Aphrodite was one of the mightiest Olympians, traditionally known as the goddess of love, sex, and beauty. However, recent scholarship underlines her complex character and has revealed that her sphere of influence was less restricted than formerly thought. Besides presiding over every aspect of sexuality, Aphrodite also filled significant functions in the marine, martial, and political spheres of the Greek cities. It is furthermore clear from the ancient evidence that Aphrodite was not mainly a goddess of women and private life. Among her worshipers were men and women, officials of the polis, and private individuals alike.
Aphrodite frequently figures in mythology. Sometimes known as the daughter of Zeus and Dione (Hom. Il. 5.370–1), according to a more famous account, Aphrodite was born from the foam that appeared as the genitalia of the sky-god Ouranos, severed with a sickle by Kronos, fell into the sea (Hes. Theog. 190–5). Most myths concerning Aphrodite tell stories ofher love-life. Aphrodite is often portrayed as the unfaithful wife of hephaistos or wife or lover of ares (Hom. Od. 8.266–369; Pind. Pyth. 4.87–8). Among her mortal lovers, Aphrodite's favorite by far was the beautiful boy adonis (Apollod. 3.14.3–4). AphAdonis' death in a hunting accident devastated the goddess, and her deep grief was commemorated in cult, through a yearly women-only festival, the Adonia. Her relationship with the Trojan Anchises resulted in a son, aeneas, who came to play an important part in mythology as an ancestor of the Roman people (Hymn. Hom. Ven.). AphNot her lover, but an important mortal protégé of Aphrodite was another Trojan, Paris. He accorded her the title of the most beautiful of all the goddesses (the so-called "Judgment of Paris"), and thereby earned her favor for himself and Troy. Other notable characters in Aphrodite's mythological retinue are Eros, Himeros ("Desire"), and Peitho ("Persuasion").
Because "love" is a culturally dependent concept, Aphrodite's denomination "Goddess of Love" has recently been rejected (Pironti 2010). Aphrodite's main sphere of influence and cult aspect can rather be defined as all that relates to sex and is caused by the erotic impulse, including everything from beautification meant to create sexual attraction to the sexual act itself, from erotic pleasures to erotic madness, and from marriage to prostitution. The existence of "sacred prostitution" in Greece, usually associated with Aphrodite, has now been questioned as a "historiographical myth" (Pirenne-Delforge 2007: 319–22; Budin 2008). It has interestingly been noted that Aphrodite alone among the Olympians has given her proper name to the noun designating her area of intervention, ta aphrodisia (Pirenne-Delforge 2007: 311).
Aphrodite was also frequently honored as a marine goddess, protecting travelers by sea. This aspect is visible through the myth of Aphrodite's birth from the sea, as through the many marine epithets given to the goddess, for example, Euploia ("of the fair voyage," IMylasa 207), Pontia ("of the deep sea," IErythrai213a), and Limeneia ("of the harbor," Paus. 2.34.11), and through the frequent location of Aphrodite sanctuaries close to the sea or a harbor, as on the island of Kos (Parker 2002).
Epigraphic evidence furthermore shows that Aphrodite filled an important function as protectress of magistrates (SEG 9.133; SEG 15.383; IG VII 41), and in both literature and cult she was associated with the world of warfare. The common denominator for the seemingly disparate functions of Aphrodite (sex, war, and politics) has recently been explained through her ability to unite and create concord, or through her role as the deity of mixis ("mingling"). As creator of an impulse towards mixis, Aphrodite mingles bodies in sexual relations as in war, or different elements in a political entity (Pirenne-Delforge 1994, 2007; Pironti 2007; however, cf. Parker 2002).
Aphrodite's name has not been identified in the Linear B tablets. A vexed question is thus whether Aphrodite developed as an indigenous deity or reached the Greek cultural sphere from abroad. Modern scholars are divided between three main hypotheses. Many, noting resemblances between Aphrodite and near eastern goddesses such as Inanna (Ishtar) and Astarte, argue that the goddess came to Greece from the near east, during a period of intensive influence and cultural exchange between the two areas (during the so-called Dark Ages, at the latest in the eighth century bce, when Greek Aphrodite appears in early epic). It is noteworthy that the fifth century bce historian Herodotus reported that the oldest sanctuary of Aphrodite Ourania was located in Syrian Ascalon (Hdt. Hist. 1.105.2–3). The importance of cyprus in the worship of Aphrodite is also evident from ancient sources. Another influential theory thus highlights the role of cyprus for the first appearance of the Greek Aphrodite, proposing either that Phoenician traders brought the goddess from the east, or that a native cyprian goddess developed into Aphrodite, who subsequently made her way to the Greek mainland. The third main hypothesis presents Aphrodite as an offshoot of an early Indo-European dawn goddess. Of major importance for this argument is Aphrodite's pedigree: early Greek epic frequently refers to her as the daughter of a sky-god (Ouranos or Zeus), as was the Indo-European dawn goddess (Cyrino 2010: 18–25).
Eros/Cupid; Hermes; Phoenicia, Phoenicians; Sex and sexuality, Greece; Venus.
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