???

Notebook

Notebook, 1993--

ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE

Aphrodite

???


Aphrodite [Venus] was the goddess of love and of feminine beauty. She sprang from the foam of the sea off Cyprus that had gathered about the severed member of Ouranos when Kronos mutilated him. Patron of marriages, she nevertheless frequently deceived her consort Hephaestos, first with Ares with whom she begot many offspring, among these Deimos and Phobos, Eros and Priapus, until discovered by Hephaestos, and then had further amorous intrigues with Dionysos, with Hermes and Poseidon. Nor did the goddess frown upon erotic affairs with mortals for she became the lover of Anchises who sired Aeneas, and of Adonis, the symbol of vegetation which grows every year. Goddess of a love that impregnates animals, she also inspired the amorous proclivities of husband and wife besides fertilizing the fields. But she was also the goddess of passion and was not beyond blinding lovers whom she wished to destroy and she drove people to adulterous acts leading them often to orgies and debauchery. Aphrodite also took part in the Trojan War in defense of her favourite Paris who had given her the apple. She gave him Helen which resulted in the destructive war at Troy. Of Eastern origin, specially Phoenician [Astarte], Aphrodite did not for long retain the Asiatic character which was completely alien to the Greek spirit. Thus, the Greeks said she was born in Cyprus [Cypris] opposite Phoenicia, and gave to her all the feminine faculties which inspire passion and love. With time, Aphrodite modified her character and was given more duties until her Eastern associations completely vanished and she became one of the most popular deities of the Greek pantheon. Beginning in Cyprus and Cythera, the worship of the Goddess spread rapidly to all the Greek-speaking world. One of her most famous temples was in Paphos where festivals of a mystic nature were held yearly. The traveler Pausanias says the most revered and oldest temple of Aphrodite was in Cythera. She was a constant inspirer of artists, sculptors, painters, and poets, not only in classical Greece but in the Hellenistic period as well as during the Renaissance, and continued to inspire the great painters of the more recent centuries. [p. 33]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]




All goddesses are beautiful but Aphrodite is the goddess of beauty. All goddesses love but Aphrodite is the love goddess. All gods and goddesses guide and inspire from within but Aphrodite possesses from within. She is 'a close god unable to keep her distance'. She invades our most secret places, she stirs yearnings more visceral and more consuming than any other god. Of all blessed gods and mortal men only the three Olympian virgins, Athena, Artemis and Hestia, are immune to her power. 'She even leads astray the mind of Zeus himself, the lover of lightning, the greatest of all . . . and when she wants to she can deceive that sage heart of his easily, and make him even mate with mortal women.' She embodies the wonder, the magic, the power of primordial femininity. 'Earth's archetypal Eve. All Womanhood.' She sinks men into the deepest morass of sensuality and lifts them to the exaltation of cosmic union.

Nowhere is this double nature of Aphrodite more beautifully portrayed than in the myth of the union of her son Eros with Psyche [Soul]. The condition for their love was that they could unite only in darkness. When Psyche succumbs to her need to know, she lights a candle and in its light sees her lover in all his glory. 'Love cannot live with suspicion,' cries Eros and flies away. What is suspicion and curiosity at one level is, at another level, the soul's compulsion for light and consciousness, its unwillingness to be in a relationship shrouded in darkness. It is the beginning of a series of impossible tasks imposed on Psyche by Aphrodite before she can be reunited with her lost Eros--this time with no conditions. The final test is to enter the Underworld and there put into the box that Aphrodite has given her a drop of Persephone's beauty--the soul beauty of the depths. She fulfills the ultimate task and achieves the transformation of dark anonymous love into the love where the personal and the divine meet and merge. Psyche's [p. 78] marriage to Eros is the only wedding to take place in the presence of all the gods and goddesses on Olympos. And at the great feast that Zeus threw for the sacred union of Soul and Eros, Aphrodite danced.

She is the goddess both of the elemental mysteries of love and of its final revelation. Socrates was the first to give names to the two Aphrodites in the Symposium: 'No one, I think, will deny that there are two goddesses of that name--one, the elder, sprung from no mother's womb but from the heavens themselves, we call the Uranian, the heavenly Aphrodite, while the younger, daughter of Zeus and Dione, we call Pandemus, the earthly Aphrodite. It follows, then, that Love should be known as earthly or as heavenly according to the goddess in whose company his work is done.'

Both goddesses, Socrates goes on to say, must command our homage. As Kenneth Clark writes, 'Perhaps no religion ever again incorporated physical passion so . . . naturally that all who saw her felt that the instincts they shared with the beasts they also shared with the gods.' In fact, even the Uranian Aphrodite is fully connected to the elements. She was born from the genitals of Uranus, cut off by his son Cronos and tossed into the sea. And she rose, full-grown, into life from the depths of the sea and the airy foam.


And the Hours in their golden diadems
received her with joy
clothed her in ambrosial garments
and placed a well-wrought crown, beautiful and golden,
on her immortal head
and flowers of copper and precious gold
in the pierced lobes of her ears.


