The goddess of love, passion and procreation, sensual Aphrodite was the wellspring of both homosexual and heterosexual erotic desire. A figure both generously nurturing and passionately destructive, Aphrodite embodied all the possibilities that love and desire had to offer.
Aphrodite's many epithets and descriptors reflected her duality—she was known as Philommeidḗs (“smile loving,”) and Skotia (“Dark One.”) She was also called Ambologera, or “She who Postpones Old Age,” as well as Androphonos (“the Slayer of Men,”) and Tymborychos (“Gravedigger.”) While all of the above descriptors were used from time to time, Aphrodite was most commonly described as Ourania, “heavenly,” and Pandemos, “for all people.”
In ancient times, Greeks believed the name “Aphrodite” to derive from the Greek word aphrós, meaning “sea-foam,” a reference to her supposed origins. Modern philologists have theorized that this derivation was simply folk etymology; they also suggested that the Greeks Hellenized her name to match her origin story. The earliest versions of her name were likely Near Eastern—Assyrian or Phoenician, perhaps—as Aphrodite was clearly the Greek version of the Phoenician goddess Astarte and the Assyrian goddess Ishtar.1
Aphrodite was the motherless daughter of the primordial god Uranus, as she was created from his severed genitals. Though she was usually presented as being married to Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship and metallurgy, the bonds of marriage were no barrier to Aphrodite, who desired—and was desired by—many.
Aphrodite's ongoing and recidivistic affair with Ares produced a number of children whose natures represented the extremes of her own personality. Among these children were Phobos (god of fear), Deimos (god of terror), Harmonia (goddess of harmony and well being), Adrestia (“she who cannot be escaped,” a goddess of justice), and the deities known as the Erotes: Eros, Anteros, Himeros, and Pothos, all associated with erotic love and desire.
With Dionysus, the god of wine known for inducing religious ecstasy, Aphrodite had Hymenaios (god of marriage ceremonies), Iacchus (a minor deity known for his role in the Eleusinian Mysteries), Priapus (a god of livestock), and the deities known as the Charites: Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia, all associated with charm, beauty, and fertility.
With Hermes, Aphrodite had Hermaphroditos (a name formed from “Hermes” and “Aphrodite,”) who possessed both male and female genitalia (a sign of Aphrodite’s duality). Aphrodite also had children with Poseidon (Rhodos) and the beautiful Adonis, the most lovely of mortal males.
There were at least two well-known versions of the birth (or creation) of Aphrodite. The first, told by Hesiod in the Theogony, placed the creation of Aphrodite at the beginning of mythic time, when the Titan Cronus, son of Uranus, rose against his father.
Uranus was a primordial deity and the ruler of the universe whose union with Gaia, the earth, started all things. When Cronus overthrew his father (starting a cycle that would reverberate throughout the Greek mythos), he cut off Uranus’ genitals and cast them in the seas off the coast of Cythera. From Uranus’ blood arose the Erinyes, Giants, and nymphs, and from the foam that swirled around his severed genitals came Aphrodite. Hesiod’s poetry brought the savage scene to life:
Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father's members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bore the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armor, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite.2
The other version of Aphrodite's origins, told by Homer, presented Aphrodite as the child of Zeus and Dione, a mysterious figure who may have been a Titan or an Oceanid. This version was not so much told as it was assumed by Homer, who simply described Aphrodite as the daughter of Dione.
Nevertheless, the contrasting stories surrounding Aphrodite's origins created some confusion among the ancient Greeks, a situation that Plato attempted to solve in his dialogue, the Symposium. In this famous dinner-party conversation, Plato, speaking through the character of Pausanias, suggested that Aphrodite Ouranos (“heavenly Aphrodite”) and Aphrodite Pandemos (“common Aphrodite,” or “Aphrodite of the people”), the most popular epithets for the goddess, were in fact separate deities merged together in the collective consciousness of the Greeks.
According to Plato, Aphrodite Pandemos stood for the “lower” or “common” sort of sexual love between a male and female. Aphrodite Ouranos, on the other hand, stood for the “higher,” more rarefied kind of love that could only exist between two males, especially in the idealized pederastic relationship between an erastes, an older wizened man, and an eromenos, a young man or boy blossoming into masculine adulthood.
Aphrodite, the Lover and Creator
Many stories of Aphrodite centered on her famous beauty and sexual passions, as well as the passions she inspired in others. In one tale, she appeared as a beautiful mortal and seduced Anchises, a lonely shepherd from the foothills of Mount Ida, near the legendary city of Troy.
In these stories, Anchises was led to believe that Aphrodite was a virgin; subsequently, he became overwhelmed with the desire to sleep with her. After the consummation of their union, Aphrodite revealed her true identity and informed Anchises she was pregnant with a demigod named Aeneas who was to become a lord of Troy. (Later Roman myths presented him as a founder of the city.)
