1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aphrodite

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APHRODITE,[1] the Greek goddess of love and beauty, counterpart of the Roman Venus. Although her myth and cult were essentially Semitic, she soon became Hellenized and was admitted to a place among the deities of Olympus. Some mythologists hold that there already existed in the Greek system an earlier goddess of love, of similar attributes, who was absorbed by the Asiatic importation; and one writer (A. Enmann) goes so far as to deny the oriental origin of Aphrodite altogether. It is therefore necessary first to examine the nature and characteristics of her Eastern prototype, and then to see how far they reappear in the Greek Aphrodite.

Among the Semitic peoples (with the notable exception of the Hebrews) a supreme female deity was worshipped under different names—the Assyrian Ishtar, the Phoenician Ashtoreth (Astarte), the Syrian Atargatis (Derketo), the Babylonian Belit (Mylitta), the Arabian Ilat (Al-ilat). The article “Aphrodite” in Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie is based upon the theory that all these were originally moon-goddesses, on which assumption all their functions are explained. This view, however, has not met with general acceptance, on the ground that, in Semitic mythology, the moon is always a male divinity; and that the full moon and crescent, found as attributes of Astarte, are due to a misinterpretation of the sun’s disk and cow’s horns of Isis, the result of the dependence of Syrian religious art upon Egypt. On the other hand, there is some evidence in ancient authorities (Herodian v. 6, 10; Lucian, De Dea Syria, 4) that Astarte and the moon were considered identical.

This oriental Aphrodite was worshipped as the bestower of all animal and vegetable fruitfulness, and under this aspect especially as a goddess of women. This worship was degraded by repulsive practices (e.g. religious prostitution, self-mutilation), which subsequently made their way to centres of Phoenician influence, such as Corinth and Mount Eryx in Sicily. In this connexion may be mentioned the idea of a divinity, half male, half female, uniting in itself the active and passive functions of creation, a symbol of luxuriant growth and productivity. Such was the bearded Aphrodite of Cyprus, called Aphroditos by Aristophanes according to Macrobius, who mentions a statue of the androgynous divinity in his Saturnalia (iii. 8. 2; see also Hermaphroditus). The moon, by its connexion with menstruation, and as the cause of the fertilizing dew, was regarded as exercising an influence over the entire animal and vegetable creation.

The Eastern Aphrodite was closely related to the sea and the element of moisture; in fact, some consider that she made her first appearance on Greek soil rather as a marine divinity than as a nature goddess. According to Syrian ideas, as a fish goddess, she represented the fructifying power of water. At Ascalon there was a lake full of fish near the temple of Atargatis-Derketo, into which she was said to have been thrown together with her son Ichthys (fish) as a punishment for her arrogance, and to have been devoured by fishes; according to another version, ashamed of her amour with a beautiful youth, which resulted in the birth of Semiramis, she attempted to drown herself, but was changed into a fish with human face (see Atargatis). At Hierapolis (Bambyce) there was a pool with an altar in the middle, sacred to the goddess, where a festival was held, at which her images were carried into the water. Her connexion with the sea is explained by the influence of the moon on the tides, and the idea that the moon, like the sun and the stars, came up from the ocean.

The oriental Aphrodite is connected with the lower world, and came to be looked upon as one of its divinities. Thus, Ishtar descends to the kingdom of Ilat the queen of the dead, to find the means of restoring her favourite Tammuz (Adon, Adonis) to life. During her stay all animal and vegetable productivity ceases, to begin again with her return to earth—a clear indication of the conception of her as a goddess of fertility. This legend, which strikingly resembles that of Persephone, probably refers to the decay of vegetation in winter, and the reawakening of nature in spring (cf. Hyacinthus). The lunar theory connects it with the disappearance of the moon at the time of change or during an eclipse.

Another aspect of her character is that of a warlike goddess, armed with spear or bow, sometimes wearing a mural crown, as sovereign lady and protectress of the locality where she was worshipped. The spear and arrows are identified with the beams of the sun and moon.

The attributes of the goddess were the ram, the he-goat, the dove, certain fish, the cypress, myrtle and pomegranate, the animals being symbolical of fertility, the plants remedies against sterility.

