Aphrodite: Ancient Greek Goddess of Love

The 12 Olympian gods are some of the most famous in all of ancient mythology. Their stories of love, lust, betrayal and strife have captured humanity’s attention for over two thousand years, as we revel in the tales and ideals of imperfect, vain gods who delight in meddling with the affairs of humans.

This is the story of one of these ancient Greek gods and goddesses: the smart and beautiful, yet prideful and vain, Aphrodite.

What is Aphrodite the God of?

Aphrodite is the goddess of love, beauty and sexuality, and is attended by the Graces and Eros, who are frequently pictured at her side. One of her epithets is Aphrodite Pandemos, as described by Pausanias of Athens, who saw Aphrodite as two halves of a whole: Aphrodite Pandemos, the sensual and earthy side, and Aphrodite Urania, the divine, celestial Aphrodite. 

Who Is Aphrodite and What Does She Look Like?

The Greek Aphrodite is beloved by all. She calms the seas, causes the meadows to spring forth with flowers, the storms to abate, and wild animals to follow her in submission. That’s why her major symbols are most commonly from nature, and include myrtles, roses, doves, sparrows and swans.

The most sensual and sexual of all the gods and goddesses, Aphrodite appears nude in many paintings and sculptures, her golden hair flowing down her back. When she is not nude, she is portrayed wearing her magic girdle, said to imbue mortals and God with unabashed passion and desire.

When and How was Aphrodite Born?

There are several tales of Aphrodite’s birth. Some say she was the daughter of Zeus, others that she existed before the King of the Gods. The tale we’re about to share is one of the most well-known, and most likely.  

Before the gods and goddesses, there was primordial chaos. From the primordial chaos, Gaia, or Earth, was born.

In the before times, Uranus lay with Earth and produced the Twelve Titans, three cyclops, one-eyed giants, and three monstrous Hecatonchires with fifty heads and 100 hands. But Uranus hated his children and was furious at their existence.

Yet the insidious Uranus would still force Earth to lie with him and when each monster that was birthed of their union appeared, he would take the child and shove them back inside her womb, leaving her in constant labor pain, and giving her no choice but to beg for help from the children that resided within her.

Only one was brave enough: the youngest titan Cronus. When Uranus came and lay with Earth again, Cronus took the sickle of adamant, a mythical rock with special properties, that Earth created for the task and in one fell swoop sliced off his father’s genitals, tossing them into the sea where the current carried them to the island of Cyprus.

From the sea foam created by Uranus’ genitals grew a beautiful woman who stepped out onto the island, grass springing from beneath her feet. The Seasons, a group of goddesses known as the Horae, placed a gold crown on her head, and bequeathed earrings of copper and golden flowers, and a golden necklace that drew the eye to her beckoning cleavage.

And so, Aphrodite was born as the first primordial deity. The Lady of Cythera, the Lady of Cyprus, and the goddess of love.

Who are Aphrodite’s Children?

Stories of the gods’ offspring are often confused and unsure. While one ancient text may declare two as family, another may not. But there are some children we are more certain than others came from the ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite:

  • With Hermes, god of speed, she bore a son, Hermaphroditus.
  • By Dionysus, god of wine and fertility, the lecherous god of gardens, Priapus was born
  • By mortal Anchises, Aeneas
  • By Ares, god of war, she bore the daughter Cadmus, and sons Phobos and Deimos.

What is the Festival of Aphrodite?

The ancient Greek festival of Aphrodisia was held annually in Aphrodite’s honor.

Although not much fact remains from the time of the festival, there are several ancient rituals we know it upheld.

On the first day of the festival (which scholars think was held around the third week of July, and lasted for 3 days), Aphrodite’s temple would be purified with the blood of a dove, her sacred bird.

Then, the festival goers would carry images of Aphrodite through the streets before taking them to be washed.

During the festival, no one could make blood sacrifices on Aphrodite’s altar, except for the sacrifice victims for the festival itself, usually white male goats.  

Aphrodite would watch as the humans brought her offerings of incense and flowers, and fiery torches lit the streets, bringing cities alive at night.

What are the Best Known Myths Involving Aphrodite?

