, and did not free Aphrodite and Ares until Poseidon promised Hephaestus that Ares would pay him reparations; however, both adulterers escaped as soon as the chains were lifted, and the promise was not kept.
According to Greek Mythology, Aphrodite had no children with Hephaestus but her prolific extramarital activities with both gods and mortal men allowed her to mother many children. With Ares, Aphrodite gave birth to Anteros and Eros, the gods of love, Harmonia, the goddess of Harmony, Himeros, the personification of sexual desire, as well as Deimos and Phobos, the gods of dread and fright, respectively. With Dionysus, Aphrodite bore the Charites or the “graces,” who were from youngest to oldest Aglaea (“Beauty”), Euphrosyne (“Mirth”), and Thalia (“Good Cheer”). Homer wrote that these goddesses were part of the retinue of Aphrodite, and they usually accompany her in stories and depictions. By Aphrodite, Dionysus also sired Hymenaios, the god of marriage ceremonies, and Priapus, the fertility god with massive genitalia.
With Hermes, Aphrodite gave birth to sons Hermaphroditus and Rhodos, as well as daughters Peitho, the goddess of seduction, Tyche, the goddess of protection, and Eunomia. Some traditions also claim that it was Hermes who sired Aphrodite’s sons Eros and Priapus. Among mortals, Aphrodite had affairs with Adonis, Anchises, Butes, and Dinlas. With Adonis, Aphrodite bore a daughter, Beroe, while Anchises sired Aeneas, the Trojan hero, and Butes fathered Eryx, a reputed pugilist.
Aphrodite was particularly protective of Aeneas. Aeneas was almost killed by Diomedes in the Trojan War, but Aphrodite entered the field of battle to save him, allowing Apollo to take him away to Pergamos for healing.
Aphrodite and Psyche
In Greek Mythology, Aphrodite was jealous of the beauty of a mortal woman named Psyche, and asked Eros to use his golden arrows to cause Psyche to fall in love with the ugliest man on earth. Eros agreed but proceeded to fall in love with Psyche himself. Meanwhile, Psyche’s parents were anxious that their daughter remained unmarried. They consulted an oracle who told them that Psyche was destined to be wed to a monster that lived on the summit of a nearby mountain. Psyche was resigned to her fate and climbed to the top of the mountain. However, once she arrived there, Zephyrus, the west wind, gently floated her downwards to a fair valley and a magnificent palace where she was attended by invisible servants. Once night fell, the promised bridegroom arrived and the marriage was consummated. The night hid the identity of bridegroom, however, and little did Psyche know that it was actually Eros who had visited that night and on the nights which followed. Eros continued to visit Psyche, with only one condition: He demanded that she never light any lamps, since he did not want her to know who he was. Psyche’s two sisters, rife with jealousy, convinced her to light a lamp one night and so she did, recognizing Eros instantly. A drop of hot lamp oil fell on Eros’ chest and he awoke, fleeing, leaving Psyche to mourn her foolishness.
Dejected, Psyche searched for Eros across much of Greece, finally stumbling into a temple dedicated 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 then assigned Psyche a similar task of counting grain but gave her an impossible deadline to finish it. At this point, it is said that Eros intervened, for he still loved her, and ordered some ants to organize the grains for Psyche.
Aphrodite was outraged at Psyche’s success and promptly ordered her to go to a field where golden sheep grazed to obtain some wool. Psyche found the sheep but was stopped by a river-god, whose river she had to cross in order to enter the field. He told her the sheep were extremely vicious and would kill her, but if she waited until noontime, the sheep would go the shade on the other side of the field and sleep at which point 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 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. She ordered Psyche to go to Hades and ask Persephone, the queen of the underworld, for a small measure of her beauty, which Psyche was to return in a black box. Psyche ventured to a tower, deciding that the quickest way to the underworld would be to die. Just before she could jump to her demise, a voice stopped her and informed her of a route that would allow her to enter the underworld and return alive. As well, the voice told her how to negotiate such malevolent obstacles as Cerberus, the three-headed dog, and Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. Psyche arrived intact before Persephone, who said she would be glad to do Aphrodite a favor.
