Aphrodite, Goddess of Love and Beauty
Anne Baird August, 2010
“April is the cruelest month…” This famous opening line of T.S.Eliot’s revolutionary poem, The Wasteland, published in 1922, fits the ancient myth of the birth and life of Aphrodite to a T.
“Foam-risen” Aphrodite, (the Greek name for foam is “aphros”), was the product of a highly dysfunctional family. Her mother, Gaia, the generative Greek Earth Mother, tired of the constant attentions and cruelty of her husband, Uranus, who was both God of the Sky, and her first-born son. She asked one of their sons, Cronus, to castrate his father, so he would be unable to father any more children with her. (Uranus feared that their children would overthrow him one day. Because of this fear, he tried to prevent their being born. He did this by burying their babies deep within their mother, causing her untold anguish.)
Cronus was glad to oblige. He launched a murderous attack upon Uranus, and cast his severed genitals into the sea, where they dissolved into foam. From this potent and sexually charged brew, the fully-grown Goddess of Love was formed. She was never a child, raised to respect the rules and regulations of her elders. Instead, she emerged in full glory, her hair dripping with pearls, and greeted by ecstatic doves. Riding on a seashell, she was blown ashore to the island of Cyprus by the West Wind ~ the embodiment of love, beauty, and untrammeled sexuality. Her arrival caused a sensation in Olympus! Every god desired her. Every goddess was jealous. The world was turned upside down…
Zeus, King of the Gods, quickly realized he had a disaster on his hands. To avoid fighting amongst the gods for her favors, and to nail her down, he married her off to Hephaestus, the crippled master craftsman of Olympus. Hephaestus couldn’t believe his luck! Besotted with love, he created exquisite jewelry for his lovely bride, including the cestus, a magic girdle or belt, which made the wearer irresistible to men. This was another terrible mistake. Aphrodite was already irresistible, and had no intention of being faithful to a dull husband.
She carried on with dozens of lovers, including her half-brother, Ares, the impetuous God of War. She bore many children to her paramours, including Eros (Cupid), the son of Ares, who helped her to promote love and sensual delight. In vain, Hephaestus tried to control her. When he trapped Ares and Aphrodite in a golden net, and exposed their illicit affair to Zeus and the gods for judgment, he failed. Zeus, recognizing the futility of trying to discipline the goddess, refused to condemn her. She went on her merry way.
Aphrodite was impulsive and thoughtless as well as sexually self-indulgent. Wanting to defeat Hera and Athena in a three-way contest to be crowned Most Beautiful of all the goddesses, she shamelessly bribed the judge, Prince Paris of Troy. Hera and Athena also tried to bribe Paris. They offered him power and wisdom. Aphrodite, knowing what moves the hearts of men, promised him the most beautiful woman in the world for his wife. Paris awarded her the Golden Apple. Unfortunately for him, and for the ancient world, the woman, Helen of Sparta, was already married, to Agamemnon, King of Sparta.
Aphrodite’s scheme worked. Paris and Helen fell in love, and eloped. The tragic meddling of the goddess in affairs of the heart soon morphed into affairs of state, leading to the devastating 10-year long Trojan War, in which thousands of Greek heroes and citizens perished. Enraged, Zeus commanded Aphrodite to return to her appointed role as goddess of love, sensual delight, and fertility, where she could do less harm.
Aphrodite continued to take lovers. She even fell in love with a mortal ~ Adonis, the Hunter. This time, however, she was destined to suffer as well. Fearing that a wild animal might kill Adonis, she ordered him to give up hunting. Adonis refused, and was gored to death by a wild boar. The devastated goddess transformed her dying lover’s drops of blood into anemones. These lovely, short-lived blossoms remind us that she knew sorrow as well as passion.
A cult sprang up around the worship of Aphrodite. The month of April was consecrated to Venus, her Roman equivalent. Her festival, the Aphrodisia, (from which we derive the word aphrodisiac) was celebrated all over Greece on the first day of Aprilis, or April ~ especially at her temples in Athens and Corinth. Intercourse with her priestesses, called hierodules, or “sacred servants,” was considered a sacred act ~ a way of worshiping the goddess to ensure fertility and good fortune in love.
This custom originated in rituals practiced by worshippers of Aphrodite’s Near Eastern predecessors, such as the Sumerian goddess, Inanna, and the Akkadian goddess, Ishtar. These Eastern goddesses, forbears of both Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus, also employed temple prostitutes. The practice was well documented in Babylon, Syria, Palestine, Phoenicia, and Carthage. Not surprisingly, Aphrodite is the patroness of courtesans, and of all who love or seek to be loved. She is also the protectress of sailors.
She has modern counterparts in contemporary “Sex Goddesses,” such as Madonna or Britney Spears. These adored celebrities seem to break all the rules in their search for happiness ~ though their behavior does not appear to reflect the goddess’s sense of sacred mission and delight.
Aphrodite’s power over love may seem narrow and frivolous, especially when compared to the impressive powers of Zeus, King of the Gods; Ares, God of War; or Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. The capacity to wage war, to lead nations, to sway mobs, to amass fortunes, or to display intellectual brilliance, are often more highly prized than the simple ability to move the human heart.
Yet the lesson of Aphrodite is that love reigns supreme. Zeus himself could not suppress her search for love. And the history of the Trojan War demonstrates the power of an ill-conceived passion to destroy nations. The goddess drives us into each other’s arms, breaks our hearts, and brings us back for more. She plants the seeds of attraction that lead to the birth of babies. She ensures the continuity of the human race.
While her willful quest for pleasure may lead to grief, she never gives up on love, or ceases to pursue it. She is fruitful, bears many children, and cherishes them. She rewards those who honor love: punishes those who deny it. She is a good friend, a bad enemy, and an ardent lover.
Above all, she is beautiful, fearless in her determination to live her life with passion and joy. Because of this, she has inspired generations of artists, poets, and writers to create immortal works of art in her honor.