The legend of Aphrodite is almost as old as time itself, having its origins with the ancient Greeks and being carried forward even into the present day. “According to Hesiod, when Kronos (Cronos) had cut off his father’s members, he tossed them into the sea. The immortal flesh eventually spread into a circle of white foam… from this foam, Aphrodite was created. Her name literally means foam-born” (Stewart, 2005). Although she is somewhat the daughter of Ouranos, as it was his phallus from which she grew, she has no associated mother and took several lovers, including Adonis (Cotterell, 1980). As the goddess of love, Aphrodite presided over sexual love, affection between people and other social relationships. According to Guerber (1990), she was not only the goddess of lovers, but the goddess of gardens and gardeners. “The rose, lily, hyacinth, crocus and narcissus were sacred to her; so were the dove, the sparrow, the dolphin and the swan” (Guerber, 1990, p. 90). Because of her very rich heritage, Aphrodite has been the subject of artistic endeavors for as long as she’s existed with several representations being created by the ancients and her image being carried forward well into the Renaissance. As she is revealed in the stories and legends, Aphrodite was as well known for her anger, jealousy and tendency to interfere without forethought as she was for her beauty and sensual connotations. “In fact, she can tend to drift into situations with an aplomb only possible through reckless disregard for the future. Aphrodite can be the source of envy arising from a pulsating desire for life and love” (Miller, 2002). The combination of love and power within this individual deity brings into play the possibility of a “union of opposites wherein the lovers are annihilated” (Miller, 2002). The myth of Aphrodite is complicated not only because of the complicated nature of her divinity – the emotion of love – but also because of the way in which the character is portrayed in the stories of the ancients.
The most important thing that emerges about Aphrodite throughout all depictions of her is her complicated nature. She has two distinct faces typically identified as Aphrodite Urania and Aphrodite Pandemos. As is discussed by Morford and Lenardon (2002), Aphrodite Urania is the aspect of the goddess most associated with her origins and purity. Hesiod’s story suggests that Aphrodite rose out of the foam that emerged from the severed organ of Uranus when it was thrown into the sea. This has a significant impact on her character. First, she is born of the male genitalia, giving her a great deal of sexual power and drive. Second, she is born from the male genitals alone rather than through the normal channels of sexual union and the mother’s involvement. This strange conception is associated with the idea of pure love. This is because she was the result of a spiritual union rather than a physical one and thus suggests the ideas of spiritual gratification as the end desire of real love. Finally, she is the daughter of Uranus, who is the god of the sky, which associates her with heavenly bodies as well as the sensual fluidity of the waters from which she came. Aphrodite Urania is therefore associated with the pure goddess of heaven or celestial, spiritual gratification and becomes a goddess of philosophy and religion.
Aphrodite Urania is the near opposite of Aphrodite Pandemos. This goddess was the child of the God of Gods, Zeus, and the goddess Dione. While some legends seem to indicate this is the earlier version of the goddess story, others indicate it is the latter. While this detail may never be known completely, what is clear in the translation of her name is that this Aphrodite was considered a lesser incarnation of Aphrodite Urania. Aphrodite Pandemos is a child of passion and sexual love and is named the goddess of the people or the common Aphrodite. She is most closely associated with the act of physical sex and new creation. It was through this incarnation that she gained associations with motherhood as the goddess overseeing their procreation and with the garden as the creative, generative spirit. It is because of these opposing elements of her character that Aphrodite is given such a complicated character. She is the goddess of beauty, love, marriage and the creative spirit, but she is also the goddess of jealousy, destruction and spiritual devastation. These elements of her character are revealed in the stories that are told about her.
Many of these stories can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, such as in the story of Venus and Mars found in Book 4. Venus is the Roman’s name for Aphrodite, a goddess who shared many of the same characteristics but brought along a few of her own from earlier times as well. In Leuconoe’s story about the goddess and her lover, Venus is reportedly married to Vulcan, who is informed that she is having an affair with Mars. Vulcan creates a very well-made net that he spreads over their bed and Venus and Mars become trapped by the net in a very obvious way. Rather than letting them free, Vulcan calls in all the other gods to show them Venus’ unfaithfulness, but the other gods just laugh and accept her behavior as being natural. This demonstrates the Pandemos side of the goddess figure in that she is very sexually active to the point that the other gods recognize there’s no point trying to contain her within the normally expected bounds of female behavior. At the same time, the story tells of the dark side of this aspect of the goddess as she seeks revenge against the man who informed Vulcan of her behavior. She does this by causing him to fall in love with a maiden he can never have.