The worship of Aphrodite at an early date was introduced into Cyprus, Cythera and Crete by Phoenician colonists, whence it spread over the whole of Greece, and as far west as Italy and Sicily. In Crete she has been identified with Ariadne, who, according to one version of her story, was put ashore in Cyprus, where she died and was buried in a grove called after the name of Ariadne-Aphrodite (L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, ii. p. 663). Cyprus was regarded as her true home by the Greeks, and Cythera was one of the oldest seats of her worship (cf. her titles Cytherea, Cypris, Paphia, Amathusia, Idalia—the last three from places in Cyprus). In both these islands there lingered a definite tradition of a connexion with the cult of the oriental Aphrodite Urania, an epithet which will be referred to later. The oriental features of her worship as practised at Corinth are due to its early commercial relations with Asia Minor; the fame of her temple worship on Mount Eryx spread to Carthage, Rome and Latium.

In the Iliad, Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione, a name by which she herself is sometimes called. This has been supposed to point to a confusion between Aphrodite and Hebe, the daughter of Zeus and Hera, Dione being an Epirot name for the last-named goddess. In the Odyssey, she is the wife of Hephaestus, her place being taken in the Iliad by Charis, the personification of grace and divine skill, possibly supplanted by Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Her amour with Ares, by whom she became the mother of Harmonia, the wife of Cadmus, is famous (Od. viii. 266). From her relations with these acknowledged Hellenic divinites it is argued that there once existed a primitive Greek goddess of love. This view is examined in detail and rejected by Farnell (Cults, ii. pp. 619-626).

It is admitted that few traces remain of direct relations of the Greek goddess to the moon, although such possibly survive in the epithets πασιφαής, ἀστερία, οὐρανία. It is suggested that this is due to the fact that, at the time of the adoption of the oriental goddess, the Greeks already possessed lunar divinities in Hecate, Selene, Artemis. But, although her connexion with the moon has practically disappeared, in all other aspects a development from the Semitic divinity is clearly manifest.

Aphrodite as the goddess of all fruitfulness in the animal and vegetable world is especially prominent. In the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite she is described as ruling over all living things on earth, in the air, and in the water, even the gods being subject to her influence. She is the goddess of gardens, especially worshipped in spring and near lowlands and marshes, favourable to the growth of vegetation. As such in Crete she is called Antheia (“the flower-goddess”), at Athens ἐν κήποις (“in the gardens”), and ἐν καλάμοις (“in the reed-beds”) or ἐν ἔλει (“in the marsh”) at Samos. Her character as a goddess of vegetation is clearly shown in the cult and ritual of Adonis (q.v.; also Farnell, ii. p. 644) and Attis (q.v.). In the animal world she is the goddess of sexual impulse; amongst men, of birth, marriage, and family life. To this aspect may be referred the names Genetyllis (“bringing about birth”), Arma (ἄρω, “to join,” i.e., in marriage, cf. Harmonia), Nymphia (“bridal goddess”), Kourotrophos (“rearer of boys”). Aphrodite Apaturus (see G. M. Hirst in Journal of Hellenic Studies, xxiii., 1903) refers to her connexion with the clan and the festival Apaturia, at which children were admitted to the phratria. It is pointed out by Farnell that this cult of Aphrodite, as the patroness of married life, is probably a native development of the Greek religion, the oriental legends representing her by no means as an upholder of the purer relations of man and woman. As the goddess of the grosser form of love she inspires both men and women with passion (ἐπιστροφία, “turning them to” thoughts of love), or the reverse (ἀποστροφία, “turning them away”). Upon her male favourites (Paris, Theseus) she bestows the fatal gift of seductive beauty, which generally leads to disastrous results in the case of the woman (Helen, Ariadne). As μηχανῖτις (“contriver”) she acts as an intermediary for bringing lovers together, a similar idea being expressed in πρᾶξις (of “success” in love, or = creatrix). The two epithets ἀνδροφόνος (“man-slayer”) and σώσανδρα (“man-preserver”) find an illustration in the pseudo-Plautine (in the Mercator) address to Astarte, who is described as the life and death, the saviour and destroyer of men and gods. It was natural that a personality invested with such charms should be regarded as the ideal of womanly beauty, but it is remarkable that the only probable instance in which she appears as such is as Aphrodite μορφώ (“form”) at Sparta (O. Gruppe suggests the meaning “ghost,” C. Tümpel the “dark one,” referring to Aphrodite’s connexion with the lower world). The function of Aphrodite as the patroness of courtesans represents the most degraded form of her worship as the goddess of love, and is certainly of Phoenician or Eastern origin. In Corinth there were more than a thousand of these ἱερόδουλοι (“temple slaves”), and wealthy men made it a point of honour to dedicate their most beautiful slaves to the service of the goddess.

