This past week I visited the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, California to see the exhibition “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love”. Many of the pieces come from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and combine with those from the Getty collection to make a display that illuminates the imagery and ideas inspired by the myths of this goddess whose fame, or infamy some would say, continues to this day. Certainly, Aphrodite is both naughty and nice, both beautiful and terrible. The ancients were not sentimental about the love and lust that Aphrodite represented. They were awed by and fearful of the power they attributed to her.
On display in the exhibition, at the Villa until July 2, 2012, are many artifacts that illustrate the wide range of power once characterized as belonging to this mythic being, the goddess Aphrodite. Since she was goddess of erotic love and the arts of seduction, mirrors, perfume jars, and jewelry were decorated with her motifs. In the exhibition there are drinking bowls and ritual jars that depict graphic scenes from some of the racy stories that are part of her mythic legacy. But there are also statues and terra cotta doves from her temples. Some of these images portray her as armed for war. One piece shows her wearing a crown adorned with the fortified walls of a city that she protected. One large vase showed her as goddess of marriage, blessing a bride on her wedding night, the girl approaching the door of her bridal chamber.
April is just naturally the month for Aphrodite, when spring is springing up all around. In ancient Greece and later in Rome, there were festivals dedicated to Aphrodite, who, under Roman rule, was called Venus. April 1 was dedicated to one of her festivals, a date we call “April Fool’s Day”. And who has not been a fool for love? As Tennyson wrote, “The folly of all follies is to be love sick for a shadow.” Another of her festivals fell at the end of April, perhaps giving rise to the long-celebrated and notoriously lusty rites of the First of May.
Aphrodite had numerous epithets added to her name over the centuries. For a good list of those, I recommend a visit to www.theoi.com . She was known by her title as the Cyprian in Homer’s hymn to her, evidently because one of her most famous temples was on the island of Cyprus. However, in the Iliad, Homer says that she was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, a Titaness. Doves were sacred to Dione as they were to Aphrodite. The myth that Aphrodite was born out of the ocean foam off the coast of Cyprus, and that she came ashore on that island, was recorded by Hesiod in his Theogony. Centuries later, Boticelli’s famous painting of Venus Rising standing on a scallop shell depicts that moment. To this day, scallops and pearls are symbols of feminine beauty.
“In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love,” said Tennyson, thousands of years after the mythical birth of Aphrodite. The flowers that bloom so abundantly in our gardens and on the hillsides seem to shout out the gladness that this goddess was thought to bring to mortals. The green grass, Homer said, “sprang up about her beneath her shapely feet.” He called her “golden” and associated her with sunlight and laughter. When she passed through field and forest it was said that the animals gathered in pairs and followed her in a great parade. From Homer’s Hymn to Aphrodite:
“So she came to many-fountained Ida, the mother of wild creatures and went straight to the homestead across the mountains. After her came grey wolves, fawning on her, and grim-eyed lions, and bears, and fleet leopards, ravenous for deer: and she was glad in heart to see them, and put desire in their breasts, so that they all mated, two together . . . “
At her pinnacle of power, Aphrodite’s or Venus’ temples and rites could be found from the Near East to Europe under the Roman Empire. (Check out this site http://wn.com/aphrodisias to see ruins of the city of Aphrodisias in modern day Turkey.) She took on the role of patroness of seafarers and was prayed to for safe passage and for protection of home and family while the voyager was away. She blessed marriages, so young girls prepared for marriage by propitiating her, praying for children. In Greek mythology, even the Queen of the Gods, Hera, the patroness of marriage, was said to have borrowed a special girdle from Aphrodite in order to attract her husband, Zeus, and try to keep him at home. A great philanderer, Zeus seemed helpless to withstand Aphrodite’s power in whatever form. Homer wrote:
“Even the heart of Zeus, who delights in thunder, is led astray by her; though he is greatest of all and has the lot of highest majesty, she beguiles even his wise heart whensoever she pleases . . .”
War was also part of her sphere of influence. In Cyprus, Aphrodite took up the role of protector of the city and was depicted with a crown that had the battlements of the walled city on it. Although Homer, in the Iliad, makes her out to be a light-weight when it came to actual danger, in other contexts, statues exist of her fully armored and ready for battle. Her love affair with Ares or Mars reiterates her connection to war, perhaps referencing something known as the terrible love of war, or the ecstasy of combat. In these and many other guises, her veneration was wide-spread and long-lasting.
As Greek civilization advanced and philosophers took up the discussion of the attributes of the gods, Plato wrote that while Aphrodite, patroness of prostitutes (sacred and profane), was indeed Aphrodite Pandemos (of all the people), she was also Aphrodite Urania (heavenly). In this latter form, she became associated with one of the nine Muses. Muses were the inspiration of artists and scientists alike. (Aphrodite) Urania was the Muse of Astronomy, Astrology, and Heavenly Love. In the tales of the Muses, she was the Muse who cared for the winged horse Pegasus and could reach the heights riding on his back. These “heights” do not refer to the sky literally, but to the most refined and specialized of thoughts. Since Pegasus was imagined to be the steed that carried the words of the poets, it is easy to see that all this is metaphor for being carried away on a creative wave of inspiration. In the Christian centuries in Europe, Urania, minus the name Aphrodite, remained the patron of astronomers, astrologers and romantic poets. She is depicted holding a celestial sphere that shows the stars, planets and constellations known at the time.
