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Aphrodite: Goddess of the Body

September 24, 2009

When Aphrodite is discussed—as is often inevitable in Hellenic Polytheist circles; for who can truly say they have never felt anything for this goddess?—the subject of her influence is, of course, always key. She is named the goddess of beauty, of love, of sex; and even of war, grief, death. I propose, though, that we push aside these names and dub her, for simplicity’s sake, Aphrodite: Goddess of the Body.

As the daughter of Ouranos (as asserted by writers such as Hesiod, Cicero, Apuleius and Nonnus)—born of his castrated genitals plunging into the sea—Aphrodite would be, in terms of power and influence, on the same level as the Titanes; in truth, she would belong to a generation between Titan and Olympian, for she would have been born in the period between Kronos’ castration of his father and the birth of Zeus. Her mythologies regarding the time between her birth and her arrival at Olympos are not extensive: the classical writers speak only of her love for the sea-god Nerites and of her arrival at Rhodes, where she ‘was prevented from stopping there by the sons of Poseidon’ (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, 5. 55. 4). In retaliation, Aphrodite struck them with madness. Immediately thereafter, it seems, she returned to the sea and continued on until she reached Kypros, where she was met by the Horai (according to the Homeric Hymn 6 to Aphrodite) or Peitho and Eros (according to Pausanias, Description of Greece, 5. 11. 8). Finally, a child- or youth-Aphrodite of the seas is mentioned by Pausanias, as a depiction on the base of Poseidon’s statue: ‘Thalassa holding up the young Aphrodite, and on either side as the nymphs called Nereides.’ (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2. 1. 8.)

Alternatively, Aphrodite is borne of Zeus—who is first and foremost king of the skies or heavens, and as thus can be identified with Ouranos, Protogenos god of the heavens—and Dione, whose name springs from Dios, which means Zeus or Divine One. (I, personally, would argue that Dione is the goddess of divinity, and as thus her name is so deeply connected with Zeus’ own because one of his primary influences is as guide or leader of fate—Moiragetês—and the keeper of the order of the cosmos –Kosmêtês.) As the daughter of Zeus, she would be level simply with the other second-generation Olympian gods – Apollon, Ares, Artemis, Athene, Dionysos, Hephaistos and Hermes, and as the daughter of Dione she would be on par with the other minor Titanes. As such, Aphrodite loses much of her immense power under the constraints of this myth of her birth; I, personally, choose to focus on her as Aphrodite Ourania (‘the heavenly’) rather than Aphrodite Pandêmos (‘common to all’).

As both Aphrodite Ourania and Pandêmos, it is undeniable that Aphrodite’s concerns seem more to be with the body than anything else. As Aphrodite Ourania, she holds together the atoms in the bodies that the gods adopt; without her pull, the gods would all be abstract, shapeless beings much akin to the Protogenos god Khaos. As Aphrodite Morpho (‘shapely, of the form’), she holds together the human body, too: the human form. As Aphrodite Ambologêra (‘delayer of old age’), it is she who brings about the constant cycle of cells dying and being replaced in the body, and she too is responsible for youth and the young; and as Aphrodite Despoina (‘the ruling goddess’ or ‘the mistress’), she is blatantly responsible for the body as the goddess who ‘rules’ it. Further evidence comes from the myth of Pandora’s creation: Aphrodite ‘shed grace upon her head’ – shed life upon her; gave her life – ‘and [gave her] cruel longing’ – desire – ‘and cares that weary the limbs’ – menstruation; the cycle of fertility in the female human body. Thus, it can be concluded that she who so inflames the body is responsible, too, for its continued existence; without her, there would be no shape to the body—we would all just be a random mesh of DNA strands clinging together—and, even if by some miracle the body was shaped, it would be incapable of fighting illness, or remaining fertile, or producing young, and so on.

It is as Aphrodite Pandêmos that she becomes a simple—if ‘simple’ is a word that can ever be used to describe a goddess, and a goddess such as Aphrodite at that—goddess concerned only with the matters of the heart. She becomes common to all the people; she strikes, or sends her son Eros to strike, any whom she pleases, be they god or mortal, with the shaft of desire. ‘This is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods,—the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.’ (Hesiod, Theogony, 176 ff.) If you whittle her down just to Aphrodite Pandêmos, that is all she is: the goddess who presides over love as a collective, and love affairs, desire, love poetry, sensuality.

