The Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, has a very distinctive image in classical arts. In 458 BCE, the playwright Aeschylus, in his play Agamemnon, used the name of Aphrodite to denote “beauty, charm, and grace”. Her birth from the sea in a bas-relief dating from 470 to 460 BCE depicts her as a grown woman fully aware of her charms. No other Greek goddess was sculpted emphasizing her physical beauty as frequently as Aphrodite. Statues of Aphrodite from Cyrene and the Esquiline, both from the first century BCE, were even named Aphrodite Kallipygos, which means “Aphrodite with a beautiful derriere”.
But if the gorgeousness of the Greek goddess of love has been established as scholarly facts, what else can be said about her? Looking at classical arts alone, Aphrodite seems to have no distinctive attributes other than her beauty, however, she was much more than just beautiful. The goddess was worshiped by everyone from prostitutes to magistrates, virgins to soldiers, sailors to poets – and not always for her beauty and domain over love.
Aphrodite’s cult was very popular in ancient Greece with numerous shrines and temples. Her main cult centers included the city of Corinth, as well as the islands of Cythera and Cyprus. Ancient travel writer Pausanias mentions that mothers of brides sacrificed to an ancient wooden image of Aphrodite Hera, a hybrid apparently confirming a link between love and marriage. He mentions a seated figure of Aphrodite Morpho (“The Fair Shaped Aphrodite”) wearing a veil on her head and chains on her feet. Pausanias states that Tyndareus, the father of Helen and Clytemnestra, dedicated the figure to demonstrate that wives were faithful to their husbands. These images indicate Aphrodite’s association to brides, as well as the expectations attached to them.
In a more unromantic sphere, although still related to women and society’s expectations of them, there were a group of magistrates worshiping Aphrodite called gynaikonomoi (magistrates in charge of women) at Sparta. This magistracy was said to be kata ta archaia ethe kai tons nomous (“in accordance with ancient custom and laws”) and first attested at Sparta in an inscription from early first-century CE.
Although Aphrodite had many cult-sites in Athens, that of Pandemos was the oldest. In 230 BCE, the Athenian Council dedicated an inscription to Aphrodite Pandemos (“Aphrodite who is Common to all the People”). Aphrodite Pandemos was associated with the hero Theseus. Worshipers sought her blessings in uniting the people of Athens in both personal relationships and the political realm. Older sources link this cult with the foundation of democracy.
Different bodies of magistrates in Thasos between 3 to 1 BCE offered inscriptions to both Aphrodite and Hermes, as well as to Hestia, Aphrodite and Hermes together. In Samos, officers dealing with import of corn made dedications to both Hermes and Aphrodite. In Delos, the police officers offered a number of inscriptions to Hermes and Aphrodite together, as well as to Aphrodite alone. A temple with portico to Ares and Aphrodite was built in Crete, and on the island of Cos, an army officer and his detachment offered a dedication only to Aphrodite.
The most frequent magisterial body to express their devotion to Aphrodite was agoranomoi (magistrates in charge of the marketplace) as well as police officials, supervisors and registrars. Officials with penal capacities paid their tribute to Aphrodite to maintain friendly relations within their ranks, as well as between them and the people. Aphrodite was given epithets revealing the reasons for the dedications, which was mostly to maintain the harmony of the group in doing their business. Among other names, she is called Epistasie – protectress of the officials called epistatai, Nauarchis – guardian of the naval commanders, and Nomophylakis – protectress of the nomophylakes. The influence of Aphrodite on the behavior of the members of the group is shown in the dedication of the import-officers of Samos, in which they are said to “maintain their camaraderie and work together.” In the dedication of the agoranomoi of Delos, the understanding between the magistrates and the people frequenting the market was also revealed, that “everyone in peace with them [agoranomoi] was careful not to incur penalty.”
Another point which is worth discussing is the association of Aphrodite with Hermes. As Hermes was chiefly responsible for economic achievements, the same should be said of Aphrodite as she was patroness of merchants— especially those who shipped goods from one port to another. In Cyzicus, the agoraia of Aphrodite enjoyed the same honor as the agoraios of Hermes. An inscription from Caunus in 1 CE regulates the customs duties mentions a tax levied on merchants – a charge which was then paid to the sanctuary of Aphrodite.
Another group of officials who showed their regard for Aphrodite were the military chiefs. For the most part, the epithets which the military men gave to the goddess emphasized her guidance and leadership. Presumably, Aphrodite inspired the army to cooperate harmoniously. This role of the goddess was highlighted in the many places of her cult where Aphrodite was coupled with Ares, the god of war.
Aphrodite may have worn armors to defend cities that adopted her as their patroness. Pausanias also describes a number of statues of Aphrodite dressed for battle in Sparta. Other cities where statues of Aphrodite was represented as armed were Cythera, Aphrodisias, and Epidaurus after 405 BCE. She also appears as the wife of Ares in Hesiod’s Theogony.
