An early statue fragment by an unknown 4th century BC master

Aphrodité is the Greek god associated with love (and its various activities), and often referred to as Venus. Her worship can be traced from Mycenean times in the 12th century BC to the 6th century AD when she was known as Isis, her cult having merged with that of the Egyptian god. Her religion has been practised longer than that of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, much longer if you take the Middle Eastern gods who preceded her cult into consideration. In fact, when the Christian church was founded in the 4th century AD (in distinction to the Christian religion, founded in the 1st century AD by Paul of Tarsus) the most widespread religion in the Graeco-Roman world was that of Isis, with that of Mithras and Jesus the other major faiths. Most traces of the cult of Aphrodite have vanished. Her cultic images, paintings and statues, have not survived, except in battered 1st century BC and AD copies of earlier originals. The most authentic example of her cult that does survive is a prayer written by Sappho of Lesbos, a contemporary of Jeremiah and Gautama.

Immortal daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite,
Weaver of spells,
Hear me, oh, do not abandon me…

Come again, release me from torment,
Join my fire with your divine fire,
Let me have her I desire.
(excerpted from de Vere Stacpoole’s version)

The most remarkable thing to note about the cult of Aphrodite is that love, and sex, is part of a religion. We are so used to devaluing love and sex, and dealing with it outside religion, in fields such as art, and pornography, that we can easily overlook this obvious fact.

Her story began at least 20,000 years ago. About that time, in central Europe, a great movement of the people was taking place. They were always moving, searching for traces of game, and fields of the grasses whose seeds were good to eat. A good season meant health and many children, a poor one meant death of the weak ones, picked off by predators, wasted by starvation. Before their journey, the people prayed to the mistress of plenty, the mother of life, that she would bless the people and let them prosper. The Mother was all around, and she was very powerful. The people saw her in the fields of grasses ripening in the sun, in the fruiting trees each May, in the kick of a child in the womb, in the vivid green shoot from a fire blackened tree trunk, in the mating of animals both prey and scavengers. The people saw her in a way we cannot do, not in their minds but in their blood, and they were afraid of what she could do. She was mistress of life and death. They understood little more than that. They tried to placate her, and win her favour. Each Spring the Chieftain-Priestess would lay with the strongest warrior of each tribe and receive his seed inside her body. Afterwards the people would pass by her spreadeagled on the fertile ground and pay tribute to the Mother and her mystery. They were afraid and hopeful. The people formed sha images, the vulva where a man entered her body, wide hips and large buttocks for ease of birth, large breasts to nurture the child, and buried the images in the soil, a tribute to her power, a spell to bring that power to their hunters, to their young women. The people passed on and left little trace of their passing, but the sha images were found by later peoples. This is what they looked like.

Prehistoric so-called Venus von Willendorf

The next glimpse we have of her is just an inference made by scholars. About 10,000 years ago a great revolution occurred in the life of the people, as great as the making of tools a million years ago which no-one remembered. Now the people made temporary Summer camps in order to sow and reap the edible seeds their women, the gatherers, had discovered were good to eat. The camp shelters were lean-tos made of tree boughs, the sowing haphazard and often a waste of time. But the people learned. The shelters came to be made of rows of branches covered in clay and roofed by leafy branches. The seeds of grasses became easier to sow in season as the people learned their ways. The Chieftain-Priestesses were more powerful than ever for they alone understood the Mother. But the men who gave children to the young girls and then died to protect that new life from predators and enemies were becoming more important, as they were the builders and tool makers, and building and tools were becoming more important to the people. Now some groups stayed in the Summer camp all year long. So the building of cities began. The Great Mother began to be seen with a sky god, a creator and builder. Some of the men said this god was more powerful than the Mother, but at first nobody listened.

Then, 4,000 years ago, the people of Sumer, between the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates, gave the Mother a name. They called her Inanna. Etched in clay and baked in fire the people of Sumer left records.

…all the living creatures of the steppe,
all four-footed beasts under the wide heaven,
fruit planting and garden, flower bed and verdant reeds,
the fish of the pond, the birds of heaven,
all wait upon my lady Inanna…

The mother Inanna was a holy trinity. The goddess of allure, it was she who drew male and female together. The goddess of birth, it was she who created new life. The goddess of strife, it was she who terminated each life. The people understood that to create new life the gods had created time, that new life meant old life, that there was a season for peoples as well as for fruits and grains. Hinduism, of living faiths, understands this best today. The wife of Shiva who creates is Parvati. The wife of Shiva who destroys is Kali (one of whose meanings is time).