As one of the more important gods in ancient Greek mythology, Aphrodite appears in countless myths. Some of the most important, and those that have had the biggest impact on Greek history and culture, involve her quarrels and romantic entanglements with other Greek gods. Here are some of the best-known myths involving Aphrodite:

Aphrodite and Hephaestus

Hephaestus was nowhere near Aphrodite’s usual type. The blacksmith god of fire was born hunched and ugly, filling his mother Hera with such disgust that she flung him from the heights of Mount Olympus, permanently crippling him so he forever walked with a limp.  

Where other gods lounged on Olympus drinking and cavorting with humans, Hephaestus remained below, toiling on weapons and intricate devices that none could replicate, stewing in the cold, bitter resentment of what Hera had done to him.

Forever the outsider, he decided to take revenge. He crafted a throne for Hera that as soon as she sat upon it; she found herself trapped and none could free her.

Enraged, Hera sent Ares to capture Hephaestus, but he was chased away. Next, Dionysus went and bribed the other god with drink until he agreed to return. Once back on Mount Olympus, he told Zeus that he would only free Hera if he could marry the beautiful Aphrodite.

Zeus accepted, and the two were wed.

But Aphrodite was unhappy. Her true soul partner was Ares, god of war, and she wasn’t attracted to Hephaestus in the slightest, continuing to secretly cavort with Ares whenever she was able.

Aphrodite and Ares

Aphrodite and Ares are one of the truest pairings of gods in all of mythology. Both loved each other fiercely and continually came back to each other despite their other lovers and dalliances.

But one of their most famous affairs includes a third partner (no, not like that…): Hephaestus. At this point Aphrodite and Hephaestus were wed by Zeus, despite Aphrodite’s disgust of the arrangement.

Throughout their marriage, she and Ares continued to meet and sleep together, away from the prying eyes of the other gods. But there was one God they could not avoid: Helios, for Helios was the sun god, and spent his days hanging high in the sky, where he could see all.

He told Hephaestus that he had seen the lovers in flagrante, causing the fire god to fly into a rage. He hatched a plan to capture and humiliate Aphrodite and Ares, using his own talents as a blacksmith. In anger he forged a net of fine strands, so thin they were invisible even to the other gods, and hung it across Aphrodite’s bedchamber.

When the beautiful goddess of love, Aphrodite, and god of war, Ares, next entered her chambers and fell laughing together into the sheets, they suddenly found themselves trapped, the net weaving tightly around their naked bodies.

The other gods, who were unable (and unwilling) to pass up the chance to see the beautiful Aphrodite in the nude, ran to stare at her beauty and laugh at the furious and also naked Ares.

Eventually, Hephaestus released the couple, after eliciting a promise from Poseidon, god of the sea, that Zeus would return all Aphrodite’s marital gifts to him.

Ares immediately fled to Thrace, a region in modern-day southern Turkey, whereas Aphrodite traveled to her Great Temple in Paphos to lick her wounds and be showered in adoration by her beloved citizens.

Aphrodite and Adonis

Let me tell you of the birth of Adonis, the only human mortal Aphrodite truly loved.

Long before his birth, in Cyprus, where Aphrodite felt most at home, reigned King Pygmalion.

But Pygmalion was alone, horrified by the prostitutes on the island he had refused to take a wife. Instead, he fell in love with a white marble statue of a beautiful woman. At the festival of Aphrodite, she granted Pygmalion his desire and brought the statue he admired to life. And so, the couple were happily married and had many children.

But years later Pygmalion’s grandson Cinyras’ wife made a terrible mistake. In her arrogance, she claimed her daughter Myrrha was more beautiful than Aphrodite herself.

Aphrodite, like all the gods, was proud and vain and hearing these words caused such a rage that she henceforth cursed poor Myrrha to lie awake each night, with a restless passion for her own father. Eventually, unable to deny her longing any longer, Myrrha went to Cinyras, and unbeknownst to him, in the darkness of night, fulfilled her desire.

When Cinyras found out the truth, he was both horrified and furious. Myrrha fled from him, begging the gods for help, and was turned into the myrrh tree, doomed to forever shed bitter tears.

But Myrrha was pregnant, and the boy continued to grow inside the tree, eventually being born and tended by nymphs.

His name was Adonis.

