Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, was one of the most important figures in the ancient Greek pantheon. Her beauty inspired great art from humanity and great arguments between the other gods. So who was Aphrodite? And how is she still shaping our culture?
The Goddess of Love
Aphrodite was the goddess of beauty and of romantic rather than familial love. Her cult was strongly influenced by that of the Phoenician goddess Astarte, and in turn came to be associated with the Roman goddess Venus.
Her name is said to come from the Greek word aphros, meaning “foam.” She was born from the white foam at the edge of the sea, produced when the Titan Cronus cut off the genitals of his father Uranus, the personification of Heaven, and threw them into the waters. Her connection with the sea continued, with people worshipping her as a goddess of the sea and of seafaring. In some places she was also seen as a war goddess. But she was best known as a symbol of love and fertility.
Aphrodite’s cult was a serious, solemn one. But that didn’t stop prostitutes adopting her as their patron, associating her strongly with the sensual side of love.
Depictions of Aphrodite show a beautiful woman, often naked. Like other Greek gods, she can be identified by the symbols around her. Doves were one of the most common signs of Aphrodite, and marble sculptures of doves were used as offerings to her. Because of her connection with the sea and water, conch shells, dolphins, and water birds were also hers. Apples were among her most important symbols, as were pomegranates, fruits often associated with sexuality and fertility.
Aphrodite and the Other Gods
Aphrodite lacked the sibling relationships that bound many of the other gods together. Still, she managed to get tangled up in their family affairs.
She was often accompanied by Eros, a god of lust and desire. In some myths, he is portrayed as an ancient, primeval force. In others, he is Aphrodite’s son. Either way, the two of them together provided an influence for desire that almost no-one could resist.
Aphrodite was so irresistible that it led to conflict between the gods. According to one version of the story, this is why Zeus had her married to Hephaestus, the crippled god of fire and crafting – to stop the arguments. Other accounts say that Aphrodite was Hephaestus’s reward for freeing Hera from the throne in which he had trapped her. Of course, Zeus might have been doing both things at once.
If Zeus hoped that the marriage would stop any trouble around Aphrodite, he badly misjudged the situation. Forced into a marriage she hadn’t chosen, she began an affair with Ares, the god of war. Hephaestus heard about this and forged an unbreakable, invisible net just to capture the two of them naked together. Then he hauled them in front of the other Olympians and Ares was forced to pay a fine for the infidelity.
Aphrodite and Adonis
Aphrodite has long been associated with another figure of beauty – Adonis.
Adonis was the son of Myrrha, a woman who Aphrodite had cursed after Myrrha’s mother claimed the girl was more beautiful than Aphrodite. Myrrha was cast out by her family and turned into a myrrh tree, but still managed to give birth. Aphrodite found the baby and took him to Persephone to foster in the underworld.
As he grew up, Adonis turned out to be very handsome. Both Aphrodite and Persephone wanted to keep him with them. Zeus decreed that Adonis should spend a third of his time with each woman, and the last third with whoever he chose. He chose Aphrodite.
Sadly, this caused even more jealousy, as Ares became envious of Aphrodite’s time with Adonis. He sent a boar, which killed the young man while he was out hunting. Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms.
The Judgement of Paris
Aphrodite was among those responsible for starting the Trojan War.
When the hero Peleus married Thetis, the gods and goddesses were invited to the wedding. Eris, the goddess of discord, was not invited. She got her revenge by turning up with a golden apple with the words “For the Fairest” engraved on its side, throwing the apple out into the room, and so starting a bitter argument.
Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite all believed that they were the fairest, so argued over who the apple should go to. Zeus didn’t want to have to settle this one, so gave the task to Paris, a Trojan prince. Each goddess offered him a bribe, and he chose the one offered by Aphrodite – Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world. Aphrodite got the apple and Paris got the girl.
Menelaus and his allies decided to fight to get Helen back, sparking a war. Many heroes died and one of the greatest cities in Greece was destroyed, all because Aphrodite offered up another woman to prove her beauty.
Aphrodite in Modern Culture
As one of the more memorable and famous gods, Aphrodite has a prominent place in modern culture.
Dove soap bears a symbol taken from Aphrodite and so associated with beauty – the dove.
She has appeared directly as a character in modern stories based on ancient Greek legends. On screen, she was in the Hercules and Xena TV shows, alongside many other figures from mythology, remixed for the modern world.
Aphrodite and her Roman equivalent Venus have become synonymous with love and beauty. Her name turns up in songs about love and desite, whether it’s Katy Perry’s Dark Horse or Tal Bachman’s She’s So High.
This tradition stretches back to the renaissance, when painters became fascinated with showing Aphrodite and her Roman equivalent Venus. Sandro Botticelli, Titian, and Peter Paul Reubens repeatedly depicted her beauty. The theme was picked up again by 19th-century painters such as Jacques-Louis David and parodied by Édouard Manet in his Olympia. Go to almost any art gallery in Europe, and somewhere you’ll find the beauty of Aphrodite, still entrancing men after thousands of years.