In Sumer Inanna had a consort. His name was Dumuzi. He was known as the Shepherd, but his most important function was to die. He represented many things, the passing of the generations, the dying off of old growth before the budding of the Spring, the hope of immortality. As the Winter season came to an end the priests enacted the great ceremony of Inanna’s descent to the Underworld.

Dumuzi has died to bring new life to the world. Inanna mourns his passing and goes down to the Underworld. As she progresses she must give up each of her attributes, represented by her jewels and raiment. Then she must give up her life, she the great Queen of Heaven, the bright morning and evening star. Dead, Inanna must ask for the life of Dumuzi from her sister, Queen of the Underworld. Her request is granted after three days, but only for six months of the year. Inanna returns to Heaven, regaining her soul, her raiment and her jewels. Once more she is the great Queen of Heaven. Dumuzi is with her, the grain is ready for harvest. But the life given by the grain must be paid for. And so death enters the world.

The ceremony, the music, the rituals, the prayers are all lost. Only the story remains.

The civilization of Sumer died. Her language was forgotten. But the work of keeping the desert at bay by means of the great canals between the two rivers was taken up by other peoples. First came the Akkadians, then the Assyrians from the North and the Babylonians from the South. The Great Goddess was not forgotten. For these later peoples she was known as Ishtar, and her consort Tammuz. Like Inanna, Ishtar descends to the Underworld to save mankind, but rises again. Tammuz dies, is mourned, yet rises again, and the rite suggests the new life in fields, flocks and families. Here is a statue of Ishtar.

Later, other peoples shared the same myths and ceremonies, which they thought vital for the continuance of life. Phoenician, Carthagenian, Syrian, Hittite and Canaanite Astarte (also known as Asthoreth) is similar in functions to these earlier goddesses. Her consort is Baal.

Finally the Philistines, one of the Sea Peoples who troubled the reign of Ramses III of Egypt, knew the Great Goddess as Atargatis. They settled, among other places, in the island of Cyprus, mixing with natives and Mycenean Greeks from the tribe of Teucer, exiled after the Trojan War and forced to find a new home. In Cyprus, among the Greeks, the goddess first became known as Aphrodite. The time was 1200 BC.

The myths of Aphrodite are many and diverse, and her cults changed over the centuries. Early concepts surviving in Homer portray her as one of the primal gods, and she and her consort Eros are more powerful than Zeus. Like the Middle Eastern gods before her, Aphrodite was mistress of desire and sex, of birth, of strife. But the Greeks had other gods responsible for some of these functions: Ares the god of war, Demeter the goddess of the grain whose daughter Persephone must spent six months of the year in the underworld but whose reunion with her mother brings the fruitful harvest, Dionysios, a vegetation god who brings the vine and the katharsis of drunkenness, Orpheus whose descent to the underworld to save his wife Eurydice came to be reenacted by those devotees seeking immortal life.

Aphrodite came to be worshipped for just one aspect of this trinity of powers, she became the goddess of desire, allure, love and sex. It was she who entered men and women, swept them off their feet, made them suffer the effects of unrequited passion, disordered their judgments, made them desirable, fertile, potent, gave them orgasm, brought concord to their relationships. The Greeks saw all these as god given and holy, but also powerful destroyers of their rational self and to be feared. And in Greek religion the gods were all around. They were not away somewhere in Heaven, but took a lively interest in human affairs. They visited their temples often, could be offended as easily as placated, and had an overwhelming presence sometimes, as Zeus did at Dodona or Apollo at Delphi. These experiences, which we would call mysticism in the Christian faith, were part of a state religion and experienced by ordinary Greek farmers and artisans. That was the Greek way.

Inanna, Ishtar, Astaroth, Astarte were all gods responsible for life, for creation of life. They were an aspect of the primitive Great Mother. Their most vital rite was the death and resurrection of their consort, Dumuzi, Tammuz. The country these deities were worshipped in was bounded on two sides by desert, and by inhospitable mountain ranges. The people could see the dearth caused by the goddess’ disfavour on the borders of their land.The worship was vital for survival.

