THE DUALITY OF APHRODITE (VENUS)
Aphrodite Urania. We know that Aphrodite arose amidst the foam (aphros) from the severed genitals of Uranus that were cast upon the sea. Hesiod’s account of her birth allegorizes the powerful sexuality of her nature. Yet this APHRODITE URANIA [a-froh-deye'tee you-ray'ne-a], born from the male alone and not as the result of sexual union, came to be characterized as the goddess of pure love that has as its end not physical satisfaction but spiritual gratification. The sensual Aphrodite Urania, sprung from Uranus, god of the heavens, became the HEAVENLY, or CELESTIAL, APHRODITE of philosophy and religion.
Aphrodite Pandemos. In stark contrast to celestial Aphrodite, another Aphrodite was identified, the daughter of Zeus and his mate DIONE [deye-oh'nee], about whom we know little. Their daughter was APHRODITE PANDEMOS [pan-dee'mos] (“Aphrodite of the people” or “common Aphrodite”), the goddess of sex and the procreation of children, whose concerns are of the body and not of the mind, the spirit, or the soul.
THE CHARACTER OF APHRODITE
In general, Aphrodite was the captivating goddess of beauty, love, and marriage and her power was very great. Her universality led to a gamut of conceptions of this goddess, who presided over everything from hallowed married love to temple prostitution. Depictions of her in art, literature, and music reflect not only the duality but also the multiplicity of her nature.
ATTENDANTS OF APHRODITE
The Three Graces. The CHARITES [kar'i-teez] are feminine personifications of aspects of charm and loveliness.
The Hours or Seasons. The name of these daughters of Zeus and Themis is HORAE [hoh'ree], or HORAI, meaning hours, and then time, and then seasons. Their number increases from two to four, and they represent the attractive attributes of the various times of the year.
THE ITHYPHALLIC PRIAPUS
PRIAPUS [preye-ay'-pus], or PRIAPOS, the son of Aphrodite, personifies the elemental, sexual side of his mother’s nature. He bears a huge and erect phallus and began as a respectable fertility god bringing good fortune for crops and procreation. He developed into an erotic and sometimes obscene inspiration for later art and literature.
Ovid’s story of PYGMALION [pig-may'li-on] is most influential. Venus, enraged because the women of her own cult-place of Cyprus denied her divinity, caused them to be the first women to prostitute themselves. The sculptor Pygmalion would have nothing to do with these licentious women. In his loneliness, he fashioned an ivory statue of surpassing beauty, so realistic that he fell in love with his creation and treated it as though it were alive.
On the feast day of Venus, Pygmalion timidly prayed to Venus that his ivory maiden would become his wife. He returned home to find that his lovely statue was alive. He gave thanks to Venus, who was present at the marriage of the happy couple. The son of Pygmalion and GALATEA [ga-la-tee'a] (her name is not in Ovid) was PAPHOS [pa'fos], after whom Venus’ favorite city in Cyprus was named.
APHRODITE AND ADONIS
The classic version of this myth is by Ovid. KINYRAS [sin'i-ras], or KINYRAS (the son of Paphos), had a daughter named MYRRHA [mir'ra], who fell in love with her father. The faithful nurse of guilty Myrrha prevented her from committing suicide by convincing her to satisfy her passion. So Myrrha carried on an incestuous relationship with her father, who was unaware of her identity. When Cinyras found out, he pursued his daughter, who fled from his rage. In answer to her prayers, Myrrha was turned into a myrrh tree. She had become pregnant by her father and from the tree was born ADONIS [a-don'is], who became a most handsome youth and keen hunter.
Aphrodite fell desperately in love with Adonis and warned him of the dangers of the hunt, but to no avail. While he was hunting a wild boar, it buried its deep tusk into his groin and Adonis died in the arms of a grief-stricken Aphrodite. The goddess ordained that from his blood a flower, the anemone, should arise. Here is allegorized the important recurrent theme of the Great Mother and her lover, who dies as vegetation dies and comes back to life again.