Two recent editions of “The Oxford Classical Dictionary” are of different opinions over this particular aspect of the goddess. The 1970 edition sees Aphrodite as a goddess of war and traces this to her oriental roots, drawing a resemblance between Aphrodite and Astarte, a Hellenized form of the Akkadian goddess Ishtar, who is a goddess of war as well as fertility. One the other hand, the 1996 edition of the same dictionary offers several counterarguments. Her pairing with Ares, for example, is viewed not because they are both warlike, but because love and war are opposites.
However, even without her association with Ares, Aphrodite was no stranger to war. As his punishment for Aphrodite for beguiling her fellow gods into inappropriate romances, Zeus caused her to become infatuated with the mortal Anchises. From Anchises, Aphrodite gave birth to the hero Aeneas. In his epic of the Trojan War, Homer tells how Aphrodite intervened in battle to save Aeneas, a Trojan ally. The Greek hero Diomedes, who had been on the verge of killing Aeneas, attacked Aphrodite herself, wounding her on the wrist with his spear, causing her ichor (what immortals have instead of blood) to flow.
In pain, Aphrodite dropped Aeneas, who was quickly rescued by Apollo, another Olympian guardian of the Trojans. She then sought out Ares, who stood nearby admiring the carnage, and borrowed his chariot to fly up to Olympus. There, Dione soothed her and cured her wound as Zeus told her to leave wars to the likes of Ares and Athena. Nevertheless, Aphrodite protected Aeneas during the Trojan War and its aftermath as he became the mythological founder of a line of Roman emperors. In his account of the armored Aphrodite of Sparta, Pausanias revealed her name as Area, which means “of Ares” or “warlike”.
Orphic Hymn to Aphrodite says, “’Tis thine the world with harmony to join, for all things spring from thee, O power divine. The triple Moirai (Fates) are ruled by thy decree, and all productions yield alike to thee”. This hymn praises Aphrodite as more than the goddess of love, patroness of magistrates or consort of war. It praises her as ruling over the fates and all creations.
This leads us to a closer look at her counterparts such as the Sumerian Inanna and the Akkadian Ishtar. Ishtar was a powerful goddess of love and fertility since the early 3 BCE. However, since war was the main occupation of every able Assyrian king in that period, and since Ishtar was his divine wife, it follows that her marital duty also included a post as a war goddess.
In three bas-reliefs dating from 10 to 8 BCE, Ishtar was in full armor as a goddess of war, dragging defeated enemy soldiers into slavery. However, the star and the nimbus around her, as well as her heavenly crown (called polo), show that she is also the queen of heaven. However, as indicated by the elaborate styling of her hair, her rich jewelry, and her fine clothing, Ishtar is also the goddess of love.
In her turn, Aphrodite has the epithet Urania (“heavenly”). In his Theogony, Hesiod reports how the god Cronus, the son of Uranus (heaven) and Gaia (earth), had separated his parents while they were lying together by severing his father’s genitals with a sickle. Thus, as the Babylonian, Hittite, and Hurrian myths of creation, Cronus separated the Father Heaven and the Mother Earth. Further, by cutting off his father’s genitals, thus making him a eunuch, Cronus dethroned his father to become the one and only ruler of the universe himself.
The genital of Uranus, cut off by Cronus, fell down into the Mediterranean Sea. A white foam emerged from the divine organ, and Aphrodite was formed out of this foam. This version of the birth of Aphrodite implied that Aphrodite was not born out of the white foam of the Aegean Sea but from the white sperm of Uranus. Therefore, Aphrodite’s real father was not Zeus but Uranus (heaven), just as Anu (heaven) was the father of Ishtar. Aphrodite’s epithet Urania, then, indicates that she is the daughter of Uranus, the sky.
Also in the fifth Homeric Hymn, Aphrodite appears as the main force of generation. She was also this in early Greek philosophical speculation, notably in Parmenides and Empedocles, and finally in the Latin poet Lucretius. Lucretius invokes Venus (Aphrodite) as the life-giving power creating all things, the goddess of creation through whom all living beings in the sky, in the sea, and on earth are brought to life.
It is more than likely that Lucretius’ perception of Aphrodite as “Mother Nature,” has been greatly influenced by the older religious image of the goddess as the creative power in animate nature. This influence was evidently powerful enough for Lucretius to call Aphrodite rerum naturam sola gubernas (“the sole queen of nature”).
As the “queen of heaven”, as well as phosphoros (“morning star”) and hesperos (“evening star”), Aphrodite is also in charge of the sea, dispelling the stormy clouds and calming the waters. She is therefore the patroness of sailors in their adventures across the seas, earning her the epithet pontia (“of the sea”), euploia (“fair voyage”) and limenia (“of the harbor”).