In Greece the contrast was not as dramatic. Early Greece, before the destruction caused by goats and sheep, was more fertile and wooded than it is today. In Greece Aphrodite’s consort was called Adonis, who died, descended to the underworld and was resurrected, like Dumuzi and Tammuz. Adonis was originally divine, a beautiful demigod loved by both Aphrodite and Persephone and like Dumuzi spent six months of the year in the underworld (Adonis is from Adon, a title of Baal which means Lord). For centuries the Adonis festival was celebrated in April in Athens and elsewhere in Greece. A garden was created of green shoots, placed in a ceramic bowl and watered every day. After a set time water was withheld, and the plants shrivelled. There was mourning and wailing in each household for the death of Adonis, symbolised by these plants which had died. Later, an image of Adonis in another garden bowl was set afloat on the ocean, to great rejoicing, symbolising the return of Adonis from his death in the underworld. The story of Adonis was eventually modified. His death did not result in resurrection and the harvest, but in a flower, the anemone. His death, and the creation of the anemone, preserves the original idea of Aphrodite as mistress of the new life while leaving Demeter as harvest goddess. Nothing suggests new life as much as a vivid field of wild flowers in the Spring.

The way the story has been modified is typical of a tendency in Greek religion which has distorted our perception of it. The rites and prayers have not survived. They were devil worship as far as the Christians were concerned, and when the Church obtained political power in the 4th century AD ‘paganism’, the collective word for the Greek religions, was persecuted and their adherents martyred (just as ‘gnosticism’ the collective word for alternative theologies, was). But the stories associated with many cults were preserved in literary sources. These were secular, not religious, in nature, and form the basis of what we call ‘myths’.

The many familiar stories of Aphrodite that survive are such myths. The story of Hephaistos binding adulterous Aphrodite and Ares in a net for the amusement of the other gods comes from the poems of Homer. The Apple of Discord, where Hera, Artemis and Aphrodite were judged by Paris to find the most beautiful goddess, and Aphrodite offered to make Helen of Troy fall in love with Paris if he choose her for the prize of the golden apple, comes from a poem by Ovid. These are poetic stories, not part of a religion, a bit like the story of Brendan, who crossed the Atlantic in a leathern boat, a story of a saint but not part of the Christian faith.

Distant in a different way are the stories of Isis, Osiris and Horus, the Egyptian trinity which came to dominate the Graeco-Roman world in the first few centuries AD and which merged with the cult of Aphrodite. Isis was a goddess of fertility (among other functions). In her most famous myth Set kills her husband/brother Osiris, and dismembers him. Isis mourns Osiris, descends to the underworld and gathers the parts of his body and resurrects him. In her images Isis is often shown holding her child Horus. There are similarities with the myth of Inanna and of Aphrodite, which led to this assimilation, yet we know nothing much about the actual cult practices of Isis. The spread of her religion and its absorption of many other cults in the first few centuries AD shows a growing desire for unification and perhaps for monotheism. Christianity was strongly affected by this religion and in turn absorbed many of its practices and iconography.

Aphrodite is often depicted in art and myth as having two ‘children’ Eros and Priapos. These were once attributes of Aphrodite, part of her power, representing desire and male potency respectively. As her cult waxed and waned over the centuries, dominated and eclipsed at times by other cults, these attributes became separate deities, Eros, the primal god of love and attraction, was diminished to the cupid who sends the arrow of love into the heart of the beloved. Priapos, whose power makes the act of love possible, became little more than a garden ornament, seen everywhere in the Greek world and sacrificed to, a sign of potency in nature. Here is Priapos at work.

One of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

One way to realise the way the Greeks saw Aphrodite in their religious practice is to list her titles. Peitho, the persuader; Epistrophia, turner of hearts; Kallipygos, beautiful buttocks; Nympha, of the bed; Harma, she who joins; Charidotes, giver of (sexual) joy; Porne, goddess of whores; Paregoros, the comforter; Philommedes, lover of genitals – and Antheia, of the flowers.

As this selection shows, the Greeks thought sex important. They did not discriminate about it. Aphrodite was prayed to by heterosexuals and homosexuals. She stirred desire between the sexes and among the same sex. She was prayed to by housewives with a wandering husband, by young men wanting to seduce a housebound young girl, by prostitutes wanting good customers.