As Epistrophia (‘she who turns to love’), Apostrophia (‘averter of unnatural desires’), Nymphia (‘bridal’), Migôntis (‘[of the] marital union’), Hêrê (‘of Hera’), Apotrophia (‘the expeller [of unnatural desires]’) and Gamelii (‘of marriage’), Aphrodite becomes, well and truly, a goddess of marriage and marital love. That is, though, to be expected: she is the goddess who binds people together – on an molecular level, as Aphrodite Ourania, keeping the body together; on a sexual level, Aphrodite Philommeidês (‘genital-loving’), keeping lovers together; on a communal level, as Aphrodite Pandêmos, keeping the community together; and on a marital level, as Aphrodite Gamelii, keeping married partners together. Indeed, Aphrodite’s influence as a goddess of marriage is clearly very strong; Pausanias described ‘a cave [in which] Aphrodite is worshipped, to whom prayers are offered . . . especially by widows who ask the goddess to grant them marriage’ (Pausanias, Description of Greece, 10. 38. 12) and Aeschylus once stated that, ‘she [Aphrodite], together with Hera, holds power nearest to Zeus, and for her solemn rites [of marriage] the goddess of varied wiles is held in honor.’ (Aeschylus, Suppliant Woman, 1030.)

That, though, is still not all there is to Aphrodite. She also holds the epithets Symmakhia (‘ally’), Areia (‘warlike’) and Hôplismenê (‘armed’). Thus, with these titles—as well as her relationship with Ares, the Olympian god of masculinity, passion, war and blood—she becomes a goddess not just of love and form, but also of war. She becomes a goddess of grief and mourning—the love for those who have died—and she becomes a goddess of nationality – the love of one’s nation. As such, she, by association, becomes also a goddess of hate: hate for those that the soldiers fight, for love and hate both stir the body with equal vigour, and the body is undeniably Aphrodite’s tool.

Then there are her associations with the sea to consider. Her very name comes from the word Aphros, meaning sea-foam. She held several epithets alluding to her nature as a sea goddess: Anaduomenê (‘rising out of the sea’), Euploia (‘fair voyage’), Limenia (‘of the harbour’), Pontia (‘of the sea’) and Xenia (‘of the foreigner’). At a very basic level, she could be considered connected to the sea only because of one of the myths of her birth—from Ouranos’ castrated genitals—but with Aphrodite, nothing is only skin-deep. She holds sway over the four realms: the sky, as Aphrodite Ourania, the heavenly; the sea, as Aphrodite Pontia, of the sea; the earth, as Aphrodite Porne (‘fleshy, of flesh’); and the Underworld, as the khthonic Aphrodite Androphonos (‘killer of men’).

It is that final influence—over the Underworld—that seems so alien in connection to Aphrodite. But the connection does hold: as well as the epithet Androphonos, she is also Aphrodite Anosia (‘unholy’), Epitumbidia (‘she upon the graves’), Melainis (‘black, of night’), Skotia (‘dark’) and Tumborukhos (‘gravedigger’). Thus, one cannot deny her khthonic aspects – the question simply is how, exactly, she influences the Underworld. It is primarily because love—and therefore she; or Eros, at her command—kills; wars are never waged for anything but the love of oneself, or one’s country, or of money, or of one’s religion, etc, etc. Love is the primary force behind everything, and it is love that Aphrodite commands: thus she is the goddess of death, deadly love, and the grief for that which it leaves behind.

For me, personally, it is only when you take all of these aspects into account that you finally get the full picture of who Aphrodite is. She is a goddess of the heavens, a goddess of the earth, a goddess of the sea, a goddess of the Underworld, a goddess who keeps the body together, a goddess who directs love and desire, a goddess who rules over marriage, a goddess of the community and a goddess of war. And yet she is more than that: she influences love poetry, music, dance, festivity – she is a goddess to whom no doors are closed, and to whom there are no boundaries. All of the emotions and states that affect the body—life, hunger, desire, fury, hatred, humility, embarrassment, blood, madness and death, to name but a few—are under her command: the body is her vessel, her plaything, and, to her devotees, there is no forgetting that. If you are impious, she can literally unravel you at the seams – and although it is always better to treat gods with respect, as opposed to disrespect, I think that especially applies here!

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