Aphrodite: The True Origins of the Greek Goddess of Love, Sex, and Beauty
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, sex, and beauty and there are many tales of how she could entice both gods and mortals to lust after her. In one of the most famous images of the goddess, we see her beautiful form emerge from the sea, a reference to her fascinating origin story. But the true origins of the goddess come from long before the Greeks.
A Brief Overview of Aphrodite
Aphrodite was part of the ancient Greek pantheon. Some of her famous symbols are a mirror, scallop shell, dove, girdle, and apple. Of course, this popular goddess had many other symbols associated with her and the icons relate to the myths and attributes of the goddess .
The ancient stories of the goddess tend to reflect her role in love between the gods, humans, and gods and humans. Sometimes she was an outside influence on others’ stories and many times she was a major player in the stories as well. But as was common with the Olympian deities, Aphrodite also had a darker side and revenge was one of her less attractive features.
Nonetheless, her beauty and prevalence in ancient myth have inspired great works of art and literature since the goddess first enthralled mortal minds. She was also the patron deity of mariners, courtesans, and prostitutes . Though it may surprise you to know that her cult was actually said to be pretty austere for the times. The Romans adopted Aphrodite as their goddess Venus, which is also the planet connected with her.
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The Ludovisi Cnidian Aphrodite, Roman marble copy (torso and thighs) with restored head, arms, legs and drapery support. (Carole Raddato/ CC BY SA 2.0 )
Aphrodite’s First Origin Story
In this older of the two stories of Aphrodite’s birth , she emerges from the sea a grown woman. Her father is Uranos, the god of the sky, and she has no mother. This story takes place two generations before Zeus, when Uranos reigned with his wife Gaia, the goddess of the earth . Uranos hated his children and hid them in the depths of the earth, until Gaia, loathing her husband, devised a plan with her son Cronus. She equipped her son with a sickle and, when Uranos next came to sleep with Gaia, Cronus chopped off his genitals. The severed parts fell into the ocean and sea foam enveloped them. From this foam emerged the goddess Aphrodite.
This story was handed down to us by Hesiod, one of the earliest Greek poets. He explains that Aphrodite’s name comes from the Greek word aphros, meaning “foam,” which could refer to the sea foam or to Uranos’ semen. This myth is etiological, with Aphrodite’s birth from foam explaining the origin of her name. This is a poetic invention, however, and the true etymology of Aphrodite’s name remains unknown.
In his story, Hesiod has Aphrodite float past Cytherea and emerge at Cyprus. In Ancient Greece, both of these cities had huge cults to Aphrodite. In fact, the temple of Aphrodite at Cyprus is as old as the 12th century BC, long before Hesiod lived. Just as he used a Greek word to explain the mystery of Aphrodite’s name, Hesiod here uses geographical details to explain why she was worshipped in these two cities.
Aphrodite - The Great Goddess of Cyprus. ( Public Domain )
A Second Tale of Aphrodite’s Birth
In Aphrodite’s second birth story, she is a daughter of Zeus. Zeus is the grandson of Uranos and the son of Cronus. Like Cronus, Zeus overthrew his father to become ruler of heaven. In this story, Aphrodite’s mother is a goddess called Dione, about whom little else is known. It is notable that the name Dione is a feminized form of the Zeus’ alternate epithet, Dios.
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The Greek poet Homer, a contemporary of Hesiod, subscribed to this second myth of Aphrodite’s origin and she appears in his epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. This Aphrodite was later absorbed into the Roman pantheon as the goddess Venus. In this role she is credited with founding Rome through her mortal son, Aeneas. She also features as the cruel mother-in-law in Apuleius’ romantic epic Cupid and Psyche , and she has important roles in many other myths.
Different Versions of Aphrodite for the Greeks
Because of Aphrodite’s dichotomous origin stories, there is some confusion about her among Greek and Roman writers. In Plato’s Symposium, the characters discuss the differences between Aphrodite Urania, meaning “Heavenly Aphrodite,” and Aphrodite Pandemos or “Common Aphrodite.”
