The myths of the Goddess of Love are not all sugar and spice.
Her stories show us the many faces that humanity expresses in love some of which are obsession, vengeance and war. But was this the true face of the Goddess Aphrodite or did she start out as so much more? Was she diminished from her origins and reduced in Greek texts? Was she more than just a jealous and petulant Goddess of Love?
The Birth of Aphrodite
Born of Heaven and Earth, Aphrodite rises from the ocean foam fully formed when Cronus, the son of Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Gaia), cuts off his father’s genitals and casts them into the sea. She is here at the birth of all creation, the Goddess that rises from the ashes; the Ocean born, tied to deep feelings, passions and emotions.
“Aphrodite is the daughter of Heaven and Sea – the original Mother Goddess in many traditions – and the first fruit of separation of Heaven and Earth, carrying as her birthright, as it were, the memory of their union. By imagining Aphrodite at the very beginning of the process of creation when Heaven and Earth were parted – as the Orphic myth does with Eros – love is drawn in the greater perspective of humanity’s longing for reunion with the whole. Aphrodite is no longer the one Great Mother Goddess who is the origin of all things, but, as daughter of the sea, she is the child of the beginning. Consequently, she is the figure who, in the likeness of the original goddess, brings back together the separate forms of her creation. In this sense Aphrodite is “born” when people joyfully remember, as a distinct and sacred reality, the bonds that exists between human beings and animals and, indeed, the whole of nature. The myth proposes that this happened through love. Union is then reunion, for love that begets life resounds with the mystery of life itself. Nature was the vision of the interrelatedness of all creation, and, as in Sumeria, the union of Heaven and Earth was felt as an actual physical experience. This was the domain of Aphrodite, drawing back together what has been sundered, bringing the eternal memory back into time.” – The Myth of the Goddess, A. Baring & J. Cashford
The Stories of Aphrodite in Greek Myth
Hephaestus was the first husband of Aphrodite. He was the deformed smith-god of fire and patron god of craftsmen, smiths, stonemasons and metal workers. He was paired with the beautiful Goddess of Love shortly after her arrival in Olympia presumably to chain the free spirited woman and keep her out of trouble. Aphrodite was never happy with the marriage as it had been forced upon her by Zeus, who she rejected when she first arrived. It was thought that Zeus tied her to this union as punishment for spurning his advances. Hephaestus and Aphrodite had a tumultuous marriage with neither being particularly happy. According to legend, she strayed on him multiple times until they broke ties completely and went their separate ways.
The God of War Ares was one of Aphrodite’s most long lived lovers during her marriage to Hephaestus and after they separated. They were found together by the God Hephaestus and it sparked great controversy and led to the eventual separation between Aphrodite and Hephaestus. Aphrodite and Ares, Venus and Mars in the Roman Myths, had five children together. Many myths state that Ares was her true love, but there was another that is synonymously tied to her myths and stories as her sacred counterpart.
Adonis was a beautiful youth, and to protect him as a newborn from his father who wanted to kill him, he was placed in a chest and hidden by Aphrodite with Persephone in the Underworld. When he grew, Persephone refused to give him back to Aphrodite and she had to come back down into the Underworld to fight for him. Because of his beauty, both of the Goddesses loved him and didn’t want to be parted from him. Zeus had to intervene and his solution was for Adonis to spend a third of his year below in the Underworld, a third of it with Aphrodite and a third on his own as he pleased. It was said that he chose to spend his own time with Aphrodite. When we was gone from the Earth, it was barren and cold Winter. When he returns, crops grew.
Adonis was connected heavily to the role of Green Man or agriculture God in these stories and with his time on Earth all things flourished with fertility.
In one legend, it says that Ares was jealous of Aphrodite and her love Adonis, so he sends a wild boar to kill him when he is out hunting. The grieving Goddess turned his blood into bright red Anemones to scatter the hillside. Beside herself with grief, Zeus finally grants that Adonis only remain in the Underworld for part of his time and the remainder on Earth, and that is how he comes to divide his time among the realms.
And so the death of the Hunter God feeds the land, his body and blood to be reborn once more in the Spring. So in the tales of Adonis and Aphrodite, we have the rebirth cycle of the nature God, ever rising to sacrifice himself for the land.
The Trojan War
Eris, Goddess of Strife, was angry at not being invited to a wedding feast and decided to cause some issues. She placed a golden apple with the inscription “To The Fairest” between Aphrodite, Athena and Hera and the Goddesses fought over who was the fairest. As none of the Gods wanted to get involved in an argument between these powerful Goddesses, Zeus told them to go to the beautiful youth Prince Paris of Troy and get him to decide. Each Goddess proceeded to bribe the young man to choose them.
Athena offering him wisdom, Hera offering him power and Aphrodite offered him the most beautiful mortal woman in the world as his bride. He picked Aphrodites offer but the woman, Helen, was already the wife of King Menelaus. Paris went to Sparta where they were and after a time abducted her back to Troy. This would begin a war to get her back that would last ten years and cost countless lives.
The Messages of the Greek Myths
In Greek Mythology, we see Aphrodite as jealous, passionate and temperamental. She was sexual, open about her feelings, and explosive in temper. Were her stories accurately depicted or was she vilified for being an open and sexual woman? Was she punished for being beautiful or for denying Zeus?
Was the death of Adonis simply because she loved him and the other Gods couldn’t stand her happiness. Was this a message in the myths of what happens when a woman follows her heart, it ends in disaster? Her forced marriage to Hephaestus because she rejected a powerful man like Zeus?
We have long known that the patriarchy has changed many ancient Goddess myths to tell a more rigid and structured story in an attempt at casting women in a negative light. In these myths, we are shown what happens when one is open, sexual, deeply feeling and rebels against the patriarchal rule. But what of the Goddess Aphrodite before?
Aphrodite: Queen of Heaven and Earth
The myths of Aphrodite do not start with the Greeks. Her connection goes further back to the Sumerians and the Goddess Inanna, sharing many of the same traits and attributes. Inanna was the Sumerian Goddess of Love and Beauty, sensuality, fertility and war. She was later adopted by the Akkadians as the Goddess Ishtar, by the Phoenicians as Astarte, in Egypt as Hathor and by the Greeks as Aphrodite. She is as old as time itself, her myth stretching back through the ages.
She, like the Goddesses Inanna and Ishtar, are embodied in the brightest star in the sky, the morning and evening star Venus, which is her Roman name and connected to these Goddesses as well as their planet. In this connection, she goes much deeper than Goddess of Love and Beauty, and is connected with being the Queen of Heaven and Earth. In some myths, she is the daughter of the Sky God Anu, who is connected with the Greek God Ouranos (Aphrodite’s father). Her mother is not so easily named, but in the Greek stories she sprung from Ouranos genitals, so in this way she might have been seen descending right from the Sky God.
Voyage into the Underworld
Her voyage into the Underworld to plead with Persephone for the return of her love Adonis is mirrored in the tale of Inanna who ventured into the Underworld in order to see her sister Erishkigal. Much like in the takes of the Greeks, one cannot just leave the Underworld. So in order to leave, Inanna must find someone to take her place. Erishkigal tries to take her priestesses, who are mourning her descent, as well as some loyal followers. All are in sackcloth and wailing for the loss of their Queen. All but her husband, Dumuzi the God of Vegetation, who is dressed in his finest and sitting on her throne drinking and carrying on with other women.
So, she offers him up to the Underworld. His sister offers to take his place so the time is split between the two of them, each taking 6 months in the Underworld. This tale of the God of Vegetation and time in the Underworld for the King is mirrored in the tale of Aphrodite and Adonis as well.
Her connection to the ancient goddesses brings much deeper power and roots to the Goddess of Love. In her role as Queen of Heaven, she takes back her crown and sovereignty that was much removed by further incarnations of her by the patriarchy that told her myth. In her connection to Inanna, she also retains her ties to the Goddess of War, which were much diluted in her Greek form, except in her ties to fighting. In her ancient guise, we can see the duality of beauty and fierceness, Queen of Heaven and Earth; lover, ruler, defender and warrior. Priestess and protectress of the realm.
Aphrodite is so much more than a petulant and jealous Goddess of passion. She is the child of the sacred marriage of Heaven and Earth.
So whether you believe she was diluted and misshapen by the Greeks and Romans or not, there is much more to the Goddess of Love.
“The Myth of the Goddess” – A.Baring & J.Cashford
“Encyclopedia of Mythology” – A. Cotterell