The heavenly Venus arising from the sea has inspired hundred of poets and artists through the ages, but it is the earthly Aphrodite who, through rapture, magic and desire, has held sway over men's lives. In the Danaid of Aeschylus she proudly extols her power: 'The holy heaven is full of desire to mate with the earth, and desire seizes the earth to find a mate; rain falls from the amorous heaven and impregnates the earth; and the earth brings forth for men the fodder of flocks and herds and the gifts of Demeter; and from the same moistening marriage-rite the fruit of trees is ripened. Of these things I am the cause.

Aphrodite embodies sexuality free of ambivalence, anxieties and self-consciousness, a sexuality so natural and quintessential to her that no myth deals with her virginity or its loss. She makes love to her young lover, Anchises, under the mid -day son. She is the only goddess who glories in her [p. 80] nakedness, the only one to be portrayed nude in sculptures. At the same time, she is the goddess of all the arts that enhance beauty and love-making - of perfumes and incense, love-charms and potions, the use of oils and cosmetics and all the lore of aphrodisiac drinks and foods. She is the goddess of the cosmetics industry, the goddess of courtesans and the goddess of the courtesan in all women.

In our century Freud enthroned the instinct which the earthly Aphrodite embodies as the source of all instinct. His neglect of the other Aphrodite, the Uranian, the embodiment of the soul's desire, reflects the neglect in our own lives of an instinct less tangible but no less compelling. Each archetype, each god and goddess, has a dark side, but in Aphrodite magic brightness merges into swampy darkness. We have Botticelli's Birth of Venus and we have venereal diseases. We have Socrates' heavenly Aphrodite and we have neuroses, power-games, treacheries, all in the name of love. In Greece she was 'golden', 'glowing' Aphrodite, but she was also known as 'the dark one', 'the killer of men', 'the unholy'. She was closely connected with the Minoan 'goddess of wild things' and the Oriental goddess Ishtar, whose rites at Babylon, Bylbos and Bambyce were notorious for their temple prostitution. Even in Corinth the priestesses at AphroditeÍs temple were prostitutes or, as Pindar called them, 'daughters of persuasion'.

D. H. Lawrence called her the goddess of destruction: 'her white cold fire consumes and does not create'. And Marsilio Ficino's harangue against the goddess in Renaissance Florence is the classic attack of man's reason against a power that overwhelms it: 'Only Venus comes on openly as your friend, and is secretly your enemy. You should be attacking her if you are going to be attacking any of the gods . . . . She promises you her deadly pleasures and promises more than she ever delivers . . . . ' Circe, Calypso, Cleopatra--they all embody Aphrodite the enchantress, the snare-knitter, the force men most fear and to which, at the same time, they are most irresistibly drawn. Those who try hardest to resist, those who imagine themselves immune to her power, are the ones on whom the goddess' wrath descends most vigorously: 'Do not imagine you can abdicate'. W. H. Auden's Venus warns, 'Before you reach the frontier you are caught.'

The myths of Aphrodite are full of retaliations against those who forget her. She punished Daphnis, a Sicilian shepherd who won the hearts of nymphs and muses but insisted that love had no power over him; she caused the women of Lemnos, who neglected her, to exude a foul odour which repelled their husbands; and she destroyed Hippolytus. In her opening speech in Euripides' Hippolytus she explains why: 'Great is my power and wide my fame among mortals and also in heaven. All [p. 81] men that look upon the light of the sun, all that dwell between the Euxine Sea and the boundaries of Atlas are under my sway: I bless those that respect my power, and disappoint those who are not humble towards me. Yes, even the family of gods have this trait: they are pleased when people respect them. I shall demonstrate the truth of this forthwith. Theseus' son Hippolytus, born of the Amazon and brought up by temperate Pittheus, is the only inhabitant of this land of Troezen who declares that I am the very vilest of divinities. He spurns love and will have nothing to do with sex . . . . It is his sinful neglect of me for which I shall punish Hippolytus this very day.' By Aphrodite's scheming, Phaedra, Theseus' wife, is smitten with a fearful love for her stepson. 'Moaning, and distraught with the pricks of love, love undeclared,' she is dying. Aphrodite's revenge is to reveal Phaedra's passion to her husband: Hippolytus is killed by his father's curses when a sea-monster rises from the water, frightens his horses and dashes his chariot to pieces.

Hippolytus is dead, but he is still moving among us in the men and women fighting against the lure of passion. Will-power, though, is a very insignificant force to pit against Aphrodite. To resist her is a futile as resisting life. 'Upon the yielding spirit', Euripides tells us, 'she comes gently, but to the proud and the fanatic heart she is a torturer with the brand of shame.'

The goddess herself is not immune from the wounds she inflicts and the passions she inspires. She is the longing she causes as well as the cause of longing. The myth of her love for Adonis, the beautiful youth born from the riven bark of the myrrh tree, has inspired some of the most moving and sensual poetry in Western literature. 'Thrice fairer than myself,' she calls him in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis.


'Here come and sit, where never serpent hisses
And being set, I'll smother thee with kisses.

And yet not coy thy lips with loathed satiety,
But rather famish them amid their plenty,
Making them red and pale with fresh variety -
Ten kisses short as one, one long as twenty.' . . .

