|APHRODITE (a-fro-DYE-tee; Roman name Venus) was the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. She was also a protectress of sailors. The poet Hesiod said that Aphrodite was born from sea-foam. Homer, on the other hand, said that she was the daughter of Zeus and Dione.
When the Trojan prince Paris was asked to judge which of three Olympian goddesses was the most beautiful, he chose Aphrodite over Hera and Athena. The latter two had hoped to bribe him with power and victory in battle, but Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.
This was Helen of Sparta, who became infamous as Helen of Troy when Paris subsequently eloped with her. In the ensuing Trojan War, Hera and Athena were implacable enemies of Troy while Aphrodite was loyal to Paris and the Trojans.
Aphrodite promptly dropped Aeneas, who was rescued by Apollo, another Olympian sponsor of the Trojans. In pain she sought out her brother Ares, the god of war who stood nearby admiring the carnage, and borrowed his chariot so that she might fly up to Olympus. There she goes crying to her mother Dione, who soothes her and cures her wound. Her father Zeus tells her to leave war to the likes of Ares and Athena, while devoting herself to the business of marriage.
Elsewhere in Homer’s Iliad , Aphrodite saves Paris when he is about to be killed in single combat by Menelaus. The goddess wraps him in a mist and spirits him away, setting him down in his own bedroom in Troy. She then appears to Helen in the guise of an elderly handmaiden and tells her that Paris is waiting for her.
Helen recognizes the goddess in disguise and asks if she is being led once more to ruin. For Aphrodite had bewitched her into leaving her husband Menelaus to run off with Paris. She dares to suggest that Aphrodite go to Paris herself.
Suddenly furious, the goddess warns Helen not to go too far, lest she be abandoned to the hatred of Greeks and Trojans alike. “I’ll hate you,” says the mercurial goddess, “as much as I love you now.”
Even though Zeus’s queen Hera and Aphrodite are on different sides in the Trojan War, the goddess of love loans Hera her magical girdle in order to distract Zeus from the fray. This garment has the property of causing men (and gods) to fall hopelessly in love with whoever is wearing it.
Homer calls Aphrodite “the Cyprian”, and many of her attributes may have come from Asia via Cyprus (and Cythera) in Mycenaean times. These almost certainly mixed with a preexisting Hellenic or Aegean goddess. The ancient Greeks themselves felt that Aphrodite was both Greek and foreign.
A minor Italic goddess named Venus became identified with Aphrodite, and that’s how she got her Roman name. It is as Venus that she appears in the Aeneiad , the poet Virgil’s epic of the founding of Rome.
And on still another occasion,
Aphrodite was associated with the dove. Another of her sacred birds was the goose, on which she is seen to ride in a vase painting from antiquity.
Hesiod’s reference to Aphrodite’s having been born from the sea inspired the Renaissance artist Botticelli’s famous painting of the goddess on a giant scallop shell. Equally if not better known is the Venus de Milo, a statue which lost its arms in ancient times.
The two most recent editions of “The Oxford Classical Dictionary” are at variance over this aspect of the goddess. The 1970 edition sees her as a goddess of war and traces this to her Oriental roots. It is true that she has resemblances to Astarte, who is a goddess of war as well as fertility.
The 1996 edition of “The Oxford Classical Dictionary”, on the other hand, offers several counterarguments. It sees her being paired with Ares, for instance, not because they are similarly warlike but precisely because love and war are opposites.
In any case, Aphrodite’s primary function was to preside over reproduction, since this was essential for the survival of the community.
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