In her origins in Asia Inanna, Astarte and Ishtar were worshipped in great temples, and one of the rites was sex between a priestess and a worshipper. We would regard this as prostitution, and the term ‘temple prostitute’ is often used for the rite, largely because it was described as such, with distaste, by Herodotos. But it was much closer to tantric sex. It was a focusing of the primal power of sexual attraction, and returning it to the goddess as an act of worship. What is surprising to us is that this practice came to Greece with the cult of Aphrodite. The city most associated with the practice was Corinth, where down to classical times a visitor could enjoy a ‘prostitute’. But these were priestesses. The temple did not operate a brothel on the side for some extra cash. We have to remember that Aphrodite was the goddess of sex, and she remained a goddess till the end of classical times. Sex remained a sacrament, much to the horror of early Christians.

Aphrodite star of the sea, patron of mariners, who came from the sea at Paphos, born of the semen of Ouranos spilled in the Ocean as Hesiod puts it, accompanied by her sacred dolphin, and on land by her sacred doves, with her fruits of quince and pomegranate and her flowers of rose, was acceptable to the early Christians, though they were scandalised by her. Patroness of prostitutes and adored by rites of sacred sex, an inducement to all her worshippers to indulge the flesh, this aspect was definitely not acceptable. The more so as in the 4th century BC a new style of realism had entered Greek painting and sculpture, whose most famous exponents were Apelles in painting and Praxiteles in sculpture. These two artists both made famous images of Aphrodite. They were realistic, nudes, modelled by famous prostitutes, the sculptures painted in flesh tones, the lips and nipples reddened. People travelled from all over the Greek world to see them. In the worship of Aphrodite to be aroused by these images was to experience the power of the goddess. By Christian standards it was sinful. Christianity was a religion of the next world, of the judgement day, and the concerns of this world were a distraction at best. And so the paintings were eventually destroyed, the statues toppled, losing arms, legs, noses. Nothing survives except one possible statue by Praxiteles, and late copies made by Roman sculptors, these too battered by time.

For this reason we need to look elsewhere for an idea of the impact these images had. All ancient statues have lost their paint, and of course the jewellery of gold with which Aphrodite was adorned has vanished. This famous sculpture gives only a faded idea of what the Greeks saw.

Aphrodite found at Cnidus

Perhaps this modern photograph would be more like the impact Praxiteles’ original image would have had.

What has been lost by excluding the goddess of desire and sex from our pantheon? Men and women still experience desire for one another, but this has ceased to be a power of god. Many early Christians saw it as the power of the devil. Instead of a natural process experienced by both sexes, sexual desire came to be seen as a snare tempting men from the care of their souls, and women to be in the pattern of Eve, who caused the original sin to be committed. Women have been devalued and are still fighting to regain the ground they have lost. It is still a dangerous thing for a woman to express the desire she may feel, and women sometimes express their desire in a male way. Tempted on every side, men have too often had recourse to violence to repel it or indulge it, a literal overkill.

Can we forget about the sanitised sex in works of art, the empty exaggeration of pornography, superstitions such as astrology? Can we form relationships by being promiscuous, or should we go for a very long engagement? Should prostitution be legalised, or abolished? Can we disentangle our emotions of love and passion from our feelings of greed and self indulgence?

Aphrodite has gone, and we will never regain the innocence and balance to see her as necessary to our health and happiness. But when you’re in love, when you feel that your someone is the best person in the world, when you feel elated when they’re with you and in pain when they’re not – could that be Aphrodite, reaching out from that hidden realm where all the gods still reside, as powerful as ever?

One of Titian’s Venuses

Ancient texts are read in Babylonian and translated at http://www.soas.ac.uk/baplar/recordings/. Geoffrey Grigson’s book, The Goddess of Love (Stein and Day, New York 1977) is still available through Amazon second hand. It includes most surviving images of Aphrodite and many translations of poetry about her as well as an enormous amount of curious lore. Eros in Antiquity, with photographs by Antonia Mulas (Erotic Art Book Society New York 1998) presents those images from ancient cultures usually hidden away in museum back rooms as ‘unsuitable’, frank depictions of vulva, penis and intercourse we have come to find shocking. Christopher Miles and John Julius Norwich’s book Love in the Ancient World (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London 1997) is a survey of its topic from prehistory to Roman times.

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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