The image that has been produced over time about the Goddess of Desire, the renowned Aphrodite, is one of a longhaired beauty, riding atop a scallop shell to bestow her beauteous wonders upon the mortal earth and Olympus. This is an icon of femininity and perfection, the most stunning of the already statuesque gods and goddesses. Doves and sparrows are her counterparts as is the sweet and playful Cupid in later Roman myths. However, this seemingly flawless picture of delicacy and sensual delights is far from perfect. In fact, when looked at a little more closely, the mien of Aphrodite becomes distorted, her beauty playing out to actually be her curse. In the next pages we will delve into the true nature of the Love Goddess, contemplate the source of her ‘deeds’ and then determine how high a pedestal she actually rests upon.
Perhaps it would be best to begin with the originating source of the goddess. She was not born to any parents but rather came into the universe in a very violent and grotesque manner. She was born from the sea foam surrounding the castrated genitals of Uranus. During a family spat, the agitated Cronus decided to sever his own father’s sexual organs. Certainly this explains the sensuality that was passed down to Aphrodite, as offspring from these disembodied objects. However, it also goes that while she is this emblem of beauty and passion that she should also be a symbol of violent aggression. As it becomes apparent in stories of her various acts and interactions with other gods, goddesses and mortals; Aphrodite is far from innocent. In fact she has the ability to be down right vindictive and cruel.
Perhaps one of the tell tale signs of this goddesses afflicted image is that her source of power comes from a magic girdle. Whenever she wears this girdle it is said that all who see her will fall in love with her. The girdle is not simply an item of clothing; rather it is one that produces an impression of restriction and manipulation. A girdle is worn to make a woman’s figure appear more curvaceous and virile, it is meant to produce attractiveness. Correspondingly, Aphrodite is known as an opportunist with very skillful techniques. However her tactics are commonly childish which can only be expected when her weapon is an undergarment.
Writes Stephen L. Harris and Gloria Platzner of California State University, “Aphrodite is variously redefined as a flirt who seduces men for the fun of it, as a mistress or lover, or as a whore. Consequently, she remains alluring, but her power is drastically diminished: in a world in which marriage is sanctified, she has no legitimate social place” (Harris & Platzner pg. 98). So it is such that despite an outward presence of incomparability, Aphrodite falls despite herself into the common role of the beautiful temptress. The nature of her myth is much in the same trend as the biblical figures of Jezebel, Delilah and perhaps even Eve. Her femininity is her flaw and her curse.
Perhaps it is unfair to put all of the blame on Aphrodite herself. After all mythical beings are designed to serve as a representation of the mortal race, only on a higher scale. The myth of Aphrodite, in the light of the symbol, is a statement on the calamity of the female race. That is to say that perhaps in the creation of this story the Ancient Greeks had in mind a bit of modern feminist theory. Throughout history Greek women were
Perhaps we should look at the words of one of the earliest modern feminists, Mary Wollstonecraft – a celebrated female author in the 18th century – in attempts to distinguish something close to a middle ground. In her eminent essay, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, she writes:
“Women are, in fact, so much degraded by mistaken notions of female excellence, that I do not mean to add a paradox when I assert, that this artificial weakness produces a propensity to tyrannize, and gives birth to cunning, the natural opponent of strength, which leads them to play off those contemptible infantine airs that undermine esteem even whilst they excite desire” (Wollstonecraft pg.104).
There are endless examples of just this type of cunning and deception in Aphrodite’s history. One such depiction is in the story of the princess Smyrna; – in it the wife of King Cinyrus the Cyprian brags aloud that her daughter, the princess, is more beautiful than the goddess Aphrodite is. Out of her own jealousy and vanity Aphrodite causes Smyrna to have sex with her own father, the King, while he is in a drunken stupor. While the princess is still bearing the child, the King finds out about this folly and in a rage chases his own daughter, wielding a sword with intentions of killing her. Despite herself, the goddess takes sympathy and turns Smyrna into a myrrh tree, a historically aphrodisiac source. When the King splits the tree in half out comes the beautiful baby Adonis whom Aphrodite saves and turns over to the underworld goddess Persephone for safe hiding. Resultantly Persephone and Aphrodite both fall in love with the gorgeous mortal and have quite a scuffle to win his affections. In this story, even the sad and despondent Persephone joins in the cattiness (Graves pg.69).
But this is far from being the only story to depict the goddess Aphrodite in such an unprestigious manner. In fact she has affairs with many of the other gods of Olympus bearing quite a few children as a result. Despite the fact that Aphrodite was married to the lame Smith-God Hephaestus, she cheated on him time after time. Some of her other escapades were with the gods Hermes, Poseidon, Dionysus and many others as well as mortals. Not to mention that she is well known as the lover of the god of war, Ares. Her relationship to Ares is rather defining as both are depicted as passionate but without very sharp perceptions. Actually, both are generally portrayed as being down right slow and silly (Graves pg. 67).
In one barely mentioned but notable myth, Aphrodite even has a run in with the noble Athena. The Fates’ only function for the goddess Aphrodite was love making thus her single mindedness and rather redundant brand of stories. One day Athena discovered the goddess weaving affectedly on a loom. Feeling that the promiscuous goddess misused her craft, Athena made quite a ruckus and was ready to even denounce the act of weaving. As a result, Aphrodite ceased to weave and apologized with much earnestness to the goddess and never took up a weaving loom again. Because of Athena’s nature, this myth is not meant to be a story about competition between the two goddesses, but rather is a revealing moment that shows Aphrodite can only exist outside of the realm of domesticity. In fact, she can only wear the mask of lover and lovemaker, even despite her own wants.
In relation to the spectrum of power between the gods and goddesses, Aphrodite’s place falls rather low. Her actions are looked upon as prankish and trouble starting as she is later linked with the child Cupid. Her reputation becomes a bit of a joke between the male gods and the female goddesses generally disapprove of her. Her own ill matched husband acquired her from her adoptive father Zeus only because of material wealth, meaning that she is a goddess easily acquired by those who should have been her equal. Thus the seemingly powerful Love Goddess is actually relatively powerless.
“[Women] have been drawn out of their sphere by false refinement, and not by an endeavor to acquire masculine qualities. Still the regal homage which they receive is so intoxicating, that till the manners of the times are changed, and formed on more reasonable principles, it may be impossible to convince them that the illegitimate power, which they obtain, by degrading themselves, is a curse . . .” (Wollstonecraft pg.107).
It seems that centuries later, and even later still, the myth of Aphrodite still prevails. Wollstonecraft seems to have hit the subject matter right on the head. Aphrodite is indeed in her own right a goddess. She is physically beyond comparison but alas, even she can not escape from the rigid scales of justice. Even with the empowerment of legendary beauty the laws of nature and equality determine her ultimate fate. The tale of the Love Goddess is indeed more than meets the eye. From this conclusion it is not surprising that the common regard to Aphrodite is one in which only her beauty is recognized but not her actual basis.
(Sixth Ed. Vol. II) Excerpt: Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the
Rights of Women. New York, New York, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1993.
(Second Edition). Mountain View, California, Mayfield Publishing Co.,