Aphrodite | Greek Goddess of Love, Beauty & Passion

aphrodite

Αφροδίτη (afro-THEE-tee)

 

Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, has been the inspiration for more works of art than any other mythological figure in history. Her divine beauty and appealing patronage have made her a uniquely fascinating character for thousands of years.

 

The lovely goddess is fickle and vain, capable of enticing both gods and men, and as quick to punish as she is to reward. But Aphrodite is more than a goddess of love – she was long worshipped as a goddess of war and commerce too!

 

We’ve put together her origin myths, her worship and patronage, her lovers and children, and the most famous myths about this heavenly character from Greek mythology.

 

Aphrodite’s cult

‘The Cyprian goddess, who sends sweet longing upon the gods, and overcomes peoples of mortal kind, and the birds that fly in heaven, and all the numerous creatures that the land and sea foster’ (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite)

 

Head of a statue of Aphrodite, c. 300–290 BC.

 

Aphrodite, goddess of love, had her main cult centres in Athens (Attica), Cythera, Cyprus, and Corinth. Prostitutes considered her their patron goddess, but she was worshipped by both men and women across ancient Greece.

 

Aphrodite’s epithets & other names

Cyprus – this is where she was born to Zeus and Dione in one myth; the Greek gods are often known by their birthplace

Cytherea – this is where she arrived as a newborn in another origin myth

Venus – her later Roman name

Callipygian/Kallipygos – this means ‘of the beautiful buttocks’

Ourania – a cultic epithet meaning ‘heavenly’ and connecting her to her father Ouranos

Aphrodite Pandemos – this means ‘Aphrodite for all the people’ and was commonly used as part of her cultic celebrations

Androphonos – meaning ‘killer of men’

Skotia – meaning ‘of the darkness’

 

Patronage

Love, sex, beauty, pleasure and procreation, intimacy and deceit.

 

Attributes (how to recognise her in art)

1, Beautiful youthful figure

2. She’s often depicted naked or half-robed (she’s the only goddess who is)

3. She is sometimes accompanied by a baby Eros, her son

4. She sometimes rides a swan or a male goat

5. Before 400 BC she is depicted fully clothed, so she is more difficult to identify

6. Her symbols include dolphins, apples, doves, sparrows, conch shells, roses, and myrtle flowers

 

Aphrodite on a swan. 460 BC tondo from an Attic white-ground red-figured kylix. Image by Marie-Lan Nguyen

 

Aphrodisia festival

The annual Aphrodisia festival was celebrated every fourth month of the year in several Greek towns. Cyprus and Attica were home to the largest celebrations. Here, the Aphrodisia would continue for three days in most of its (documented) locations, with dancing, athletic games and feasting.

 

These ritualistic festivals would begin with the purification of her temples with the blood of a dove, Aphrodite’s sacred bird. Worshippers would then carry statues of Aphrodite and Peitho, goddess of persuasion and seduction and companion to the love goddess, to be washed and prepared. Worshippers would offer fire, incense, flowers, and white he-goats to the goddess, keeping them alive rather than the common blood sacrifices.

 

In Cyprus, initiates to the Mysteries of Aphrodite were offered bread baked in the shape of a phallus and sea-salt, signifying Aphrodite’s connection to the carnal and to the sea.

 

Aphrodite’s origin myths

The Birth of Venus, 1485. Sandro Botticelli’s famous masterpiece

 

As with all of the Greek gods, Aphrodite has multiple origin stories. The most common is simple – she is the daughter of Zeus and Dione, a Titaness. But Dione just translates to goddess, and there’s almost no information about her out there, making it a bit of a boring story.

 

The second is that she is far older than Zeus and the Olympians. In this myth, Aphrodite is born from the floating genitals of the primordial sky god…

 

How this came about is, Gaia (Mother Earth) and Ouranos (Father Sky) were lovers, creating the Titans together. But Ouranos hid his children in a cave deep within Gaia, refusing to bring them up to the light for fear they would overthrow him. So finally, after having all her children buried within her, Gaia made a plan. She fashioned a hook from adamantine, and her last-born son, Kronos, used it from within the cave to cut off his father’s genitals and fling them away.

 

The blood from this wound created the ‘powerful Erinyes and the great Giants in gleaming armour’ (Hesiod) as well as the ash-tree nymphs. The genitals themselves fell into the sea. From them, a white foam formed, and a girl formed inside this.

 

When the foamy loins approached Cythera, ‘out stepped a modest and beautiful goddess, and the grass began to grow all round beneath her slender feet’ (Hesiod). And so, she is called Cytherea because she approached this island first, and Aphrodite because she was formed in the foam, which in Greek is ‘aphros’ (αφρός)!