Like her oriental prototype, the Greek Aphrodite was closely connected with the sea. Thus, in the Hesiodic account of her birth, she is represented as sprung from the foam which gathered round the mutilated member of Uranus, and her name has been explained by reference to this. Further proof may be found in many of her titles—ἀναδυομένη (“rising from the sea”), εὔπλοια (“giver of prosperous voyages”), γαληναία (“goddess of fair weather”), κατασκοπία (“she who keeps a look-out from the heights”)—in the attribute of the dolphin, and the veneration in which she was held by seafarers. Aphrodite Aineias, the protectress of the Trojan hero, is probably also another form of the maritime goddess of the East (see E. Wörner, article “Aineias” in Roscher’s Lexikon, and Farnell, ii. p. 638), which originated in the Troad, where Aphrodite Aineias may have been identical with the earth-goddess Cybele. The title ἔφιππος is connected with the legend of Aeneas, who is said to have dedicated to his mother a statue that represented her on horseback. Remembering the importance of the horse in the cult of the sea-god Poseidon, it is natural to associate it with Aphrodite as the sea-goddess, although it may be explained with reference to her character as a goddess of vegetation, the horse being an embodiment of the corn-spirit (see J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, ii., 1900, p. 281).

Like Ishtar, Aphrodite was connected with the lower world. Thus, at Delphi there was an image of Aphrodite ἐπιτυμβία (“Aphrodite of the tomb”), to which the dead were summoned to receive libations; the epithets τυμβώρυχος (“grave-digger”), μυχία (“goddess of the depths”), μελαινίς (“the dark one”), the grave of Ariadne-Aphrodite at Amathus, and the myth of Adonis, point in the same direction.

The cult of the armed Aphrodite probably belongs to the earlier period of her worship in Greece, and down to the latest period of Greek history she retained this character in some of the Greek states. The cult is found not only where oriental influence was strongest, but in places remote from it, such as Sparta, where she was known by the name of Areia (“the warlike”), and there are numerous references in the Anthology to an Aphrodite armed with helmet and spear. It is possible that the frequent association of Aphrodite with Ares is to be explained by an armed Aphrodite early worshipped at Thebes, the most ancient seat of the worship of Ares.