Aphrodite similarly seduced Adonis, the handsome mortal, whom she discovered as a baby and fell in love with as a man. Adonis split his time between living with his stepmother, Persephone, and lying with Aphrodite. Eventually, Adonis was murdered by a boar sent by the virgin goddess Artemis in revenge for Aphrodite’s mistreatment of Hippolytus, the virgin son of Theseus. As the goddess of love and sex, Aphrodite seemingly did not appreciate virginity. Aphrodite’s grief became a focal point of the Adonia, a cultic celebration held in honor of Aphrodite and Adonis that was reserved for women alone.
Aphrodite involvement with the sexual passions of mortals was unsurprising given that she created sexual passion in the first place. In creation stories, it was usually Aphrodite who created the first mortal female—Pandora. As the stories have it, Aphrodite made Pandora beautiful so that she would be desired. She also imbued Pandora with desires of her own, thus ensuring that humankind would be forever tempted. In her womanly weakness—a classic feature of misogynistic creation stories—Pandora was enticed to reveal the contents of her pithos (a uterus-shaped jar, often mistranslated as “box" and used colloquially to refer to a womb), an event that unleashed the horrors of misery and death upon humans.
Aphrodite, the Punisher
For all her love, Aphrodite could be as vengeful as any other deity. According to one tale, women on the island of Lemnos attracted her anger by refusing to offer sacrifices in her honor. In response, Aphrodite caused the women to stink so awfully that they became repugnant to their husbands.
Refusing the advances of their malodorous wives, the husbands of Lemnos instead opted to have sex with slaves. The aggrieved women then murdered their husbands and slaves. At this point, Jason and the Argonauts happened to visit Lemnos. Seeing that the island's population was in danger, the sailors consented to have sex with the smelly women. The island was thus saved from demographic collapse, and its women learned a valuable lesson about Aphrodite.
In Euripides’ fifth-century tragedy, Hippolytus, Aphrodite’s jealousy was once again on full display. Hippolytus, the eponymous hero of the play, was devoted to the worship of the virgin goddess, Artemis, and as a faithful acolyte refused to partake in sexual activities. Taking this as a personal affront, Aphrodite promised revenge. She achieved it by causing Phaedra, Hippolytus’ step mother, to fall hopelessly in love with the young man.
Aphrodite knew that Hippolytus, a devoted follower of Artemis, would refuse his step mother's advances. This sends When he did so, Phaedra fell into a deep depression and committed suicide, leaving a note that accused Hippolytus of trying to rape her. Theseus, Hippolytus’ father, promised vengeance for this imagined act, and asked Poseidon to help him murder Hippolytus. Poseidon obliged, sending a wild bull to attack Hippolytus as he was riding his chariot along a rocky shoreline. The bull scared the horses and Hippolytus smashed into the cliffs, becoming mortally wounded in the process. This long chain events was a direct result of Aphrodite's jealousy.
Aphrodite and the Iliad
The Greeks liked to blame women for causing trouble, and such was the case with the Trojan War—the most important and impactful of all mortal conflicts. According to legend, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite were at fault; it was Aphrodite, however, who bore the heaviest weight of responsibility.
The events leading up to the Trojan War began with a petty disagreement among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite over who was the most beautiful. To solve the question once and for all, they decided to have a contest. The winner of this contest would receive a golden apple inscribed with the words “to the fairest.” Zeus commissioned Paris, prince of Troy, to decide.
Eager to settle the matter, the goddesses appeared before Paris unclothed, but he refused to choose. The goddesses then resorted to bribes—Hera promised political power while Athena promised wisdom and glory. It was Aphrodite, however, who offered Paris the most beautiful mortal woman alive. Paris chose this latter gift, which happened to be Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. In fulfillment of her promise, Aphrodite had Helen abducted and brought to Troy; it was this act that ultimately sparked the conflict.
During the war, Aphrodite consistently defended the Trojans and personally watches over the fortunes of Paris and Helen. She intervened to rescue Paris after he had challenged the mighty king Menelaus to hand-to-hand combat, and later returned to save her son Aeneas from the great warrior Diomedes.
Aphrodite has been commonly referenced in popular culture, often as a symbol of beauty and love. During the Renaissance and early modern periods, Aphrodite was frequently depicted in art as the embodiment of feminine beauty.
In more recent times, Aphrodite has maintained a lively presence. In the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, Aphrodite was a gossipy, love-obsessed character played by Alexandra Tydings, who performed the role in anachronistic pink lingerie. Aphrodite was also an important character in the Rick Riordan book series Percy Jackson & the Olympians, which was later adapted for film, stage, and television.
The ancient goddess' name was also been appropriated by a beauty company called Aphrodite Skin Care. The company's products bore the subtitle “The Secret of Natural Beauty” and boasted of being made from “Cretan Organic Olive Oil.”
“Aphrodite.” Online Etymology dictionary. https://www.etymonline.com/word/aphrodite.
Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.
Wikipedia contributers. “Aphrodite.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphrodite.