Aphrodite

Definition

by Mark Cartwright
published on 24 June 2012

Ancient Greek goddess of love, beauty, and desire, Aphrodite (Roman name: Venus) could entice both gods and men into illicit affairs with her good looks and whispered sweet nothings.

In mythology the goddess was born when Cronos castrated his father Uranus and cast the genitalia into the sea from where Aphrodite appeared amidst the resulting foam (aphros). Believed to have been born close to Cyprus, she was worshipped in Paphos on the island (a geographic location which hints at her eastern origins as a fertility goddess and possible evolution from the Phoenician goddess Astarte).

Compelled by her mother Hera to marry Hephaistos, she was less than faithful, having notorious affairs with Ares, Hermes, and Dionysos. She was the mother of Eros, Harmonia (with Ares), and the Trojan hero Aeneas (with Anchises). The goddess had a large retinue of lesser deities such as Hebe (goddess of youth), the Hours, Dike, Eirene, Themis, the Graces, Aglaia, Euphrosyne, Theleia, Eunomia, Daidia, Eudaimonia, and Himeros.

In mythology Aphrodite is cited as partly responsible for the Trojan War. At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, Eris (goddess of strife) offered a golden apple for the most beautiful goddess. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite vied for the honour, and Zeus appointed the Trojan prince Paris as judge. To influence his decision, Athena promised him strength and invincibility, Hera offered the regions of Asia and Europe, and Aphrodite offered the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite and so won fair Helen of Sparta. However, as she was already the wife of Menelaos, Paris’s abduction of Helen provoked the Spartan king to enlist the assistance of his brother Agamemnon and send an expedition to Troy to take back Helen.

Hesiod describes the goddess as ‘quick-glancing’, ‘foam-born’, ‘smile-loving’, and most often as ‘golden Aphrodite’. Similarly, in Homer’s description of the Trojan War in the Iliad, she is described as ‘golden’ and ‘smiling’ and supports the Trojans in the war, in notable episodes, protecting Aeneas from Diomedes and saving the hapless Paris from the wrath of Menelaos.

The birth of Aphrodite from the sea (perhaps most famously depicted on the throne base of the great statue of Zeus at Olympia) and the judgment of Paris were popular subjects in ancient Greek art. The goddess is often identified with one or more of the following: a mirror, an apple, a myrtle wreath, a sacred bird or dove, a sceptre, and a flower. On occasion, she is also depicted riding a swan or goose. She is usually clothed in Archaic and Classical art and wears an elaborately embroidered band across her chest which held her magic powers of love, desire, and seductive allurement. It is only later (from the 4th century BCE) that she is depicted naked or semi-naked.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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