The most distinctively oriental title of the Greek Aphrodite is Urania, the Semitic “queen of the heavens.” It has been explained by reference to the lunar character of the goddess, but more probably signifies “she whose seat is in heaven,” whence she exercises her sway over the whole world—earth, sea, and air alike. Her cult was first established in Cythera, probably in connexion with the purple trade, and at Athens it is associated with the legendary Porphyrion, the purple king. At Thebes, Harmonia (who has been identified with Aphrodite herself) dedicated three statues, of Aphrodite Urania, Pandemos, and Apostrophia. A few words must be added on the second of these titles. There is no doubt that Pandemos was originally an extension of the idea of the goddess of family and city life to include the whole people, the political community. Hence the name was supposed to go back to the time of Theseus, the reputed author of the reorganization of Attica and its demes. Aphrodite Pandemos was held in equal regard with Urania; she was called σεμνή (“holy”), and was served by priestesses upon whom strict chastity was enjoined. In time, however, the meaning of the term underwent a change, probably due to the philosophers and moralists, by whom a radical distinction was drawn between Aphrodite Urania and Pandemos. According to Plato (Symposium, 180), there are two Aphrodites, “the elder, having no mother, who is called the heavenly Aphrodite—she is the daughter of Uranus; the younger, who is the daughter of Zeus and Dione—her we call common.” The same distinction is found in Xenophon’s Symposium (viii. 9), although the author is doubtful whether there are two goddesses, or whether Urania and Pandemos are two names for the same goddess, just as Zeus, although one and the same, has many titles; but in any case, he says, the ritual of Urania is purer, more serious, than that of Pandemos. The same idea is expressed in the statement (quoted by Athenaeus, 569d, from Nicander of Colophon) that after Solon’s time courtesans were put under the protection of Aphrodite Pandemos. But there is no doubt that the cult of Aphrodite was on the whole as pure as that of any other divinities, and although a distinction may have existed in later times between the goddess of legal marriage and the goddess of free love, these titles do not express the idea. Aphrodite Urania was represented in Greek art on a swan, a tortoise or a globe; Aphrodite Pandemos as riding on a goat, symbolical of wantonness. (For the legend of Theseus and Aphrodite ἐπιτραγία, “on the goat,” see Farnell, Cults, ii. p. 633.)

To her oriental attributes the following may be added: the sparrow and hare (productivity), the wry-neck (as a love-charm, of which Aphrodite was considered the inventor), the swan and dolphin (as a marine divinity), the tortoise (explained by Plutarch as a symbol of domesticity, but connected by Gruppe with the marine deity), the rose, the poppy, and the lime tree.

In ancient art Aphrodite was at first represented clothed, sometimes seated, but more frequently standing; then naked, rising from the sea, or after the bath. Finally, all idea of the divine vanished, and the artists merely presented her as the type of a beautiful woman, with oval face, full of grace and charm, languishing eyes, and laughing mouth, which replaced the dignified severity and repose of the older forms. The most famous of her statues in ancient times was that at Cnidus, the work of Praxiteles, which was imitated on the coins of that town, and subsequently reproduced in various copies, such as the Vatican and Munich. Of existing statues the most famous is the Aphrodite of Melos (Venus of Milo), now in the Louvre, which was found on the island in 1820 amongst the ruins of the theatre; the Capitoline Venus at Rome and the Venus of Capua, represented as a goddess of victory (these two exhibit a lofty conception of the goddess); the Medicean Venus at Florence, found in the porticus of Octavia at Rome and (probably wrongly) attributed to Cleomenes; the Venus stooping in the bath, in the Vatican; and the Callipygos at Naples, a specimen of the most sensual type.

For the oriental Aphrodite, see E. Meyer, article “Astarte” in W. H. Roscher’s Lexikon der Mythologie, and Wolf Baudissin, articles “Astarte” and “Atargatis” in Herzog-Hauck’s Realencyklopädie für protestantische Theologie; for the Greek, articles in Roscher’s Lexikon and Pauly-Wissowa’s Realencyclopädie; L. Preller, Griechische Mythologie (4th ed. by C. Robert); L. R. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, ii. (1896); O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie und Religionsgeschichte, ii. (1906); L. Dyer, The Gods in Greece (1891); A. Enmann, Kypros und der Ursprung des Aphrodite-Kults (1886). W. H. Engel, Kypros, ii. (1841), and J. B. Lajard, Recherches sur le culte de Vénus (1837), may still be consulted with advantage. For Aphrodite in art see J. J. Bernoulli, Aphrodite (1873); W. J. Stillman, Venus and Apollo in Painting and Sculpture (1897). In the article Greek Art, figs. 71 (pl. v.) and 77 (pi. vi.) represent Aphrodite of Cnidus and Melos respectively. (J. H. F.)

  1. No satisfactory etymology of the name has been given; although the first part is usually referred to ἀφρός (“the sea foam”), it is equally probable that it is of Eastern origin. F. Homoll (Jahrbücher für classische Philologie, cxxv., 1882) explains it as a corruption of Ashtoreth; for other derivations see O. Gruppe, Griechische Mythologie, ii. p. 1348, note 2.