She's Love, she loves, and yet she is not lov'd . . . .

She red and hot as coals of glowing fire,
He red for shame, but frosty in desire . . . .

Being red, she loves him best; and being white,
Her best is bettered with a more delight.

Look how he can, she cannot choose but love . . . .


In the myth, Aphrodite and Persephone fought for Adonis' love. Their dispute was brought before Zeus, who decided that he should spend one third of the year with Persephone in the Underworld, one third with Aphrodite and one third by himself. When he was with Aphrodite, her life revolved around him: she sought only to please him [she is, after all, the goddess of the courtesans]. He loved to hunt, so she would leave the swan-drawn chariot in which she used to glide through the air and trek through rough woodland to be with him at the chase. One day, when she was not with him, a boar gored him with its great tusks. His blood ran down, red anemones sprang up from the ground, and the goddess of love mourned and wept.


With one sharp-taken breath,
By sunlit branches and unshaken flower,
The immortal limbs flashed to the human lover,
And the immortal eyes to look on death.


Loss and death, unrequited love and abandonment, are all part of Aphrodite's realm. Indeed, only by these dark shadows does her golden brilliance become a complete creation, smiling its immortal smile as well as looking on death with immortal eyes. Permanence is of Hera's world, not Aphrodite's. What belongs to her is a deep acceptance that passionate love does not last forever; and an equally deep acceptance that man is made to love.


Torches are made to light, jewels to wear,
Dainties to taste, fresh beauty for the use,
Herbs for their smell, and sappy plants to bear;
Things growing to themselves are growth's abuse:
Seeds spring from seeds, and beauty breedeth beauty;
Thou wast begot; to get it is they duty.


Aphrodite's essence is transformation through the power of beauty and love--the power that is responsible for all the metamorphoses that Ovid wrote about. Even Pygmalion, the legendary king of Cyprus, could only bring his ivory statue of the ideal woman to life by falling in love with it. 'Pygmalion gazed in wonder', Ovid tells us, 'and in his heart there rose a passionate love for this image of human form.' At the festival of Venus he made his offerings to the goddess and prayed to her. 'When Pygmalion returned home, he made straight for the statue of the girl he loved, leaned over the couch, and kissed her. She seemed warm: he laid his lips on hers again, and touched her breast with his hands--at his touch the ivory lost its hardness, and grew soft: his fingers made an imprint on the yielding [p. 83] surface, just as wax of Hymettus melts in the sun and, worked by men's fingers, is fashioned into many different shapes, and made fit for use by being used. The lover stood, amazed, afraid of being mistaken, his joy tempered with doubt, and again and again stroked the object of his prayers. It was indeed a human body! The veins throbbed as he pressed them with his thumb. Then Pygmalion was eloquent in his thanks to Venus. At long last, he pressed lips upon living lips, and the girl felt the kisses he gave her, and blushed. Timidly raising her eyes, she saw her lover and the light of day together.

The power that transforms is the same power that brings destruction and dissolution, the almighty desire that forgets the whole world for the sake of the beloved. It tears asunder all established structures, family ties and bonds of duty. But we can either drown in it or be released through it into a life lived more intensely, more truthfully, more consciously. In the Phaedrus, Socrates talks of 'divine madness' as a much higher form of being than 'man-made sanity'. He distinguishes four types of divine madness and ascribes them to four gods: 'the inspiration of the prophet to Apollo, that of the mystic to Dionysos, that of the poet to the Muses, and a fourth type which we declared to be the highest, the madness of the lover, to Aphrodite and Eros'.

It is the divine madness that removes the vagueness and dullness of habitual perceptions, that brings the sublime within the ken of earthly mortals. In the same way that all matter at a certain degree of heat becomes luminous, al men have experienced moments in their lives when they have felt the exaltation of love and beauty, the power of Aphrodite. Her power, the myths tell us, can either lead us to transformation or be dissipated, so that what was for a moment luminous becomes again opaque.

'If the all too obvious and the overly straight sprouts of Truth and Goodness have been crushed, cut down, or not permitted to grow, then perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable and ever-surprising shoots of Beauty will force their way through and soar up to that very spot, thereby fulfilling the task of all three.' This was part of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize acceptance speech. But it could also have been a hymn to the two Aphrodites delivered for all time. [p. 85]


Terracotta head of Aphrodite, c. 300 BC. 'She who awakens a yearning in the gods, she who subdues the race of mortal men . . . . '
[Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite]



' . . . . And after strain
Relax in your darling's arms like a stone,
Remembering everything you can confess,
Making the most of firelight, of hours of fuss . . . . '

[W. H. Auden]



'In the blessed rose light of dawn, look how I rise, my arms held high. The sea's godlike calm bids me to ascend into blue air.
Nymphs of the breeze, hurry; Cymothoe, Glauce, come grip me under my arms. I did not think I'd find myself so suddenly caught up in the sun's embrace.'

[Angelos Sikelianos]
[p. 88]


[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]




NOTEBOOK | Links

Copyright

The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].