Adonis as a Child

Even as a child, Adonis was beautiful and Aphrodite immediately wanted to keep him, hiding him away in a chest. But she made the mistake of trusting Persephone, goddess of the underworld with her secret, asking her to safeguard the child. Upon peeking inside the chest, Persephone also immediately wanted to keep the child, and the two goddesses quarreled over fair Adonis so loudly that Zeus heard from up on Mount Olympus.

He henceforth declared that the child’s time would be split. One third of the year with Persephone, one third with Aphrodite, and the final third wherever Adonis himself chose. And Adonis chose Aphrodite.

Aphrodite Falls in Love

As Adonis grew, he became even more beautiful, and Aphrodite couldn’t keep her eyes from the young man. She fell so deeply in love with him that she actually left the halls of Mount Olympus and her lover Ares behind to be with Adonis, living among humanity and joining her beloved in daily hunts.

But up on Olympus, Ares grew angrier and angrier, eventually sending a wild boar to fatally gore Aphrodite’s young human lover. From afar, Aphrodite heard her lover’s cries, racing to be by his side. But tragically she was too late, and all she found was poor Adonis’ body, which she wept over, sending a prayer to Persephone and sprinkling nectar on his spillt blood.

From their grief sprang the frail anemone, a tribute to Adonis’ short time on Earth.

Aphrodite and Anchises

Before Adonis came Anchises, a handsome young shepherd who was manipulated by the gods to fall in love with Aphrodite. And although her love for him was true, their tale is not the pure one, as is the love shared between Aphrodite and Adonis.

You see, Aphrodite enjoyed manipulating her fellow gods and getting them to fall in love with humans. In revenge, the gods picked handsome Anchises as he tended his cattle and showered him with virility so Aphrodite would find the young shepherd irresistible.

She was immediately smitten and flew to her great temple at Paphos to have the Graces bathe her and anoint her with oil of ambrosia to present herself to Anchises.

Once she was beautified, she took on the form of a young virgin, and that night appeared to Anchises on the hill above Troy. As soon as Anchises laid eyes on the goddess (although he did not know what she was), he fell for her and the two lay together under the stars.

Later, Aphrodite revealed her true form to Anchises, who immediately feared for his potency, as those who lay with gods and goddesses immediately lost their sexual vigor. She reassured him of his continued legacy, promising to bear upon him a son, Aeneas.

But as the years drew on, Anchises became boastful of his union with Aphrodite and was later crippled for his arrogance.

Aphrodite and The Start of The Trojan War

One period we see pop up time and again in Greek mythology is the Trojan War. And it is indeed here that Aphrodite plays a prominent role, for it is she, Athena and Hera who can be blamed for the start of the whole affair.

That being said, it is arguably Eris, the Goddess of chaos, who lit the match that set the gunpowder aflame.

The Initial Banquet

When Zeus held a banquet celebrating the marriage of Achilles’ parents, Peleus and Thetis, all the gods were invited, except Eris.

Angered by the snub, Eris set about to do exactly what her title as Goddess of Discord or Chaos suggests – cause mayhem.

Arriving at the party, she took a golden apple, now known as the Golden Apple of Discord, inscribed it with the words “to the fairest” and rolled it into the crowd, where it was immediately spotted by Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.

All three goddesses immediately assumed the message would be for them, and in their vanity began bickering over who the apple was referring to. Their quarreling destroyed the mood of the party and Zeus soon stepped in to tell them he would decide the true owner of the apple.

Paris of Troy

Years later on earth, Zeus chose a way to decide the apple’s owner. For some time, he had been keeping an eye on young Paris, a shepherd boy from Troy with a secret past. You see, Paris was born as Alexander, son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy.

Just before his birth, Hecuba had dreamt that her son would bring about the fall of Troy and the city would burn. So in their fear, the king and queen sent their Trojan prince to the mountains to be torn apart by wolves. But instead the baby was saved, first by a bear who recognized a baby’s hungry cries, and later by shepherd humans who took him in as their own and named him Paris.

He grew up to be a kind-hearted, innocent and astonishingly good-looking young man, who had no idea of his noble lineage. And thus, Zeus decided, the perfect choice to decide the apple’s fate.

Paris and The Golden Apple

So, Hermes appeared to Paris and told him of the job Zeus had assigned him.

