One of the great Olympian divinities, was, according to the popular and poetical notions of the Greeks, the goddess of love and beauty. Some traditions stated that she had sprung from the foam (ἀφρός, aphros) of the sea, which had gathered around the mutilated parts of Uranus, that had been thrown into the sea by Cronus after he had unmanned his father.1 With the exception of the Homeric hymn on Aphrodite there is no trace of this legend in Homer, and according to him Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione.2 Later traditions call her a daughter of Cronus and Euonyme, or of Uranus and Hemera.3
According to Hesiod and the Homeric hymn on Aphrodite, the goddess after rising from the foam first approached the island of Cythera, and thence went to Cyprus. As she was walking on the sea-coast flowers sprang up under her feet, and Eros and Himeros accompanied her to the assembly of the other great gods, all of whom were struck with admiration and love when she appeared, and her surpassing beauty made every one desire to have her for his wife. According to the cosmogonic views of the nature of Aphrodite, she was the personification of the generative powers of nature, and the mother of all living beings. A trace of this notion seems to be contained in the tradition that in the contest of Typhon with the gods, Aphrodite metamorphosed herself into a fish, which animal was considered to possess the greatest generative powers.4 But according to the popular belief of the Greeks and their poetical descriptions, she was the goddess of love, who excited this passion in the hearts of gods and men, and by this power ruled over all the living creation.5
Ancient mythology furnishes numerous instances in which Aphrodite punished those who neglected her worship or despised her power, as well as others in which she favored and protected those who did homage to her and recognized her sway. Love and beauty are ideas essentially connected, and Aphrodite was therefore also the goddess of beauty and gracefulness. In these points she surpassed all other goddesses, and she received the prize of beauty from Paris; she had further the power of granting beauty and invincible charms to others. Youth is the herald, and Peitho, the Horae, and Charites, the attendants and companions of Aphrodite.6 Marriages are called by Zeus her work and the things about which she ought to busy herself.7 As she herself had sprung from the sea, she is represented by later writers as having some influence upon the sea.8
During the Trojan war, Aphrodite, the mother of Aeneas, who had been declared the most beautiful of all the goddesses by a Trojan prince, naturally sided with the Trojans. She saved Paris from his contest with Menelaus,9 but when she endeavored to rescue her darling Aeneas from the fight, she was pursued by Diomedes, who wounded her in her hand. In her fright she abandoned her son, and was carried by Iris in the chariot of Ares to Olympus, where she complained of her misfortune to her mother Dione, but was laughed at by Hera and Athena.10 She also protected the body of Hector, and anointed it with ambrosia.11
According to the most common accounts of the ancients, Aphrodite was married to Hephaestus,12 who, however, is said in the Iliad13 to have married Charis. Her faithlessness to Hephaestus in her amour with Ares, and the manner in which she was caught by the ingenuity of her husband, are beautifully described in the Odyssey.14 By Ares she became the mother of Phobos, Deimos, Harmonia, and, according to later traditions, of Eros and Anteros also.15 But Ares was not the only god whom Aphrodite favored; Dionysus, Hermes, and Poseidon likewise enjoyed her charms. By the first she was, according to some traditions, the mother of Priapus16 and Bacchus,17 by the second of Hermaphroditus,18 and by Poseidon she had two children, Rhodos and Herophilus.19 As Aphrodite so often kindled in the hearts of the gods a love for mortals, Zeus at last resolved to make her pay for her wanton sport by inspiring her too with love for a mortal man. This was accomplished, and Aphrodite conceived an invincible passion for Anchises, by whom she became the mother of Aeneas and Lyrus. Respecting her connexions with other mortals see Adonis and Butes.
Aphrodite possessed a magic girdle which had the power of inspiring love and desire for those who wore it; hence it was borrowed by Hera when she wished to stimulate the love of Zeus.20 The arrow is also sometimes mentioned as one of her attributes.21 In the vegetable kingdom the myrtle, rose, apple, poppy, and others, were sacred to her.22 The animals sacred to her, which are often mentioned as drawing her chariot or serving as her messengers, are the sparrow, the dove, the swan, the swallow, and a bird called iynx.23 As Aphrodite Urania the tortoise, the symbol of domestic modesty and chastity, and as Aphrodite Pandemos the ram was sacred to her.
When she was represented as the victorious goddess, she had the attributes of Ares, a helmet, a shield, a sword: or a lance, and an image of Victory in one hand. The planet Venus and the spring-month of April were likewise sacred to her.24 All the surnames and epithets given to Aphrodite are derived from places of her worship, from events connected with the legends about her, or have reference to her character and her influence upon man, or are descriptive of her extraordinary beauty and charms.