After Psyche left the underworld, she 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 she found no beauty, but was instead overtaken by 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 marriage with 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) Volupta.
Greek mythology explains that Aphrodite was not only Adonis’ lover but that she also had a part in his birth. She urged Myrrha to commit incest with her father, Theias, the king of Assyria, which Myrrha did in the dark of night. When Theias realized it was his own daughter with which he had coupled, he flew into a rage, chasing her with a knife. The gods turned Myrrha into a myrrh tree and Adonis eventually sprang from this tree. Alternative versions state that it was Aphrodite specifically who turned Myrrha into the tree. Adonis was then born either when Theias shot the tree with an arrow, or when a boar used its tusks to tear off the tree’s bark.
Once Adonis was born, Aphrodite was entranced by his unearthly beauty and took him under her wing, seducing him with the help of her friend Helene. Aphrodite gave him to Persephone to watch over, but Persephone was also amazed at his beauty and refused to give him back, causing a rift between the two goddesses. The argument was settled either by Zeus (or Calliope), who decreed that Adonis should spend four months of the year with Aphrodite, four months with Persephone and four months on his own.
Aphrodite’s love for Adonis caused Ares to become very jealous. Aphrodite was warned of this jealousy and was told that Ares would be transformed into a boar, and would then kill Adonis. She tried to persuade Adonis to stay with her at all times, but his love of the hunt proved to be his downfall: While Adonis was hunting one day, Ares found him and gored him to death; Aphrodite arrived just in time to hear his last breath.
The Judgment of Paris
All the gods and goddesses, as well as various mortals, were invited to the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, the eventual parents of Achilles. Only Eris, the goddess of discord, was not invited, but she arrived nonetheless bearing a golden apple inscribed with the words “to the fairest,” which she threw among the goddesses. Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena all thought themselves to be the fairest, and therefore claimed rightful ownership of the apple. The goddesses chose to place the matter before Zeus, who later put the choice into the hands of Paris. Hera tried to bribe Paris with Asia Minor, while Athena offered him wisdom, fame, and glory in battle. Aphrodite, meanwhile, 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.
Not only were the other goddesses enraged by this, but the proceedings also set in motion the Trojan war. The most beautiful mortal woman who Aphrodite promised Paris was Helen, and upon seeing her for the first time, Paris was inflamed with desire, which prompted him to take her with him to Troy. This was problematic, since Helen was already married to Menelaus. Agamemnon, Helen’s brother-in-law and king of Mycenae, took exception to Helen’s abduction and led an expedition of Achaean troops to Troy, besieging the city for ten years. Thus, according to Greek legend, Aphrodite was directly responsible for the Trojan war. In book III of Homer’s Iliad, it is told that Aphrodite eventually saves Paris when Menelaus is about to kill him.
Aphrodite was honored at numerous cult sites and shrines throughout Greece. These sites were typically located in more accessible locales in the cities, suggesting her status as a god of the people. This notion is furthered by the evidence which suggests she was worshiped in a highly personal, intimate fashion, and that most temples dedicated to her were modest in architecture. The most common theme in her worship was that of sexual union, whether it was between common citizens, brides and bridegrooms, or prostitutes and customers, among others.
Based on the remains of a cult site to Aphrodite which can be found on the southwest slope of the Athenian Acropolis, the aspect of Aphrodite labeled Aphrodite Pandemos seems to be indelibly linked with the commoners of Athens. Blessings of this deity were sought to unite the people of Athens socially and politically. Aphrodite Pandemos was commonly depicted with Peitho, the personification of persuasion, which may suggest her political significance. Evidence from imagery found at a number of sites also indicates that Aphrodite Pandemos was closely tied to the wedding ritual. Thus, her association with unions seems to extend past the political realm and into that between individuals, as well. This may also suggest the importance of marriage in stabilizing Athenian democracy.