Aphrodite was not, strictly speaking, originally an Olympian goddess. She existed prior to the development of that pantheon. Historically, her origins are Middle Eastern and she shares attributes that had belonged to various other and earlier goddesses, Astarte, Ishtar and Inana. There are also traces of Egyptian Hathor in her iconography and myths. Mythically speaking, The Greeks acknowledged her primordial origins in one myth making her daughter of Ouranos and Thalassa (Heaven and Sea). According to Hesiod’s Theogony, she belonged to the generation that preceded the reign of Zeus. But after Zeus defeated the Titans and the Giants, she remained within the new order of things. However, under the Olympian rule, she was married off, unhappily, to Hephaestus or Vulcan, god of the forge and of volcanoes. She was, however, always an independent goddess, who made her choices of lovers without regard to Olympian standards of conduct (which were pretty shabby anyway). Even though Zeus had been able to consign the Titans, earlier gods, to Tartarus (the depths of the earth), Aphrodite, whether as an irresistible force of attraction, erotic or sublimated, physical or intellectual, could not be contained. As even the Olympian gods recognized, she would go her own way.
Most of us have one or more love stories to tell about our attractions, requited or not, to other human beings. But we also have other passions—vocations, religions, arts, the great outdoors, politics, subjects of study, games, sports, hobbies—and these avid interests too can also have a mysterious and compelling attraction for us. As Joseph Campbell said in this regard, “Follow your bliss.” If we heed that advice, then these loves of ours weave the pattern of who we become. Thus, this goddess was rightly called the First of the Fates, for it is our choices that come to define us and form our individuality. If we are in tune with our selves, and if fortune smiles on us, our choices are guided by a mysterious force, call it love or call it vocation.
Unfortunately, love does not always prevail when we choose partners or careers. Then another goddess, or another aspect of Aphrodite, may show up. She is Nemesis, sometimes seen as an aspect of Aphrodite’s vengeance and associated with envy and jealousy or as retribution for overarching pride and failure to honor the power of the divine.
A classical work regarding Aphrodite’s dark side is “Hippolytus”, a tragedy by Euripides, in which the protagonist offends Aphrodite by remaining proudly chaste. (By the way, it is his pride more than his chastity that rouses the ire of the goddess.) In Greek religion and philosophy, the gods were believed to be both light and dark in their influences. So when obsession, not love, rules as the driver of an attraction, we see the results on the nightly news–senseless murders and terrible crimes. Or in our own lives there are the sad results of fear, jealousy and wrongful pride. And what happens when a person follows a career path or vocation unsuited to him or her, designated by another or forced upon the person–when one cannot or does not follow the choice of the heart? “A life of quiet desperation,” said Thoreau. The point is that Aphrodite’s aims, our natural affinities, when thwarted, portend troubled lives.
After the Romans took over the Mediterranean world, they also took over the Greek pantheon and renamed the gods and goddesses, changing their stories to suit their own myths. Thus, Aphrodite got a new name, Venus. Once assimilated to Aphrodite, Venus became, along with Mars, a patron of Rome and of the rulers of the Empire. In another aspect the Romans knew Venus as the presiding spirit of gardens. She perhaps started out in a humble and pragmatic birthplace, the kitchen garden. Eventually, as Rome flourished, she became not just the simple kitchen garden maid, but the intelligence behind and inspiration for formal gardens, created to delight the senses and elevate the soul. Today you will still see her represented in statuary in many gardens (sometimes under another name), still adding her blessing of beauty to the cultivation of ornamental plants, flowers and trees.
How do we recognize where this mythical energy intersects our daily lives? The ancients felt her presence in many ways, and so do we. Obviously, the ecstatic energy of lovemaking is hers, but in more subtle ways she is there in the whiff of a favorite perfume, or the color of a lovely lipstick (as the advertising industry constantly reminds us). She is present when we slip into a relaxing bath or during a beauty treatment. When we seek to adorn ourselves or decorate our homes, we are pursuing Beauty, her realm. The arts and industries of Aphrodite Pandemos are powerfully present in our culture, and they are big moneymakers. For a real treat take a look at this site to see Vogue’s December 2011 layout with Charlize Theron as Aphrodite: http://viola.bz/charlize-theron-as-aphrodite-for-the-vogue/ But don’t forget, an excessive desire for ecstasy and beauty can invite Nemesis (envy, jealousy, diet obsessions, too much plastic surgery, eating disorders). So watch out!
Despite our sometimes difficult loves and frustrated attempts to be beautiful, the stories and images of Aphrodite should remind us of how surrounded we are by the loveliness of heaven and earth, beauty that cannot be packaged and sold. When you gaze out over the sparkling ocean, pick up a seashell and smell the salt air, you are in her realm. Look up at the evening sky to see her star rising, Venus, brightest of all the planets, long the inspiration of poets. And as the night deepens and the stars emerge, see the face of Urania. Nurture a garden or even a potted plant. Write a poem. And whenever you do something you love to do, your hobby or your job, understand that the love, the attraction you feel towards that activity, is also what she represented to the ancients. Just notice and appreciate the joy you get from doing whatever it is that you love to do.
And of course there is the garden. As you work in your garden, or stroll through or sit in any garden this spring and summer, look around you, and you may just glimpse Aphrodite falling in streams of sunlight through the leaves, or hear the cooing of doves, once thought sacred to her. Or you may notice a couple in amorous embrace, see a statue of her, a fountain with a shell motif, but you will surely see the green, green grass where she has passed.
P.S. For those of you who read the last blog on the profundity of the egg, I had to do some rewrite on Leda vs. Leto. They are different characters and gave birth to different mythical children. But both are involved with birds and eggs.