- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology»
- Ancient History»
- Greek & Roman History
Aphrodite: The World's First Diva
Birth of Aphrodite
When Kronos took steps to stop his father, Ouranos, from ever again forcing himself on his mother, Gaia, several beings were born as a result. While the three Erinyes, better known as Furies, the five Gigantes and the many Meliae, nymphs of the ash-tree, were all born from the blood of Ouranos falling to the ground, only one creature was born from the sky's genitals falling into the ocean waters and mixing with the sea foam. That one creature was the lovely Aphrodite.
Coming ashore at Cyprus, Aphrodite was quickly accepted into the company of the gods, and immediately all of the gods loved and wanted her, which isn't surprising as the girl could never keep on any clothes. As for herself, Aphrodite was drawn to the war god, Ares. In many ways, he was the exact opposite of the goddess. She represented love and beauty whereas he represented the harsh brutality of war. In other ways, however, the two were made for each other. Both Ares and Aphrodite loved himself or herself more than anyone else and could be easily angered if they did not get their way. Their passions for each other where strong, and a marriage between the two seemed all but certain until the day circumstances force the goddess to marry another.
Marriage to Hephaestus
Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, was born when Hera, out of spite that her husband Zeus claimed to have given birth to a child, Athena, without need of a mother, decided that she too could produce a child without need of a father. Having conceived him by eating a lotus flower, the baby was born crippled and misshapen. Hera was so enraged that she threw the infant god from Mount Olympus into the depths of the ocean. Being immortal, he survived the fall and was raised by Thetis, the daughter of Nereus who would later become the mother of Achilles, and Eurynome, the daughter of Oceanus and mother of the Charities by Zeus.
Hephaestus would eventually return to Olympus and take his place as a member of the Olympian Council, but he still felt the pain of being rejected by his mother. Having become an expert blacksmith while growing up on Earth, the god made a beautiful golden throne for Hera. Once she sat upon it, however, she was trapped. No matter what she or the other gods tried, Hera could not be removed from the seat. The others begged Hephaestus to set his mother free, but he insisted that he had no mother. Eventually, Zeus offered that any god who could find a way to free Hera from the throne would be given Aphrodite's hand in marriage. This was the one thing Zeus knew that all of the gods wanted. As for herself, Aphrodite was convinced that it would be the strength of her beloved Ares that would save the day and free his mother from the golden throne, so she agreed to the terms.
Ares immediately went to his brother, Hephaestus and tried to beat out of him how to free their mother, but Hephaestus was in his own element, the forge, and rained a shower of hot metal down on the war god who fled, which Ares was prone to do. It would be Dionysus, the god of wine, who would go to Hephaestus and tell him of the proposal that Zeus had made. He suggested that if Hephaestus went to his mother and released her, that he could claim the prized Aphrodite for himself. Still, Dionysus had to get Hephaestus drunk before he would eventually agree to go release his mother.
Hephaestus Catches Aphrodite and Ares in the Act
Hephaestus was thrilled to be married to the beautiful Aphrodite, but she was extremely unhappy. Not only was she not married to her beloved Ares, but she was stuck with the ugliest god on the planet. She soon entered into a full-blown affair with her now brother-in-law, Ares. When the goddess became pregnant with Eros, Roman Cupid, she tried to pass him off as the son of her husband to hide the fact that she was being unfaithful, but no one was fooled including her husband. Helios, the sun god at the time, saw everything during the day, and just like telling Demeter that it was Hades who stole her daughter Persephone, Helios filled Hephaestus in on his wife and brother's little affair. Hephaestus was upset, but just like with his mother, the smith god decided that instead of getting mad, he would get even. He designed a golden net that would capture the lovers the next time they were together. Once his trap was tripped, Hephaestus knew that the lovers could not escape and gathered all of the other gods together to look upon them lying naked together.
