Aphrodite is the Olympian goddess of love, beauty, sexual pleasure, and fertility. She is regularly attended by few of her children, the Erotes, who are capable of stirring up passion in both mortals and gods at the goddess’ will. Portrayed as both insatiable and unattainable, Aphrodite was born near the coast of Cythera out of the foam (aphros) Uranus' castrated genitals created when they fell into the sea. Even though married to Hephaestus, she had affairs with all Olympians except Zeus and Hades, most famously with Ares, the god of war. She also had famous romances with two mortals, Anchises and Adonis.
Aphrodite’s name is usually linked to the Ancient Greek word for “sea-foam,” aphros, which fits nicely with the story of her birth. However, modern scholars think that both Aphrodite and her name predate Ancient Greece and that the story actually came because of the goddess’ name.
Portrayal and Symbolism · Phryne
If Apollo represented the ideal of the perfect male body to the Greeks, Aphrodite was certainly his most appropriate female counterpart. Beautiful and enchanting, she was frequently depicted nude, as a symmetrically perfect maiden, infinitely desirable and as infinitely out of reach. She was sometimes represented alongside Eros and with some of her major attributes and symbols: a magical girdle and a shell, a dove or a sparrow, roses, and myrtles.
Once, during an important religious festival, the hetaera Phryne decided to swim naked in the sea. The famous painter Apelles was so overwhelmed by the exquisite sight that he drew the most famous (now lost) painting of the Ancient World: “Aphrodite Rising from the Sea.” Many artists have tried recreating it during the centuries past. The sculptor Praxiteles had a bit more luck than Apelles: he also modeled his most celebrated sculpture of Aphrodite after Phryne, but a copy of that sculpture has survived to this day. It is one of the first life-sized female nudes in history. Plato says that when Aphrodite saw the sculpture, "Alas!" said she, "where did Praxiteles see me naked?"
Worshipped by basically everybody, Aphrodite, “the One who rises from the sea” was appropriately called Pandemos, “of all the people.” However, she was also called Ourania or “heavenly,” so some Greek moralists tried to make a distinction between these two Aphrodites, claiming that Aphrodite Pandemos is the goddess of sexual desire and Aphrodite Ourania, the one of “platonic love.” Now we know that this was the same goddess, called by numerous other contradictory epithets as well, which often describe the complex nature of love: “smile-loving,” “merciful,” and the “One who postpones old age,” but also “unholy,” “the dark one,” “the killer of men.”
Homer and Hesiod tell two different stories about the origin of Aphrodite.
However, Hesiod retells the much more famous myth. According to him, Aphrodite was born when Uranus’ genitals fell into the sea after he was castrated by his son Cronus. The goddess of love emerged from the waters on a scallop shell, fully-grown, nude, and more beautiful than anything anyone had ever seen before or since.
The Almighty Aphrodite: The Goddess Even Gods Can’t Resist
Aphrodite Married to Hephaestus
Aphrodite was so lovely that only the three virgin goddesses – Artemis, Athena, and Hestia – were immune to her charms and power. Unsurprisingly, the second she got on Olympus, she inadvertently wreaked havoc amongst the other gods, each of whom instantly wanted to have her for himself. So as to prevent this, Zeus hurriedly married her to Hephaestus, the ugliest among the Olympians. Of course, this merely alleviated the problem: Aphrodite didn’t plan to remain faithful.
Aphrodite and Ares
So, she started an affair with someone as destructive and as violent as herself: Ares. Helios, however, saw them and informed Hephaestus, after which the cuckolded god made sure to devise a fine bronze net, which ensnared the couple the next time they lay together in bed. To add insult to injury, Hephaestus called upon all the other gods to laugh at the adulterers and freed them only after Poseidon agreed to pay for their release.
Aphrodite and Poseidon
Poor Hephaestus! He couldn’t have known that when Poseidon saw Aphrodite naked, he fell in love with her all over again. He must have found out later, since Aphrodite gave Poseidon at least one daughter, Rhode. And she didn’t give up on Ares either! In fact, after the bronze net scandal, she bore the god of war as many as eight children: Deimos, Phobos, Harmonia, Adrestia and the four Erotes (Eros, Anteros, Pothos, and Himeros).
Aphrodite and Hermes
Hermes didn’t have many consorts, but he did have Aphrodite at least once, as the very name of their offspring, Hermaphrodites, suggests. And if we take into account that Priapus is usually considered a son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, it seems that only Zeus and Hades managed to never fall for the goddess of love. But the second one didn’t even live on Olympus, and the former may have been her father.
Aphrodite Among the Mortals
When she wasn’t busy making other people fall in love, Aphrodite had some time to fall in love herself.
Once, she took a baby boy she had found beside a myrrh tree to the Underworld and asked Persephone to take good care of him. However, when she went to visit him after many years, she instantly fell in love with the now unusually handsome mortal. So, he asked to have Adonis – for that was the boy’s name – back. Persephone wouldn’t allow this. Zeus settled the quarrel by dividing Adonis’ time between the two goddesses. However, Adonis preferred Aphrodite and, when the time came, he didn’t want to go back to the Underworld. Persephone sent a wild boar to kill him, and Adonis bled to death in Aphrodite’s arms. The couple had two children: Beroe and Golgos.
Another time, Aphrodite fell for a Trojan prince called Anchises. Pretending to be a princess herself, she seduced him and slept with him. Only afterward she revealed herself, promising him a noble son and warning him to keep the affair to himself. Anchises wasn’t able to, so he was struck by Zeus’ thunderbolt which blinded him. And he wasn’t able to see his son, Aeneas, found the mighty Roman Empire.
Paris was the third and final mortal who was blessed with seeing Aphrodite naked. This happened when he was tasked with judging who of the three goddesses – Aphrodite, Hera, and Athena – was the fairest. Aphrodite promised Paris the most beautiful girl in the world if he chose her, so, naturally, he did. Aphrodite made sure that he gets Helen, the Spartan queen, an event which triggered the bloody decade-long Trojan War.
Aphrodite, the Unforgiving: Hippolytus, Eos, Diomedes, Psyche
Few dared to resist the power of Aphrodite, and she had mercy for none of them. Hippolytus preferred Artemis to her and vowed to eternal innocence. Aphrodite made his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him, which resulted in the death of both her and Hippolytus.
After Aphrodite found out that Eos had slept with Ares, she cursed her to be perpetually – and unhappily – in love. Diomedes wounded the goddess during the Trojan War, and suddenly his wife Aegiale started sleeping around with his enemies.
Few poems are more beautiful than Lucretius’ invocation of Aphrodite at the beginning of “On the Nature of Things.” Compare this to the longest of the three Homeric Hymns dedicated to Aphrodite, the 5th one. Finally, Aphrodite is a constant companion of Aeneas in Virgil’s “Aeneid.”