 

The origins & influences of Aphrodite’s myth

The cult of Aphrodite was influenced by the cult of the Mesopotamian goddess known as Ishtar or Inanna around the eighth century BC. the Phoenicians and the Assyrians brought her worship to Cyprus and Cythera, and it spread from there.

 

The Near-Eastern goddess was associated with love, sex, and war, and when Aphrodite began appearing in artworks, her iconography was nearly identical to Ishtar’s. She too, began as a warlike goddess, often depicted bearing arms. It was only later that she lost these associations.

 

Stories of Aphrodite

Lambert Sustris’ 1550 ‘Venus and Cupid’

 

Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, has many stories and many lovers. She’s quite a sneaky character, tricking gods and mortals into falling in love with the help of her son Eros. And she herself falls in love a good few times.

 

I’ve put together some of the most common myths about the goddess, to present a well-rounded picture of her character, and what she gets up to!

 

Aphrodite and the Trojan War

The Trojan War is one of the biggest, most fascinatingly complex myths in Greek mythology. And Aphrodite’s role in it is ever so important!

 

Wedding of Thetis and Peleus

It all starts when Aphrodite, Hera and Athena are thrown into a bitter dispute over who of them is the fairest in all the land.

 

They were all at the wedding of the nymph Thetis and hero Peleus, having a nice time. But Eris, goddess of Discord, was not invited and when she tried to join the festivities, she was asked to leave. Super rude. So, as her nature would suggest, she sewed some discord by throwing a golden apple into the party addressed ‘To the Fairest’. And who wouldn’t want a golden apple from a bitter woman…

 

The judgement of Paris

Peter Paul Rubens’s ‘Judgement of Paris’, created between 1632 and 1635 

 

So all three goddesses lay claim to the apple, and Zeus has to step in to mediate. But he isn’t fond of the idea of two goddesses angry with him. So he backs out and sends them to the mortal prince, Paris. Paris, son of King Priam, was known to be a fair judge.

 

But the goddesses are all sore losers, and honestly, not great at playing fair. After Paris fails to judge them with clothes on, they all three strip naked. But none of them are willing to leave it up to their looks to decide who was the fairest of all. Instead, they offer Paris some very blatant bribes.

 

Hera, mother of the gods, offers Paris unimaginable wealth and the role of king over all Europe and Asia. Athena offers him all skill and knowledge, making him the greatest warrior and most knowledgeable man in the world. And Aphrodite offers him the most beautiful mortal woman to be his wife.

 

Paris awards the apple to Aphrodite, incurring the wrath of Hera and Athena, and embroiling them all in a world of trouble. Because the most beautiful woman in the world was Helen of Troy, and she’s already married to old King Menelaus.

 

And so, the Trojan War

In order for Paris to actually claim his prize, he will have to go kidnap Helen from the Spartan king. But he does so, with Aphrodite’s help. King Menelaus then launches over 1000 ships to retrieve her, everyone picks sides, Hera and Athena aid Menelaus, and prophecies come to pass.

 

The adultery of Aphrodite and Ares

Alexandre Charles Guillemot’s 1827 depiction of the lovers being caught

 

There are a number of different versions of this story, but the most common is that Aphrodite and Ares are long-time lovers, having initially been tricked into love by Aphrodite’s sneaky little son.

 

Then one day, Hephaestos decides to punish his mother, Hera, for flinging him from Mount Olympus by giving her a golden throne that she cannot get out of. Zeus, desperate to get his wife out of the accursed throne, offers Aphrodite’s hand in marriage to whoever brings Hephaestos to them to undo the curse. Aphrodite agrees, thinking that her warrior-lover will certainly prevail. But he doesn’t – rather, Hephaestos brings himself, and so he’s the one to marry the goddess.

 

So, to be fair, this is not an ideal marital situation for the goddess of love. And Aphrodite and Ares don’t stop being lovers – they just become adulterers. One day, Helios, the sun god, sees Ares slipping into Aphrodite’s marriage bed, and he tells the craftsman god.

 

Enraged, Hephaistos ‘set himself to forge chains that could not be broken or torn asunder, being fashioned to bind lovers fast. Such was the device that he made in his indignation against Ares, and having made it he went to the room where his bed lay’ (Homer). The chains, strong as they are, are featherlight and invisible, setting a perfect trap.

 

The lovers soon join each other, Ares whisking Aphrodite off to the bed. But there they’re trapped, pinned down completely, and quickly realise with shame what has happened. Hephaestos returns to the house, ‘cut to the heart’ (Homer). He cries out to all the gods to come and see the adulterers so that they know how his marriage bed is shamed.