Hephaestus shouted that Aphrodite had no shame and he should receive his bridal dowry back because she had been unfaithful to him with Ares. The gods, of course, thought the sight was funny and laughed. They all whispered to each other things like the slow Hephaestus had outwitted the fastest of them all, Ares. Hermes, who stood with his brother and best friend Apollo, asked if Apollo would like to be with Aphrodite because of her beauty. Apollo whispered back asking if his brother would risk being caught and made a laughingstock like their brother Ares just to be with the goddess. Hermes wholeheartedly confirmed that he would risk it. Poseidon defused the situation by getting Hephaestus to let Ares go if he agreed to pay the fine of an adulterer. Hephaestus did not trust his brother, but the sea god, not wanting the god of war to suffer a worse penalty, promised to pay the fee himself if Ares did not. Hephaestus let the lovers go, but the deed had already been done. Aphrodite gave birth to another child, a daughter named Harmonia. Again, Hephaestus would have his revenge when he made a necklace for the beautiful Harmonia on her wedding day to Cadmus. The necklace was cursed, most believe by her stepfather, and caused pain and heartache for Harmonia's family for generations to come. For the complete story of Harmonia's hard luck see, Io: Generations of Pain from Beauty.
While Aphrodite would never have a child with her husband, she did bare several more children with her lover Ares. Anteros and Himeros would join their older brother Eros and become the Erotes. Together with Pothos, the son of Iris and Zephyrus, the Erotes would forever be attendants for their mother Aphrodite.
Eros was of course known as the god of love, and in fact, it was his job to make people fall in or out of love with each other through the use of his gold and lead arrows. He routinely caused the gods to fall in love with mortal women producing most of the great heroes of the ancient Greeks. His own love affair with the beautiful mortal girl Psyche is one of the best known stories of all times. He was sent to ruin Psyche because the mortals thought she was more beautiful than Aphrodite, but instead he fell in love himself. Eros and Psyche lived together in secret, even Psyche did not know who he was, until the night her curiosity got the better of her, and she burned her husband with lamp oil. Aphrodite then turned Psyche's world upside down forcing her to complete labors that would make Heracles sweat, and she was just a mortal girl. In the end, Psyche and Eros were allowed to marry, and Aphrodite became a happy grandmother. For the complete story, see Eros and Psyche.
Anteros was the god of unrequited love, or love that is returned. He did not cause others to fall in love, but when two loves accepted their fates to be with one another, he was the one to reward them. On the other hand, it was also his job to punish those who refused the love of another. The easiest way to tell Anteros from his brothers is his wings. Instead of having wings like a bird, Anteros has butterfly wings.
Himeros was responsible for causing desire and lust in others. It is difficult to distinguish Himeros from his older brother Eros except that he is often wearing a headband, as in the Fighting Cupids statues by Filippo Ferrari.
The Erotes have always been portrayed as mischievous young boys, many times even as infants. With their bow and arrows, they have assisted their mother, the goddess of love, with all of her duties while also providing her every need. Today, they are thought of as sweet, innocent gods, but in mythology, they were often cruel and unforgiving just like Mom.
Phobos and Deimos
While the Erotes attended to their mother, Aphrodite also gave birth to twin sons who would do their father's bidding. Phobos and Deimos were the gods of fear and terror. They were often pictured driving their father's chariot into battle. The boys also served their grandfather, Zeus, during his fight against Typhon. According to Nonnus, Zeus gave Phobos the power of lightning while giving Deimos the power of the thunderbolt.
In one story, however, all of the sons of Aphrodite and Ares got into a battle, much to their father's dismay. King Minos, son of Zeus, was fighting a war against King Nisos of Megara. Things were not going well for Minos until Aphrodite got her sons involved. Nisos had a daughter name Skylla and the Erotes showed her with arrows of love causing her to fall in love with Minos to the point of betraying her own father. While the love gods were in the unfamiliar throws of war, their brothers Phobos and Deimos protected them. Ares was not happy that love had gotten involved with matters of war or that his own helpers were fighting on love's side.
These two sons of Aphrodite were considered so terrifying that many warriors would put their faces on their shields. Agamemnon and Achilles, leaders of the Greeks during the Trojan War, Leonidas of Sparta, known as the hero at Thermopylae, and Heracles, the great warrior son of Zeus, all had one or both of the twins on their shields.