Aphrodite and Peitho had a festival of their own, the Aphrodisia, which was celebrated all over Greece but particularly in Athens and Corinth. It probably took place during the fourth day of Hekatombaion, just after the beginning of the Attic year. As with other celebrations dedicated to Aphrodite, the festival involved the gathering together of people from a variety of different classes and allowing them to coalesce as a unified whole, with many inequities of social status dissolved. For example, sexual services became available to all classes. In Corinth, the aspect of sexuality was particularly salient in this festival, as intercourse with priestesses of Aphrodite was considered an acceptable means for providing worship to the goddess.
Major shrines were built at Cyprus, Cythera, and Corinth for the aspect of the goddess labeled as Aphrodite Ourania. Many other worship centers of a smaller magnitude were dedicated to Aphrodite Ourania all throughout Greece. The cult in Athens is located at the northwest corner of the bustling Agora. Here, the altar to Aphrodite Ourania was placed in a very prominent location, in close proximity to the average Athenian. Considering the number of worship centers and the importance of the altars dedicated to her, it seems that Aphrodite Ourania was the more prevalent aspect of the goddess.
Iconography of Aphrodite Ourania suggests another connection to weddings. Votive reliefs related to Aphrodite Ourania found in the Agora distinctively highlight the use of the ladder, which appears in many vase paintings with nuptial themes. New brides of the Athenian cult often called upon Aphrodite for assistance during their wedding ceremonies and on their wedding nights, and the ladders seem to suggest that Aphrodite offers safe passage from virginity to life as a wife. Wives and prostitutes alike seem to have worshiped Aphrodite Ourania at the Agora, suggesting that Aphrodite Ouranias was consulted by all women so that she would watch over their relationships with men. Rachel Rozenweig suggests that, more generally, these ladders may have represented a symbolic means by which to link Aphrodite to smooth transitions from one phase of life to another, including that between virgin and bride, and from the realm of everyday life to the realm of cult, among others. Moreover, these ladders further the notion that Aphrodite Ouranias had a cultic role as a goddess of unity, bridging gaps and bringing people together in harmony, whether it be bride and bridegroom or prostitute and customer.
Aphrodite of the Garden
Aphrodite was often given the epithet en Kepois, or “in the gardens,” which more likely links her to fertility than it does to a specific location of worship. This role of goddess of vegetation was most evident at the north slope of the Acropolis and at Daphni, two open-air cult sites in Athens linked by rock-cut inscriptions venerating Aphrodite. These sites suggest that Aphrodite’s divine intervention was particularly sought after in manners concerning fertility.
The cult site on the north slope of the Acropolis contains many terra-cotta figurines representing maidens, small-boys and sleeping babies. A number of votives in the forms of male and female reproductive organs have also been found here, indicating that Aphrodite provided help with fertility. Similar votives were found at the Daphni cult site. Considering Aphrodite’s associations with nuptial imagery, these fertility shrines most likely played a role in the wedding ritual.
As a goddess of love and lust, Aphrodite represents another important link in the historical chain of erotic female figures within ancient mythology. She carries on a tradition of eroticized female divine which featured such goddesses as the Sumerian Inanna, the Mesopotamian Ishtar, and the Syro-Palestinian Astarte, among others. The female body and the goddess is an aspect of spirituality which has been largely absent from the western monotheistic religions. As such, Aphrodite has always been a particularly captivating character in western culture, inspiring several famous works of art such as the Venus de Milo and Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, as well innumerable references in popular culture. Undoubtedly, Aphrodite is one of the most identifiable images of the goddess in the western world.
- Hesiod, Theogony, 176ff.
- Herodotus, Histories, I.105 and 131.
- Glotta 11, 21 5f.
- Pausanias 1.14.6-7, W.S. Jones (trans.), Pausianas: Descriptions of Greece (London, 1931).
- R.Rosenzweig, Worshipping Aphrodite: Art and Cult in Classical Athens. (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004), 80-81.
- Buxton, Richard. The Complete World of Greek Mythology. Thames & Hudson, 2004.
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- Jones, W.S. (trans.) Pausianas: Descriptions of Greece. London, 1931. Pfister, Friedrich. Greek Gods and Heroes (Mervyn Savill, trans.). London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1961.
- Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. Routledge, 1990.
- Rosenzweig, R. Worshipping Aphrodite: Art and Cult in Classical Athens. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2004.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 04.08.2016, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.