 

Joachim Wtewael’s far more boisterous ‘Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan’, 1601

 

The goddesses stay indoors, but all the male gods come to see what all the ruckus is about. The pair are well and truly shamed before Poseidon finally convinces Hephaistos to let them go, telling him that if Ares doesn’t pay his debt to the lame god for this, then he himself will. And freed from the chains, they both flee in different directions.

 

I’ll note here that Plato critiqued Homer’s depictions of the gods in this story, because they all had various lovers, so Aphrodite and Ares would not have necessarily been embarrassed! This incident also leads to their divorce, and Aphrodite is free to be Ares’ consort, and Hephaistos to marry again.

 

Aphrodite and Anchises, her mortal lover

Venus and Anchises by William Blake Richmond, 1889-1890

 

Aphrodite loves to boast and laugh about how she couples gods with mortals, overcoming their own will in the matter. so, to punish her for repeatedly tricking him into falling in love with mortal women, Zeus enacts a little payback.

 

He ‘casts a sweet longing into Aphrodite’s own heart to couple with a mortal man’ (Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite), the shepherd Anchises.

 

Seized by love, Aphrodite dresses herself up with the help of the Muses, putting on gold jewellery and a shining dress. But she disguises herself as a virginal maiden and goes to Anchises like this. As soon as he sees her, Anchises recognises that she is immortal (I think the shining dress was a dead giveaway) and begs her not to hurt him or his line. She says ‘whaaaa… I’m not a goddess, whatever would make you think that, absurd’, or something like. Rather, she tells him that she’s a mortal woman kidnapped by Hermes and plonked here, told to marry the man Anchises.

 

Delighted, Anchises says that if she really is to be his wife, he cannot go another moment without making love to her! So they go to his well-laid bed covered in fur and blankets and conveniently located right there.

 

When their passion is exhausted, Aphrodite puts him to sleep, and changes her form. She then wakes him up again, and he is aghast – men who sleep with immortal women tend to suffer greatly and usually just end up dead. And one of her epithets is ‘killer of men’… But she tells him not to worry. She’s very ashamed of sleeping with a mortal man, but she won’t kill him. In fact, she is pregnant with his son (the gods don’t waste time).

 

The son will be named Aeneas, and he will rule the Trojans. She won’t raise him herself, she’s above that. But she’ll give the boy to the nymphs to raise, and then he will be brought to his father when he comes of age. And that’s it! She departs, leaving Anchises shocked and just grateful to have all his limbs. But if he ever tells anyone about this, he’s dead meat.

 

A quick note on Aeneas

It’s important to note that while Aphrodite cannot raise a mortal son herself, she never forgets about Aeneas. Rather, she leads him out of a few binds and weaves tricks to ensure his victory – always while disguised. Not well disguised though, and in Virgil’s Aeneid, he calls after her ‘Why do you so often mock your own son by taking on these disguises? You are too cruel’ (Virgil).

 

Pygmalion & his marble love

Étienne Maurice Falconet’s 1763 Pygmalion & Galatea (sneaky Eros may have had something to do with this one, too) 

 

In this story made famous by the Roman orator Ovid, Pygmalion is a sculptor who sets out to create the perfect woman from marble. He labours long over his work, and in the end the sculpture is so beautiful, so perfect that he cannot help but fall in love with her. He decks her in beautiful jewellery and fine clothes, and stares at her perfect face daily, obsessed.

 

Pygmalion is ashamed of himself and his strange desire. But when Aphrodite’s yearly festival comes around, he makes offerings to the love goddess and prays that he finds a woman ‘the living likeness of my ivory girl’ (Ovid).

 

Aphrodite takes pity on the talented sculptor, particularly when she goes to the sculpture and finds that it looks an awful lot like her. There’s nothing Aphrodite likes more than a good compliment.

 

So when he returns home and gives his sculpture a kiss (everyday, ordinary thing to do) he finds that her lips are soft and warm. Aphrodite brought his sculpture to life! He and Galatea (the living sculpture’s name) live happily ever after.

 

Interestingly, this story has been compared with more modern stories of men shaping wild and unrefined women into their own educated ideal. Particularly because Pygmalion is suspicious and disdainful of real women. In fact, the famous movie My Fair Lady is based on a 1913 play called Pygmalion!

 

Hippolytus

Hippolytus, Phaedra and Theseus by unknown 18th-century German school artist

 

Hippolytus is a tragic figure, punished for favouring one goddess and one path over another. In the story, Hippolytus is the son of the hero Theseus and the Amazonian queen Hippolyta.

 

He grows into a fine, very handsome young man. But Hippolytus is dedicated to the virginal goddess Artemis, and vows to stay chaste his whole life. Aphrodite takes great offense at this – a beautiful youth rejecting sensual love! So she curses Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, to fall in love with him. Phaedra pines after the young man, and eventually tries to seduce him. But Hippolytus spurns her advances and rejects her.