Though Ares was Aphrodite's first love, he was not her only love. As with many Greek myths, the parentage of this next young man is a bit confused. This usually occurred because the tales were oral traditions and each city had their own telling. The most common story, as told by Ovid, has Adonis born through the incestuous act of Smyrna and her father Cinyras. Cinyras was the king of Aphrodite's birthplace, Cyprus. Why Smyrna was struck with desire for her own father is disputed. Some say it was punishment for her mother's hubris. Others claim that Smyrna herself refused to honor Aphrodite. Regardless, Eros went to work and struck Smyrna with his golden arrow. The girl snuck into her father's room and shared his bed for one night without his knowing his lover was his own daughter.
When Cinyras learned the truth, he was outraged. The king was determined to kill his daughter for bringing such shame on the family, but Smyrna ran. When she grew tired and was about to be caught, she prayed to the gods to save her. Not happy that Aphrodite and her son had caused such a sinful act, they turned Smyrna into a tree. Cinyras then killed himself because he was unable to live with the shame. The tree became the source of myrrh, the oil used throughout ancient times for incense and medicine.
Nine months after Smyrna was transformed into a tree, the tree split apart and Adonis was born. The baby had no parents, but Aphrodite was so pleased with his birth that she took him. Knowing she could not raise him herself without hearing it from her husband, Hephaestus, and her lover, Ares, she placed the beautiful boy in a chest and gave the chest to Persephone in the Underworld. Persephone, of course, could not stand the mystery of the chest and opened it, finding Adonis inside. She too was now delighted in the boy's beauty. When Aphrodite later returned for Adonis, Persephone refused to give him back. The two goddesses fought terribly over the boy, but without being able to come to an agreement, the matter had to be taken to Zeus. Remembering the solution to the similar problem of Persephone herself when she married Hades, Zeus decided that Adonis would divide his year into thirds. He would then spend one-third of each year with Persephone in the Underworld, one-third with Aphrodite and one-third how he wished. The three parties agreed. Adonis then chose to add his one-third to Aphrodite's and spend most of his time with her.
Adonis became a skilled hunter and he and Aphrodite had a daughter named Beroe, but when you are running around with a married goddess whose other lover is the bloodthirsty god of war, you can be sure that your life is not going to be easy or long. Despite Aphrodite warning Adonis to leave wild beasts alone, one day the young man hunted a wild boar.
Now some people claimed that the boar was actually Apollo who was getting revenge for Adonis thinking he was as skilled a hunter as Artemis, but most believed that the boar was Ares, after all, the wild boar was a symbol of the war god. When Adonis struck the boar, it turned on him and killed him. As Adonis lay dying, Aphrodite heard his cries of pain and went to him. She tried to save him by pouring nectar on his wounds. Though the liquid of the gods did not save him, it did result in a bloom of anemone flowers around his dying body.
Prior to Aphrodite falling for Adonis, she had started a fling with Dionysus the god of wine and madness. When the god left to fight his Indian Wars, the fickle Aphrodite did not wait around for him. When he returned, however, she went back to him. She soon became pregnant and left Dionysus to have their child. Hera became upset with Aphrodite's actions when she found the goddess was pregnant. I guess it was fine for Aphrodite to cheat on one of her sons as long as it was with the other, but now it was Dionysus with whom she was cheating. The Queen of the Gods went to Aphrodite and placed her hands on the goddess of love. When Aphrodite gave birth to the son of Dionysus, he was ugly by god standards, and he had an extremely large, always erect phallus. Priapus, as he was named, became a god of fertility especially as it related to agriculture and animal husbandry. Despite his appearance, he was worshiped throughout the Mediterranean.
Making Aphrodite Angry
Though the goddess had many lovers, with more to follow, her love life was not the only thing she was about, and she was not one to suffer fools lightly. Those who refused to worship her properly paid a high price usually involving sex. We have already discussed poor Smyrna who was driven to lust after her own father.
Poor Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete, had two gods working against her. Since one of them was Aphrodite, her punishment was cruel. Minos had angered Poseidon by promising to sacrifice the great white bull that the sea god provided, but then backed out on the deal because the bull was too magnificent to kill. Poseidon then conspired with Aphrodite who was still mad at Pasiphae's father Helios for ratting her out about the affair with Ares. Aphrodite got even for both of them by causing Pasiphae to fall in love with the Cretan Bull. Her desire was so strong, since it was an Aphrodite curse, that she got Daedalus to help her mate with the animal, which resulted in the birth of Asterion, the Minotaur. The saddest part of the entire thing is that neither god was actually mad at Pasiphae.
