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Aphrodite: Goddess of Death

August 25, 2009

Aphrodite is perhaps best described as a goddess of life, for she presides over so many aspects of it. She is not just love, or beauty, or sex, or women: she is all of those things and many more besides. She is at once removed from humanity—Aphrodite Ourania, ‘heavenly,’ the goddess who mixes the cosmos with a golden smile—and utterly tied together with it – Aphrodite Pandemos, ‘lover of all people,’ the goddess who is often portrayed as nothing more than a divine prostitute.

But she is more than that, too. She is the mother of all of the loves; including Eros, who is both one of the oldest gods and the force of Creation, and the bittersweet boy-god who delights in playing with the hearts of others. One would not be wrong to call her a goddess of love, but she is beyond just that. She is not a simple daimona, with just a single thing in her domain; she is an Olympian goddess who has control over the heavens, the earth and the sea – and even the Underworld.

At first glance, it isn’t easy to see how Aphrodite is linked to death. She is a goddess who makes bodies warm and hearts beat, who fuses together atoms and breathes life into the lungs of babes. But as she is a goddess of life, so she is a goddess of death.

Mourning—pining for one who is cold and dead and no longer in your arms—falls into her domain. And, thus, she is a goddess of mourning; and of despair and suicide. She is that which drives lovers together; and she is the all-consuming rage that drives one to crimes of passion. She is not cold and dead like the shades, but she does not need to be. She ties them to the Underworld and keeps their smoky, hazy selves in vaguely human form. She is often the root of their death, and she is that which causes their loved ones to sob and rage at their funerals.

She is a goddess, then, of the transition between life and death. She could be adequately described as a goddess of passion—after all, love and hate are barely different; it is apathy that is the true opposite of them, and thus it is apathy that she has no control over—but still, that is not all she is.

Pausanias, in his Description of Greece, describes a temple in Mantineia as dedicated to Aphrodite Symmakhia; ‘ally (in love).’ He also describes a temple in Argos, that is dedicated to Aphrodite as ‘the bringer of victory’, or Nikêphoros. In Sparta, he describes a temple of Aphrodite Areia, ‘warlike.’ Korinthos has a temple of Aphrodite Hôplismenê ‘armed,’ and a temple of Aphrodite Melainis, or ‘the black.’

She is described as having Ares, the Olympian god of War, as a consort. What they have in common, one can infer, is that both are gods of passion. His is darker, hers brighter – or so some would think. But love causes as much death as war; and patriotism, or the all-consuming love of one’s country, which drives so many to the battlefields, falls under her domain. She is the mother of Deimos and Phobos—the gods of terror and panic, respectively—as well as Harmonia, the goddess of harmony in both love and war. Thus Aphrodite gains connotations as a goddess of war; she is a goddess of the passion of the battlefield, of mourning the dead and, also, of survival.

Hyginus, in his Fabulae, identifies Aphrodite with the Roman goddess Venus; the Souda identifies her with the Syrian Astarte; Herodotus, in his Histories, identifies her with the Assyrian Mylitta, the Persian Mitra, the Skythian Argimpasa and, finally, with the Egyptian Hathor. Other writers too draw comparisons between Aphrodite and these foreign goddesses; and she has also been associated with the Norse Freyja, the Armenian Anaitis and the Armenian Astghik.

Venus is associated principally with love, beauty and fertility; also motherhood and domesticity. She is identified with the Roman Cloacina, goddess of sewers and sexual intercourse in marriage; with the Etruscan Turan, goddess of love and vitality (who is constantly paired with her young lover Atunis—or Adonis) as well as egg-laying birds; with the Roman Murcia, goddess of sloth; with the Roman Libitina, goddess of death, corpses and funerals; with the Assyrian and Babylonian Ishtar, the goddess of sexuality, fertility, love, war and sex; and, finally, with the Sumerian Inanna, goddess of sexual love, fertility, childbirth, rain and storms.

Astarte is the goddess of fertility, sexuality and war. She is associated with Juno, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Hera; with the Syrian Atargatis, goddess of generation, fertility, useful applications, the protection of water, the earth, destiny and social and religious life; and with the Phoenician Tanit, a virginal lunar-goddess of war, the heavens, mothers, nurses and fertility.

Mylitta, or Ninlil, is the goddess of the air, the south wind and mothers. Mitra is the goddess of treaties, agreements, promises, oaths and alliance, of fortified city walls, borders and contract, of piety and friendship, of the sun and light. Argimpasa is the goddess of fire, water, love, fury, fertility and the seasons. Anaitis is the goddess of fertility, maidens, wisdom and healing. Astghik is the goddess of fertility, love, the light of the sky, love, maidenly beauty, water sources, springs and the moon; and she has been identified with the Assyrian/Babylonian Ishtar.

Hathor is the goddess of feminine love, motherhood, joy, the dead, music, dance, foreign lands, fertility, childbirth, beauty, eternity, life, inebriety, women, wives, mothers, the sky and nature. She is associated with the Egyptian Bat, goddess of the cosmos, and the Egyptian Sekhmet, protector of pharaohs and goddess of hunters, deserts, war, dread, the sun, death, destruction, disease, healing and blood.

Freyja is the goddess of love, beauty, fertility, childbirth, jewellery, treasure and the seasons; and she is also associated with war, death, prophecy, magic and wealth. She is identified with the Norse goddesses Frigg (goddess of prophecy, women, marriage, love and childbirth) and Gefjun (goddess of ploughing, virginity, fertility, prosperity and happiness) and the seer Gullveig.

Aphrodite, then, is a goddess of love and hate, of life and death, of sex and war, of creation and procreation, of marriage and prostitution, of beauty and of pleasure; and that is merely under the name of ‘Aphrodite’. When you take into account her identifications with foreign deities, she becomes the goddess of love, hate, life, death, sex, beauty, fertility, war, pleasure, dance, childbirth, treasure, the seasons, prophecy, wealth, magic, women, marriage, virginity, the earth’s fertility, happiness, music, eternity, and so on.

She is a goddess of the earth, as Aphrodite Pandemos (lover of all people); she is a goddess of the sky, as Aphrodite Ourania (divine); she is a goddess of the sea, as Aphrodite Aphrogenês (foam-born); and she is a goddess of the Underworld, as Aphrodite Tumborukhos (gravedigger). She is a goddess of the night or darkness—as Aphrodite Skotia (dark)—and, also, a goddess of the day or light, as Aphrodite Khryseê (golden). She is a goddess of love and of war—she is Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Androphonos (killer of men).

It is impossible—and impractical—to consider Aphrodite in just a single light, either as a goddess of life or death. In order to fully comprehend who Aphrodite is, you have to understand that she is a goddess of balance, of blurring, but definite, lines. She is a goddess who hides her true, dark face behind the mask that humankind has created for her – but she is still that goddess. She is still Aphrodite, and that is all that one truly needs to know.

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