 

Distraught and bitter, Phaedra kills herself – but not before telling Theseus that his son tried to rape her. Theseus is enraged, and is unwilling to listen to his son (so many of these stories include a terrible lack of communication). So he prays to Poseidon, asking him to kill his oldest son.

 

So, while Hippolytus is driving his chariot along the coast, Poseidon sends a terrible sea-monster to spook his horses, and he dies in a crash.

 

Some versions have a happy ending to the story though. Artemis, mourning the death of her devotee, has Aeschlepius resuscitate him, and brings him somewhere safe.

 

Aphrodite’s lovers & children

Aphrodite is the mother of a number of gods and heroes. The most important of these is always Eros, her bow-wielding companion.

 

Eros

Detail of Eros bending his bow by Lysippos, c. 390 BC – this is a 1st century AD Roman copy

 

By far the most famous of Aphrodite’s children, Eros deserves special mention. He isn’t her child in every myth – in Hesiod’s Theogony, Eros is a primordial god who came into existence in the beginning of time, a nature god as important as Gaia herself. He even attends Aphrodite at her birth.

 

But in most stories, he is the cheeky young son of the goddess of love. He wields a bow and arrows, which he uses to plant desire in the hearts of men and women. His realm is specifically passionate, sensual love, and it’s his name that the term ‘erotic’ comes from!

 

Lovers & her children by them

Statue of Aphrodite. This is a 2nd c. AD version of the 4th c. BC Syracuse Aphrodite

 

Aphrodite has a long list of lovers and a longer list of kiddies. One man she did not have children by is her poor husband Hephaestus – not in a single myth.

 

Ares

The mighty god of war, Ares is Aphrodite’s most famous consort.

 

Phobos: Not the most glamorous son, Phobos is the personification of fear and panic. He is his father’s attendant, sewing panic before war.

 

Deimos: The personification of dread and terror, Deimos is Phobos’s twin brother, and likewise attends his father.

 

Harmonia: Thankfully, not all their children are almighty awful. Harmonia is the goddess of harmony and concord.

 

The four Erotes: Winged gods associated with sex and love, these ever-youthful gods attend their mother. Eros is the most well-known of them, and in many stories, he is the only one. In others, his brothers are Anteros, Himeros, and Pothos. In some myths, they are all Ares’ children, while in others they are sired by different gods.

 

Anchises

Anchises is Aphrodite’s little indiscretion – the mortal man Zeus tricks her into falling in love with, and who she then tricks into sleeping with her before revealing her true likeness.

 

Aeneas: The son of mortal man and heavenly woman, Anchises is a hero who features in a number of stories about the Trojan War.

 

Dionysus

Dionysus, also known as Bacchus, is the god of wine and dance and a general good time. Of course Aphrodite spent a few happy nights with this god!

 

Hymenaeus: The god of marriage and ceremonies, and the lyric poetry sung to the bride as she’s carried to her husband’s house (very specific). He’s known to be an incredibly beautiful god. In some stories, he is Apollo’s son, not Dionysus’, and in others, he is one of the Erotes.

 

Iacchus: A minor god whose name is evoked during the Eleusinian Mysteries. In some stories, he is simply another name for Dionysus.

 

Priapus: A fertility god and protector of gardens and livestock, and male genitals. He is known for his permanently erect and oversized penis, and was frequently used as a humorous element in later Roman stories.

 

Hermes

Hermaphrodites: A minor god with both male and female genitalia, Hermaphrodites is the god of effeminate men. In one myth he was a beautiful youth, and when a young woman fell in love with him and prayed that they’d be forever united, the god bound them together in one physical form.

Priapus: In some myths, this fertility god was Hermes’ son, not Dionysus’.

 

Adonis

Beroe: A nymph and mortal, Beroe was raised by Astraia, virgin goddess of justice. Wooed by both Poseidon and Dionysus, she eventually married the god of the sea.

Golgos: Little is known about this minor character, besides the fact that he was the son of Aphrodite and Adonis.

 

Greek mythology’s Aphrodite

 

Because plays were created and performed so regularly, and artistic tradition was held in such high regard in Ancient Greece, there are many myths about the gods, and dozens of stories about Aphrodite. But these are some of the best preserved and well-known among them.

 

If you think I’ve missed any important details about the goddess of love, please let me know!

 

Ancient sources

 

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Circa 8 AD. Translated by Raeburn, D. 2004

Hesiod. Theogony.  Circa 700 BC. Translated by West, M. L. 2003

Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by West, D. 1991

Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. Translated by West, M. L.

Homer. The Iliad. Circa 700 BC. Translated by Pope, T.

 

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