The lovely ladies of Lemnos failed to honor Aphrodite, so she made them stink so badly that their husbands would have nothing to do with them. To satisfy their needs, the men took wives from Thrace. The women then murdered their husbands for taking second wives. By the time the Argonauts sailed into port, the ladies were looking for some male attention, but would have killed Jason and company as well had Orpheus not saved the crew.
Hippolytus, the son of Theseus, made the mistake of insulting the goddess of love. She could not deprive him of love, so the vengeful Aphrodite decided to cause his stepmother Phaedra to lust after him. Phaedra was also the granddaughter of Helios, making this torment all the sweeter. Hippolytus rejected his father's wife causing her to lie, in a suicide note to Theseus, that Hippolytus had raped her. Theseus, believing his wife, cursed his son for the act. Being the son of Poseidon had its advantages, as the sea god sent a monster to spook the horses pulling his grandson's chariot. The horses began running wild and dragged the young man to his death.
What was the insult you ask? Hippolytus took a vow of chastity in order to join Artemis and devote his life to hunting. Artemis, distraught that Hippolytus was killed for this, talked her nephew Asclepius, the medical genius son of Apollo, into bringing Hippolytus back to life, which resulted in Zeus striking Asclepius dead with a lightning bolt for doing so. This cause Apollo to kill the Cyclopes, who made the lighting bolts for his father, which got the sun god kicked out of Olympus and forced into the servitude of a mortal for one year. In the end, Zeus revived the Cyclopes and made Asclepius a god, but all of this hardship was Aphrodite's fault.
To prove that even if Aphrodite likes you and decides to do you a favor, she can turn on you in a heartbeat, let me tell you about Hippomenes. The young man wanted to marry Atalanta, but she was not keen on the idea. Poor Atalanta disappointed her father just by being a girl and was left in the wild to be raised by a wild bear. She grew up beautiful but a tomboy and became a priestess of Artemis. She had been warned by the Oracle of Delphi not to lose her virginity, but her father, who was now back in the picture, wanted to marry her off for a dowry. Atalanta was a fast runner and agreed to only marry the young man who could beat her in a footrace. She raced several men beating them all until Hippomenes asked Aphrodite for help. The goddess gave him three golden apples and told him to get ahead of Atalanta at the start and drop the apples along the course. Atalanta was so taken by the golden apples that she kept stopping to pick them up allowing Hippomenes to win the race. Atalanta kept her word and married Hippomenes, but the young man was so excited about getting married that he forgot to burn incense during the wedding in thanks to Aphrodite for her help. On their way home from the ceremony, the newlyweds stopped at the Temple of Zeus on Mount Parnassus to make a sacrifice to the King of the Gods. Aphrodite struck them with such desired that they consummated their marriage right there, which was a major insult to Zeus who turned the two of them into lions. This was Aphrodite's fault, but at least Atalanta had been warned.
Aphrodite would send her son Eros to assist Dionysus in his war against the Indians as a favor to the god's daughter Pasithea while pointing out that her lover Ares had taken the side of the Indians, most likely because Aphrodite was now sleeping with Dionysus. She had a lot of nerve complaining about Ares, however, after what she did to his granddaughter Polyphonte. All the girl did was decided to join Artemis on the hunt and forgo the love of men. Aphrodite decided that if the girl wanted to be with the animals, she would be with the animals. She drove Polyphonte to lust after a bear. Artemis caught the girl and the bear together and, in disgust, drove the girl away. Polyphonte returned to her family and gave birth to twin sons, Agrius and Oreius, who were half-man/half-bear. The bear/boys were unruly cannibals and Zeus ordered Hermes to get rid of them, but their great grandfather, Ares, stepped in and had Hermes change them into birds of prey instead.
Aphrodite's Little Favors
One should not believe that Aphrodite never did a nice thing in her life. There were a handful of times when she acted in favor of another, usually getting involved with someone's love life. There was the time when Pygmalion carved a beautiful statue of a woman then promptly fell in love with it. After making quite a fool of himself by showing his affections for the piece of ivory, he prayed to Aphrodite to give him a love exactly like his statue. Upon returning home, he found that his girl of ivory was now a living woman.