Heavenly Aphrodite is the daughter or Uranos. She inspires the love between two men and the love of learning and wisdom. Men who are under the spell of Common Aphrodite, however, have no preference between loving women or men. Interested in the body and not the soul, their love is base and uninspired. This interpretation, however, is unique to Plato . In Athens, where Aphrodite was worshiped with the title “Pandemos,” she was not thought to preside over base love, but rather her quality of being common meant that she was involved in civic matters.
The Pearls of Aphrodite’ (1907) by Herbert James Draper. ( Public Domain )
Aphrodite in Other Myths
Different sides of Aphrodite and her powers can be seen in the myths about her. In one of the popular myths, it is said that Aphrodite was so beautiful that other gods would fight for her affections. This allegedly led Zeus to decide that the goddess would be wed to the ugly Hephaestus. But marriage didn’t stop Aphrodite from taking many lovers .
The affair of Ares and Aphrodite is well known, but other myths describe her flings and subsequent children with Dionysus, Hermes, and Poseidon. Aphrodite’s magic girdle also appears in myths when others borrow it to inspire love and desire. Zeus himself fell prey to the enchanted object when Hera would wear it to incite his love.
Because Aphrodite was at the heart of so many affairs between other gods and mortals, it is said that Zeus decided she should also take a turn at losing some control and falling madly in love with humans. That explains how Aphrodite came to have a deep passion for Anchises and give birth to Aeneas and Lyrus.
Like many of the gods, Aphrodite was said to be rather vain and expected that humans would worship her and her powers. People who refused to do so, or somehow offended the goddess were severely punished. For example, Aphrodite made King Minos of Crete’s daughter Phaedra, who was also Theseus’ wife, fall in love with her stepson.
Eros brought by Peitho to Aphrodite as Anteros laughs at his being punished for having chosen the wrong target, Pompeiian fresco, circa 25 BC. ( Public Domain )
Classical mythology also suggests that Aphrodite was indirectly responsible for the Trojan War . This is because Paris chose Aphrodite as the winner of the golden apple over Athena and Hera in a goddess beauty contest after Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen. She also intervened in the war a few times, most famously to save Aeneas and to help Ares.
‘Judgement of Paris’ (c.1632-1635) by Rubens. ( Public Domain )
Aphrodite Before the Greeks
Although these myths surrounding Aphrodite are Greek, Aphrodite is not a Greek creation, but more of an acquisition. She is a version of the goddess Ashtart, also called Astarte, Ishtar, Isis, and a number of other variants, when she appears in different places around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East. As a goddess, Astarte held dominion not only over love, but also heaven and war. Aphrodite’s function was narrowed down to the goddess of love, although she is occasionally depicted with weapons or married to Ares, the Greek god of war, which is evidence of her bellicose beginnings.
A relief carving of Ishtar. Source: BigStockPhoto
Aphrodite resulted from a syncretism, or merging, between a Greek deity and this goddess of many names from the east. The myth of Aphrodite and Adonis supports this version of her history. In this tragic romantic tale, Aphrodite falls in love with a mortal named Adonis, but he is killed by a boar’s tusk while hunting. Shakespeare wrote a version of this story and so did the Roman poet Ovid in the first century AD, but its roots are much older than these two writers.
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In ancient Mesopotamia, the goddess was called Inanna and her mortal lover was Dumuzi. Just as the goddess’ name varies by region, Dumuzi has his other epithet “Adonis.” This name has Semitic roots, and it is the same as the invocation “oh my lord,” or adonai in Hebrew. This tragic love story between the great goddess and the ill-fated mortal man appears in many cultures throughout the Middle East, and attests to Aphrodite’s origins outside of Greece.
“Venus and Adonis” by Titian (c. 1553). ( Public Domain ) In this painting, Venus tries to stop Adonis from going hunting, which will lead to his death.
The Greeks had two contradicting birth myths for Aphrodite, their goddess of love. Hesiod tried to explain her name and places of worship when writing her origin story, while Homer took up the version that made her subordinate to the greatest god, Zeus. Through study of religion in other ancient cultures, we see that both stories were attempts by Greek poets to ingratiate a foreign goddess into their existing belief structure.
Top Image: “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Boticelli. Venus was the Roman interpretation of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who herself had origins from past civilizations. Source: Public Domain
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