This motif of death and resurrection becomes even clearer in the following variation. When Adonis was an infant, Aphrodite put him in a chest for PERSEPHONE [per-sef'o-nee] (PROSERPINA), the queen of the Underworld, to keep. But Persephone looked upon the child’s beauty and refused to give him back. It was agreed that Adonis would spend one part of the year below with Persephone and one part in the upper world with Aphrodite. Celebrations honoring the dead and risen Adonis share similarities with Easter celebrations for the dead and risen Christ.
CYBELE AND ATTIS
The myth of the great Asiatic mother goddess called CYBELE [si'be-lee and si-bee'lee], or KYBELE, in the Greek and Roman world, and her consort, ATTIS [at'tis], is another variation on the archetype of the Great Mother and her lover. Cybele originally was a bisexual deity who was castrated. From the severed organ an almond tree arose. Nana, daughter of a river-god, put a blossom from the tree to her bosom; it disappeared and she became pregnant. The beautiful Attis was born, and when he grew up, Cybele fell passionately in love with him. But he loved another, and Cybele, because of her jealousy, drove him mad. In his madness Attis castrated himself, and a repentant Cybele obtained Zeus’ promise that the body of Attis would never decay.
Religious ceremonies in honor of Attis celebrated resurrection and new life through the castration and death of the subordinate male in the grip of the eternal, dominant female. This is the powerful theme of Catullus’ great poem, translated in the Archives section of this website.
Aphrodite of Melos (Venus de Milo), late second century B.C., marble sculpture.
APHRODITE AND ANCHISES
The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite tells how Zeus put into the heart of Aphrodite an overwhelming desire for the mortal Trojan ANCHISES [an-keye'seez].
Using all her wiles, Aphrodite seduced Anchises by tricking him into believing that she was a mortal. Discovering that he had slept with a goddess, he was terribly afraid that he would be enfeebled, “for no man retains his full strength who sleeps with an immortal goddess.” Here is yet again the eternal theme of the Great Mother and the castration of her lover, only in a more muted form. The son of Aphrodite and Anchises was AENEAS [e-nee'as], the great hero of the Romans.
As with Aphrodite, there are various facets to the character of EROS [e'ros] (CUPID). He came out of Chaos, and he attended Aphrodite after she was born from the sea-foam. He (or a different Eros?) was said to be the son of Aphrodite and Ares. Eros was a young, handsome god of love and desire in general, but by the fifth century B.C. he had become very much the god of male homosexuality.
THE SYMPOSIUM OF PLATO
Plato’s dialogue presents a profound analysis of love, the topic of this famous dinner party. Two of the speeches are particularly illuminating.
The Speech of Aristophanes. Since this speech is by the famous writer of Greek Old Comedy, not surprisingly, it is both amusing and wise. Aristophanes explains that originally there were not just two sexes but a third, an androgynous sex, both male and female. These creatures (all three sexes) were round; they had four hands and feet, one head with two faces exactly alike but each looking in opposite directions, a double set of genitals, and so on. They were very strong and they dared to attack the gods.
Zeus, in order to weaken them, decided to cut them in two. So all those who were originally of the androgynous sex became heterosexual beings, men who love women, and women who love men. Those of the female sex who were cut in half became lesbians and pursued women; those bisected from the male became male homosexuals who pursue males. Thus, like our ancestors, according to our own nature, we pursue our other half in a longing to become whole once again. Eros is the yearning desire of lover and beloved to become one person not only in life but also in death.
Aristophanes by his creative humor has given a serious explanation through mythic truth of why some persons are heterosexual while others are homosexual; he also articulates a compelling definition of love, reiterated throughout the ages: Eros inspires that lonely and passionate search for the one person who alone can satisfy our longing for wholeness and completion.
The Speech of Socrates. The great philosopher Socrates elucidates Platonic revelation about Eros. Socrates claims that his wisdom in the nature of love came from a woman from Mantinea named DIOTIMA [deye-o-tee'ma]. A new myth is told about the birth of Eros to explain his character. He is squalid and poor, not beautiful himself, but a lover of beauty and very resourceful, forever scheming and plotting to obtain what he desires passionately but does not himself already possess—beauty, goodness, and wisdom. This is the Eros who must inspire each of us to move from our love of physical beauty in the individual to a love of beauty in general, and to realize that beauty of the soul is more precious than that of the body. When two people have fallen in love with the beautiful soul of each other, they should proceed upward to pursue together a love of wisdom.