When Ino's husband Athamas was driven to madness by Hera because the two were raising the infant Dionysus in secret, Athamas had killed their oldest son and was now after the youngest, Melicertes. Ino grabbed her young son and ran with him to the cliffs where she threw herself and her son into the sea. As Ino was a daughter of Aphrodite's daughter Harmonia, the goddess of love considered this just one more curse resulting from the necklace her husband, Hephaestus, gave as a wedding gift when Harmonia married Cadmus. The goddess cried out to Poseidon to save her granddaughter and great grandson. The god of the sea took pity turnning Ino into Leucothea and Melicertes into Palaemon both gods of the sea.
Some say that Aphrodite took pity on Scylla, the daughter of Nisus, by turning her into a fish when she flung herself into the sea. She got her own granddaughter turned into a goddess, but Scylla only got to be a fish. It does not quite seem fair especially considering it was all Aphrodite's fault that Scylla was running from her father in the first place. As mentioned before, Scylla's troubles all started when King Minos of Crete was fighting a war against her father, King Nisus of Megara. When Minos started losing, he got Aphrodite to cast a spell of love on Scylla. Scylla fell so madly in love with Minos that she cut off a lock of purple hair on her father's head. You see, an oracle had told the king that as long as he had that purple hair, he would rule over his kingdom. Now that the hair was gone, Minos defeated Nisus but refused to take Scylla back with him to Crete because she could not be trusted. When her father gave chase, she saw no escape but to end her life in the sea. It still was not a happy ending, as Ares turned Nisus into an eagle. Now every time a bird sees a fish in the water, they dive down, grab the fish with their talons and eat them as a never-ending punishment of Nisus on Scylla.
Aphrodite would soon do a favor for one of her own children, although putting a stop to his violent attack would have been better. Perhaps her choice of when to step in and help her son was driven by the fact that she never wanted the child to begin with. It all began when Hermes saw Aphrodite with his half-brother Ares. He wanted to be with the goddess, but she wanted nothing to do with him, despite the fact that she was sleeping with everyone else. Hermes became so depressed that his father, Zeus, sent his eagle to steal Aphrodite's sandal while he was bathing. When Hermes got hold of the shoe, he held it for ransom. If she gave him sex, he would give her back her shoe. Because of their union, Hermaphroditus was born. He looked so much like both of his parents, they gave him both of their names, and by all of accounts, he was gorgeous. When he was fifteen, he set out to explore the world and came upon a spring of water. He wanted to take a dip and cool off, but a nymph named Salmacis showed up and tried to seduce him. Only being fifteen he rejected her, and she went away, or so he thought. Once she was gone, he got into the water where Salmacis reappeared and jumped him. Hermaphroditus cried out to his parents for help, but none came. Salmacis called out to the gods to let her be with Hermaphroditus forever. This time, the gods answers and combined Salmacis with Hermaphroditus. When the boy climbed from the spring, he had both his original male but also female genitals. He was understandably devastated and cried out to his parents once more to curse the spring and make anyone who took a dip in the waters become, as he now was, both male and female. This time they heard him.
Aphrodite was so well known for casting her love spells on the gods making them fall for mortal women that Zeus decided to give her a taste of her own medicine. He wanted Aphrodite to have to feel what it was like to have a mortal child who would one-day face death. As a result, Aphrodite fell in love with a Trojan prince named Anchises. She appeared one day and seduced the young man pretending to be a mortal princess from the nearby territory of Phrygia. It was not until she gave birth to their son, Aeneas that he learned the truth. The goddess sent to boy to be raised by nymphs until he was old enough to stay with his father, and Aphrodite told her young lover not to tell a soul who she really was or face retaliation from Zeus. If you were mortal and had a fling with the goddess of love and beauty, do you think you could keep from bragging about it? Neither could Anchises. He got drunk one night and started telling others who the mother of his son really was. As warned, Zeus struck Anchises leaving him crippled. Anchises raised his young son in Troy, where the boy married and became the father of a couple of children. His life was pretty normal until another little event, caused by his mother, changed his life forever.