First, Hera appeared before him, promising him worldly power beyond anything he could imagine. He could be the ruler of vast territories and never fear rivalry or usurpation.

Next came Athena, who in her huntress guise, promised him invincibility as the greatest warrior, the greatest general the world had ever seen.

Finally came Aphrodite, and as the goddess was unsure of what to do, so she used all the tricks in her arsenal to ensnare her victim. Scantily clad, Aphrodite appeared to Paris, letting loose her beauty and invincible charms, so that the young man could barely keep his eyes off her as she leant forward and breathed in his ear. Her promise? That Paris would win the love and desire of the most beautiful woman in the world – Helen of Troy.

But Aphrodite was hiding a secret. Helen’s father had previously forgotten to lay sacrifice at the goddesses’ expectant feet and so she cursed his daughters – Helen and Clytemnestra to be “twice and thrice married, and yet husbandless”.

Paris, of course, did not know of the secret layer of Aphrodite’s plan, and the next day when one of his bulls was chosen as sacrifice for the festival of Troy, Paris followed the King’s men back to the city.

Once there, he discovered that he was actually a Trojan prince and was welcomed with open arms by the king and queen.

The Trojan War Begins

But Aphrodite had neglected to mention something else — Helen lived in Sparta, and was already married to the noble Menelaus, who had won her hand in battle years earlier, and in doing so had sworn an oath that he would take up arms to defend their marriage.

The trials and tribulations of humans were nothing more than playthings to gods, and Aphrodite cared little for the relationships on earth, providing she got her own way. She made Paris irresistible to Helen, imbuing him with gifts that made her unable to tear her eyes away. And so, the couple ransacked Menelaus’ home and fled together to Troy to be wed.

Thanks to Aphrodite’s manipulation and meddling, the Trojan War, one of the greatest events in Greek mythology, began.  

Aphrodite During The Trojan War

Hera and Athena, embarrassed and angry at Paris’ choice of Aphrodite over the two of them, quickly took the side of the Greeks during the conflict. But Aphrodite, now considering Paris a favorite of hers, backed the Trojans in their defense of the city. And we’re sure, in no small part, to continue to rile up the other goddesses who she delighted in frustrating.

Paris’ Challenge

After many broken and bloodied bodies, Paris issued a challenge to Menelaus. Only the two of them would fight, the victor would declare victory for their side, and the war would be over with no more bloodshed.

Menelaus accepted his challenge, and the gods watched in amusement from up on high.

But Aphrodite’s amusement was short-lived as Menelaus quickly gained ground in their one-on-one battle. Frustrated, she watched as the beautiful, but naïve, Paris buckled under the superior warrior’s skill. But the final straw was when Menelaus seized Paris and dragged him back to the Greek troop line, choking him as he went. Aphrodite quickly snapped Paris’ chin strap, causing him to fall back, free of Menelaus, but before the young man could react, Menelaus seized a javelin, aiming it straight for his heart.

Aphrodite’s Interference

Enough was enough. Aphrodite had chosen the side of Paris and so, as far as she was concerned, that side should win. She swept onto the battlefield and stole Paris away, depositing him safely in his home in Troy. Next, she visited Helen, who she appeared to be a serving girl, and bade her to come see Paris in his bedchambers.

But Helen recognized the goddess and initially refused, saying she belonged once again to Menelaus. Challenging Aphrodite was a mistake. At once Helen felt the power shift as Aphrodite’s eyes narrowed at the mortal who dared refuse her. In a calm but icy voice, she told Helen that if she refused to go with the goddess, she would guarantee that whoever won the war wouldn’t matter. She would ensure Helen would never be safe again.

And so Helen went to Paris’ bedchamber, where the two then stayed. 

Despite Menelaus’ clear win on the battlefield, the war did not end as promised, simply because Hera did not want it to. With some manipulation from up high, the Trojan War once again resumed – this time one of the greatest Greek generals, Diomedes, taking center stage.

READ MORE: Ancient Greece Timeline

Aphrodite and Diomedes

After Diomedes was injured in battle, he prayed to Athena for help. She healed his wound and restored his strength so he could return to the fray, but when doing so, the Aphrodite warned him not to try to battle any gods that appeared, except Aphrodite.   