Platonic Eros is a love inspired in the beginning by the sexual attraction of physical beauty, which must be transmuted into a love of the beautiful pursuits of the mind and the soul. Although Socrates’ discourse dwells upon male homosexual attachments as his paradigm, his message transcends sexuality. Platonic lovers of both sexes, driven by Eros, must be capable of making the goal of their love not sexual satisfaction at all nor the procreation of children, but spiritual gratification from the procreation of ideas in their intellectual quest for beauty, goodness, and wisdom.
The Greek Eros develops into the Roman Cupid, still a very familiar deity today. This mischievous little darling with a bow and arrows, who attends Venus, can inspire love of every kind, often very serious or even deadly, but usually not intellectual.
CUPID AND PSYCHE
The canonical version of this famous tale comes from the Roman novel, Metamorphoses, or The Golden Ass by the African author Apuleius. Thus Eros is called Cupid, who appears as a handsome, winged youth. PSYCHE [seye'kee] means “soul,” and here is an allegory of the union of the human soul with the divine.
Once upon a time, a king and queen had three daughters, of whom Psyche was so beautiful that Venus was jealous. She ordered Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the most vile of creatures, but instead Cupid himself fell in love with Psyche. She was transported to a magnificent palace, where each night Cupid, as an anonymous bridegroom, visited her and departed quickly before sunrise.
Psyche’s two sisters, who were very jealous, visited her. Cupid warned of their treacherous purpose to persuade Psyche to look upon his face. He told her that she was pregnant and that she must keep their secret. Nevertheless, Psyche was tricked by her sisters into believing that she was sleeping with a monster and, at their advice, she hid a sharp knife and a burning lamp with the intention of slashing her lover in the neck when he was asleep.
In the night her husband made love to Psyche and then fell asleep. As she raised the lamp, knife in hand, she saw the gentle and beautiful Cupid. Overcome by desire, she kissed him so passionately that the lamp dropped oil on the god's shoulder. Cupid leaped out of bed, and as he flew away, Psyche caught hold of his leg and soared aloft with him. Her strength gave way and she fell to earth, only to be admonished by Cupid for ignoring his warnings. In her despair, Psyche attempted unsuccessfully to commit suicide. As she wandered disconsolate she encountered her two evil sisters and lured each to her death.
When Venus learned from Cupid all that had happened, she was enraged and imposed upon Psyche four impossible tasks.
First, Psyche had to sort out a vast heap of a mixed variety of grains. She did this successfully with the help of an army of ants.
Next, Psyche had to obtain the wool from dangerous sheep with thick golden fleeces. A murmuring reed told her to shake the trees under which the sheep had passed after which she could gather the woolly gold clinging to the branches.
Then, Psyche was ordered to climb to the top of a high mountain, face the terrors of a frightening dragon, and collect in a jar chill water from a stream that fed the Underworld river of Cocytus. This she accomplished with the help of Zeus’ eagle.
Finally, Venus imposed the ultimate task, descent into the Underworld itself. Psyche was commanded to obtain from Persephone a box containing a fragment of her own beauty. As Psyche, in despair, was about to leap to her death from a high tower, the tower spoke to her and told her to take sops to mollify Cerberus, the dread hound guarding the realm of Hades, and money to pay the ferryman Charon; most important of all, she was not to look into the box. Of course Psyche looked into the box, which contained not the beauty of Persephone but the sleep of the dark night of the Underworld, and she was enveloped by this deathlike sleep.
At last Cupid flew to the rescue of his beloved. He put sleep back into the box and, after reminding her that curiousity once before had been her undoing, told her to complete her final task. In the end, Venus was appeased. Psyche became one of the immortals, and on Mt. Olympus Jupiter ratified the marriage of Cupid and Psyche with a glorious wedding. A daughter was born to them called Pleasure (Voluptas) and they lived happily ever after.