Judgement of Paris
When the parents of Achilles, Thetis and Peleus, married, there was a big celebration. All the gods were there, except for Eris, the goddess of strife, who was not invited. Eris was all about getting even and showed up with a golden apple inscribed that it was for the most beautiful. This started a big fight between the goddesses especially Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. Zeus refused to get pulled into the middle of the argument and sent them to Paris, a young Trojan prince, for a decision. The goddesses all tried to bribe Paris for his vote. It was Aphrodite's promise of the hand of the most beautiful mortal girl that swayed the prince, and he selected her. For a complete story of the Trojan War see The Trojan War: All From a Single Apple.
Later when Paris made his choice, Helen of Sparta, she was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta. Aphrodite had no qualms about breaking up this marriage, as Menelaus had failed to pay the goddess when he won Helen's hand to begin with. You see, Helen was the daughter of Zeus and all the Greek kings wanted to marry her. It took a little help from Aphrodite for Menelaus to win, but then he stiffed her. When Paris took off with Helen, it caused a huge problem. Menelaus was not ready to give up his wife, and as part of the contest for his wife, all the kings of Greece had promised to defend Menelaus for life. Now all of Greece was pitted against Troy, and Aphrodite's own son Aeneas was right in the middle of it.
Being a demigod usually gave male heroes great strength, but I guess when your godly parent is Aphrodite, you will never be mistaken for Heracles. His mother sweet talked her husband, Hephaestus, into creating a suit of armor for her boy, but when Aeneas was pitted against Achilles, his mother had to save him. Later he was pitted against Diomedes, but Mommy was again there to protect her son who got crushed by a rock. This time, however, Diomedes could see the gods thanks to a little gift from Athena. The Greek hero stabbed Aphrodite in the arm when she tried to take her son. If not for Apollo swooping in and saving Aeneas, he probably would have died right there.
Founding of Rome and Britain
When the Trojan War was coming to a close, and it was clear the Trojans had lost, Aphrodite sent her son on the run with his family. Aeneas had to carry his father from the burning city as his wife and children followed. The war was over, but this was far from the end of Aeneas's story, in fact, the son of Aphrodite seemed to blossom after he left Troy. He ended up in a new land where he would fight and win several battles and become a king in his own right. His new city, Lavinium, would do well and for generations, after all he was a sixth generation descendant of Zeus on his father's side. Fourteen generations of his son Silvius later, a granddaughter of Aeneas would even catch the eye of Ares, who was now calling himself Mars. The two would have twin sons, Remus and Romulus, who would start a little kingdom that would grow just a little bit bigger and be called the Roman Empire. Future generation of Romulus would even include a kid name Julius Caesar and his nephew Octavius, better known as Caesar Augustus. For the complete story on the founding of Rome, see The Founding of Rome: Aeneas to Romulus. His son Ascanius had a son who would found another little kingdom that would actually last far longer than that of his brother's family. That grandson's name was Brutus of Britain. As for Aphrodite having to face the death of her mortal son, it never happened. Aeneas was taken to Olympus and made a god upon his death. Somehow, the girl always got her way.
Aphrodite was beautiful and charming, but she could be could be more vindictive than any of the other gods, which is saying a lot considering this group of egomaniacs. Still she tried to be just one of the gods, and she joined in their activities. She beat Hermes in a foot race at Pythian games held after Apollo defeated the giant snake. She even challenged Athena to a weaving contest and despite help from the Charities, lost miserably. When Hephaestus created Pandora, it was Aphrodite who gave her beauty. She even played a major role when the Olympians were fighting the Giants. Knowing that the only way to kill Gaia's children was with a god and hero working together, Aphrodite used her beauty to seduce the Giants one at a time while turning them over to Heracles who killed them.
She would have been difficult to live with, but since she went from god to god, none of them had to put up with her for long, and her children loved her, even if she did meddle in their lives, just ask Eros and his wife Psyche. She was worshiped by anyone who wanted love in their lives, which was almost everyone, but she was also feared because the cruelty she could inflict was the worst kind, heartbreak. So she was not a queen like Hera, or a warrior like Athena, or even a huntress like Artemis, but she was something even greater. Aphrodite was the greatest lover and biggest diva the world has ever known.