Feb 22, 2016

The Intriguing Origins of Aphrodite

Origins of Aphrodite
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, sex, and beauty. In one of the most famous images of the goddess, we see her emerge from the sea, a reference to her 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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 
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). Image source. 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.

Featured image: “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Boticelli. Source: Wikimedia

Primary Sources;

  • Apuleius, The Golden Ass
  • Hesiod, Theogeny
  • Homer, Iliad
  • Plato, Symposium
  • Pausanias, Description of Greece
  • Further reading:
  • Budin, Stephanie L. “A Reconsideration of the Aphrodite-Ashtart Syncretism,” Numen, Vol. 51, Fasc. 2, (2004), pp. 95-145
  • Burkert, W. Greek Religion. Harvard University Press (1985)
  • Marcovich, Miroslav. “From Ishtar to Aphrodite,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 30, No. 2, Special Issue: Distinguished Humanities Lectures II (Summer, 1996), pp. 43-59

By Miriam Kamil
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