This same angry nature of her character can be found in the story of Orpheus in Books 9 and 10 as the Pygmalian story is told. In this story, Venus is preparing to abandon her cities because of the lack of respect and the complete carnal nature of the people who are supposed to be honoring her. The women of the temple had determined to give themselves physically to others outside of the temple. “The immoral Propoetides dared to deny that Venus was the goddess. For this, because of her divine anger, they are said to have been the first to prostitute their bodies and their reputations in public, and, losing all sense of shame, they lost the power to blush, as the blood hardened in their cheeks, and only a small change turned them into hard flints” (Ovid, Book 9: The Propoetides). This would seem to be the vengeful goddess of sex revealed in the story of Venus and Mars, particularly as the goddess questions how the people have sinned when they are engaging in wanton sex, except for the details. The goddess is angry with the people for behaving badly and she is acting in a way that provides a more accurate reflection of the state of their spirits. In this story, her character transitions from the goddess of physical love and passionate jealousy or revenge to an equally dangerous goddess of emotional justice in which the loving relationship between goddess and people is expected to be reciprocal or terrible results may ensue. This time, her wrath is not in defense of free love but is instead in pursuit of a higher spiritual enlightenment, or the prevention of further spiritual degradation. As the story continues, the more heavenly aspects of the goddess continue to be brought forward.
The story of the Pygmalion (Book 10) reveals the goddess’s more celestial associations as she is seen to grant the wish of a devout worshipper. Within the same city as the Propoetides lived a person known as Pygmalion who was a carver of stone. He disapproved of the women’s behavior so strongly that he shunned contact with them and refused to marry. But he filled his loneliness with a sculpture he had made himself of a beautiful girl. His skill was so great that she seemed to be almost alive and he fell in love with her to such a degree that he clothed her, bought presents for her and even slept with her. During the festival of Venus, Pygmalion makes his request of the gods that he be able to have his girl as his real wife and Venus hears the request. She decides to fulfill it because of Pygmalion’s dedication to spiritual ideals of love rather than merely carnal concepts. This is clear because even though he obviously lusted after female flesh as the details of the story reveal, he remained dedicated to the ideas of a pure love as symbolized by the pure ivory of the statue and the impenetrable nature of her material. In giving the statue life, Aphrodite Urania is revealed in her positive aspect as she had earlier been revealed in her negative aspect with the Propoetides.
The mother/creative aspect of the goddess can be found in the story of Aphrodite and Adonis. Just before his death, the goddess tells Adonis the story of Atalanta and Hippomenes that demonstrates her creativity. Hippomenes wins the hand of Atalanta and his life after a race that he wins because of the help Aphrodite gives him and her creative use of the golden apples that she just happened to have with her when she heard Hippomenes’ call for help. Yet even here, the more common Aphrodite remains a part of her character as she repays the couple for their lack of appreciation by inspiring them with untimely carnal love in an inappropriate place that gets them transformed into lions. This sets up the transformation that she is about to perform in the next segment. After having fallen completely in love with Adonis, Aphrodite warns him about hunting dangerous animals and then goes off toward Cyprus. Before she even has a chance to make it there, Adonis has gotten himself gored by a boar and dies where he was thrown. Aphrodite returns and grieves for the beautiful boy she has lost. “Adonis, there shall be an everlasting token of my grief, and every year an imitation of your death will complete a re-enactment of my mourning. But your blood will be changed into a flower” (Ovid, Book 10: The Death of Adonis). The flower that is created is the anemone, a short-lived blood-red flower. Because of their base behavior in neglecting to properly respect the goddess who made their happiness possible, Aphrodite uses their base natures to bring about their transformation into animals. Because of his noble spirit and the feelings she has personally for the youth, Aphrodite draws on her more noble aspect to transform his blood into a flower that will commemorate Adonis for all time. These two stories together demonstrate the cycle of birth and death, death and rebirth that is a part of the goddess’s nature as she shifts between one aspect and another seemingly always with the goal of enforcing proper respect if not always full fidelity.
As the mythology demonstrates, Aphrodite is a very complicated goddess with quick mood swings and a great deal of power to influence others, even to their own ruin. She is capable of causing life-long misery by ensuring one experiences unrequited love and she is able to operate well beyond the traditional boundaries of expected female behavior. However, this is seen as a good thing as she is able to encourage procreation and the bringing about of new life, as symbolized in the story of Adonis. She is always seen as a goddess of tremendous beauty, but also as a goddess quick to jealousy and revenge. Although she is a divinity of the heavens, associated with purity and the highest spiritual pursuits, she is also a divinity of the earth, associated with base human activity and the lowest forms of animal satisfaction.
Cotterell, Arthus. (1980). A Dictionary of World Mythology. New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons: 131-33.
Guerber, H.A. (1990). The Myths of Greece & Rome. London: Biblo-Moser.
Melville, A.D. (Trans.). (2009). Ovid. Metamorphoses. Oxford University Press.
Miller, Iona. ( 2002). “The Empress.” Synergetica Qabala. 2009. Web.
Morford, M.P.O. & R.J. Lenardon. (2002). Classical Mythology. (8th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Stewart, Michael. (2005). “Aphrodite.” Greek Mythology: From the Iliad to the Fall of the Last Tyrant. Web.