Aphrodite wasn’t usually in the thick of battle, preferring to wage war with her sexuality. But upon seeing her son, trojan hero Aeneas engage in battle with the general, she took note. As she watched, Diomedes killed Pandarus and Aeneas immediately stood over his friend’s body to face Diomedes, unwilling to let any at his fallen friend’s body, lest they steal the armor his corpse still adorned.

Diomedes, in a roar of strength, picked up a boulder larger than both men and hurled it at Aeneas, sending him flying to the ground and crushing his left hip bone. Before Diomedes could strike a final blow, Aphrodite appeared before him, cradling her son’s head in her arms before taking him and fleeing the battlefield.

But unbelievably, Diomedes gave chased Aphrodite, and leaping into the air, struck a line through her arm, drawing ichor (divine blood) from the goddess.

Aphrodite had never been handled so harshly! Shrieking, she fled to Ares for comfort and begged for his chariot so she may return to Mt. Olympus, fed up with the Trojan War and the trials of humans.

That does not mean the goddess let Diomedes get away scot free, however. Immediately Aphrodite planned her revenge, using her more traditional means of sexuality to get her revenge. For when Diomedes returned to his wife, Aegialia, he found her in bed with a lover that Aphrodite had so generously provided.

The Story of Hippomenes and Aphrodite

Atalanta, daughter of Schoeneus of Boeotia, a region to the north of Athens that was dominated by Thebes, was renowned for her beauty, amazing hunting abilities, and swift-footedness, frequently leaving a trail of swooning courtiers in her wake.

But she feared them all, for an oracle had warned her that she should beware of marriage. And so Atalanta announced that the only man she would marry would be one who could beat her in a foot race, and that those who failed would face death at her hand.

Enter: Hippomenes. Son of King Megareus of Thebes, determined to win Atalanta’s hand.

But after watching Atalanta defeat one suitor after another, he realized he had no chance to beat her in a foot race without help. And so, he prayed to Aphrodite, who took pity on Hippomenes’ plight and gifted him with three golden apples.

As the two raced, Hippomenes used the apples to distract Atalanta, who could not resist picking each up. As each apple caught her attention, Hippomenes bit by bit caught up, at last overtaking her to the finish line.

True to her word, the two were happily married.

But the story of Hippomenes and Atalanta does not end there. For Aphrodite is the goddess of love, but she is also proud and demands grace and thanks for the gifts she bestows upon mortals, and Hippomenes, in his foolishness, forgot to thank her for the golden apples.

So Aphrodite cursed them both.

She tricked the two lovers into laying together at the shrine of the Mother of All, who, appalled by their behavior, cursed Atalanta and Hippomenes, turning them into sexless lions to draw her chariot.

Not the best end to a love story.

Lemnos Island and Aphrodite

All ancient Greek citizens knew the importance of giving thanks, prayers and feasts to the Gods on Mount Olympus. The gods may have delighted in watching and manipulating humanity’s exploits, but they also created humans so that they themselves could enjoy their lavish attentions.

That’s why Aphrodite delights in spending so much time at her Great Temple in Paphos, catered to by the Graces.

And it’s why, when she felt the women on the Island of Lemnos had not given her proper tribute, she decided to punish them for their transgression.

In simple terms, she made them smell. But this was no ordinary smell. Under Aphrodite’s curse, the women of Lemnos smelled so bad that none could bear to be with them and their husbands, fathers, and brothers turned from them in disgust.

With no man brave enough to bear the stench of Lemnos’ women, instead they turned their attentions elsewhere, sailing to the mainland and returning with Thracian wives.

Furious that they were treated as such, the women murdered all the men of Lemnos. After news of what they did spread, no man dared step foot on the island again, leaving it solely inhabited by women, until one day when Jason and the Argonauts dared step upon its shores.

Who Was Aphrodite’s Roman Goddess Equivalent?

Roman mythology took a lot from the ancient Greeks. After the Roman Empire expanded across continents, they looked to associate their Roman gods and goddesses with the ancient Greeks to combine the two cultures as a way to assimilate them into their own.

The Roman goddess Venus was Greek Aphrodite’s equivalent, and she too was known as the goddess of love and beauty.

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