The principal places of her worship in Greece were the islands of Cyprus and Cythera. At Cnidus in Caria she had three temples, one of which contained her renowned statue by Praxiteles. Mount Ida in Troas was an ancient place of her worship, and among the other places we may mention particularly the island of Cos, the towns of Abydos, Athens, Thespiae, Megara, Sparta, Sicyon, Corinth, and Eryx in Sicily. The sacrifices offered to her consisted mostly of incense and garlands of flowers,25 but in some places animals, such as pigs, goats, young cows, hares, and others, were sacrificed to her. In some places, as at Corinth, great numbers of females belonged to her, who prostituted themselves in her service, and bore the name of ἱερόδουλοι (hierodouloi).26
The worship of Aphrodite was undoubtedly of eastern origin, and probably introduced from Syria to the islands of Cyprus, Cythera, and others, from whence it spread all over Greece. It is said to have been brought into Syria from Assyria.27 Aphrodite appears to have been originally identical with Astarte, called by the Hebrews Ashtoret, and her connexion with Adonis clearly points to Syria. But with the exception of Corinth, where the worship of Aphrodite had eminently an Asiatic character, the whole worship of this goddess and all the ideas concerning her nature and character are so entirely Greek, that its introduction into Greece must be assigned to the very earliest periods. The elements were derived from the East, but the peculiar development of it belongs to Greece.
Respecting the Roman goddess Venus and her identification with the Greek Aphrodite, see Venus.
Aphrodite, the ideal of female grace and beauty, frequently engaged the talents and genius of the ancient artists. The most celebrated representations of her were those of Cos and Cnidus. Those which are still extant are divided by archaeologists into several classes, accordingly as the goddess is represented in a standing position and naked, as the Medicean Venus, or bathing, or half naked, or dressed in a tunic, or as the victorious goddess in arms, as she was represented in the temples of Cythera, Sparta, and Corinth.28
In archaic art and on Greek vases she is portrayed fulled clothed, but ancient sculptures show her with bared upper torso of fully nude. She appears in fine clothing in the scene of the judgment of Paris on a Ionic-Etruscan amphora (ca. 525 BCE; in Munich) and at the abduction of Helen, painted on an Attic skyphos by Hieron and Macron (ca. 490 BCE; in Boston). On a bowl by the Pistoxenos Painter (ca. 460 BCE) she is portrayed floating on a goose, with a blossoming twig in her hand. Apelles, the court painter of Alexander the Great, painted Aphrodite rising from the sea for the sanctuary of Asclepius on Cos. The work was one of the major attractions of the temple but was unfortunately lost. Of the many sculptures of the goddess, some of the best known are the Aphrodite by Praxiteles (fourth century BCE), the various sculptures by Phidias, and the one made by Scopas, which rivaled the one of Praxiteles. The bathing Aphrodite was a favorite subject in the Hellenic era, such as the statue made by Doidalsas (third century BCE; at the Louvre). Her image is found on coins (for example from Cnidos) and on terra cotta.
Venus/Aphrodite was a favorite subject in the Renaissance and baroque periods (for example Botticello and Rubens).
- Hesiod. Theogony, 190; compare Anadyomene.
- Iliad v, 370 ff.; xx, 105.
- Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods iii, 23; Comes Natalis, iv, 13.
- Ovid. Metamorphoses v, 318 ff.; comp. Hyginus. Poetical Astronomy, 30.
- Homer. Hymn to Aphrodite; Lucretius, 15 ff.
- Pindar. Nemean Odes viii, 1 ff.
- Homer. Iliad v, 429; comp. Odyssey xx, 74; Pindar. Pythian Odes ix, 16 ff.
- Virgil. Aeneid viii, 800; Ovid. Heroides xv, 213; comp. Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 34.11.
- Iliad iii, 380.
- ibid. v, 311 ff.
- ibid. xxiii, 185.
- Odyssey viii, 270.
- ibid. viii, 383.
- ibid. viii, 266 ff.
- Hesiod. Theogony, 934 ff.; Shield of Heracles, 195; Homer. Iliad xiii, 299; iv, 440; Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, iii, 26; Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods iii, 23.
- Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, i, 933.
- Hesychius, s.v. Βάκχου Διώνης.
- Ovid. Metamorphoses iv, 289 ff.; Diodorus Siculus, iv, 6; Lucian. Dialogi Deorum, xv, 2.
- Scholiast on Pindar's Pythian Odes viii, 24.
- Homer. Iliad xiv, 214 ff.
- Pindar. Pythian Odes iv, 380; Theocritus, xii, 16.
- Ovid. Fasti iv, 15.143; Bion. Idyll, i, 64; Scholiast on Aristophanes' Clouds, 993; Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 10.4; Phornutus, 23.
- Sappho. Hymn to Venus, 10; Athenaeus, ix., 395; Horace. Carmina iv, 1. 10; Aelian. History of Animals x, 34; Pindar, l.c.
- Cicero. On the Nature of the Gods iii, 20; Ovid. Fasti iv, 90.
- Virgil. Aeneid i, 416; Tacitus. Histories, ii, 3.
- Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v. Ἑταίραι.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 14.6.
- ibid. iii, 23.1, ii, 5.1, iii, 15.10.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Hirt, A. (1805). Bilderbuch für Mythologie. Berlin, 4.133 ff.
- Manso. Versuche, pp. 1-308.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.