Monday, April 3, 2017

APRIL #GUESTPOST Introducing "OTHER ASPECTS OF APHRODITE" by playwright and cultural mythologist LAURA SHAMAS


The last time I formally studied the Greek Goddess Aphrodite, or her Roman counterpart Venus, was over sixteen years ago.  At that time, Aphrodite was discussed primarily as the Goddess of Love, Beauty, Fertility, and Sex/Pleasure.  As Paul Friedrich writes in The Meaning of Aphrodite, the goddess is often reduced, in scholarship, to: “a fun girl and a patroness of prostitutes…” (2).

The Aphrodite myths (or fragments of these myths) that are most familiar are:

"The Birth of Venus," Sandro Botticelli, (c. 1486). Uffizi, Florence.

) BIRTH - The birth myth, in which Aphrodite emerges as a nude fully mature adult from the ocean, seeded by the castration of the sky god Uranus.  This story is a link to the more general category of “Indo-European Dawn goddess” and highlights her symbolic value as a fertile, generative deity.
2) MARRIAGE - Her marriage to the Greek god Hephaestus, the brilliant craftsman and jewelry-maker of Olympus, who has a shriveled foot. He famously crafts a net of gold to catch his wife in her infidelities.

3) LOVERS – Aphrodite’s many lovers include Ares, god of war; Hermes, the messenger/trickster deity; Adonis, the handsome youth associated with the renewal of vegetation and rebirth; the mortal Anchises, who was an animal herder when he encountered Aphrodite; Dionysus, the god of wine, theatre and frenzy; Poseidon, the powerful deity of the sea; and finally, her first love, Nerites—the gorgeous sea deity who refused to live with Aphrodite in Olympus, and was changed into a seashell by the goddess as a punishment.

4) MAGIC GIRDLE - Aphrodite’s magic girdle or “cestus” (some say it was a belt) was crafted by her husband Hephaestus, and was borrowed by goddess Hera to help heal conflicted couples, including her own marriage to Zeus. Aphrodite’s cestus could inspire desire and passion; Aphrodite promises Hera in Homer’s The Iliad, Book 14, that if Hera wears it: “I think whatever is in your heart’s desire shall not go unaccomplished.”

5) THE TROJAN WAR - Aphrodite is featured in the Judgment of Paris, the prelude to the Trojan War. In a competition for a golden apple, Aphrodite is picked by Paris as “most beautiful,” over Hera or Athena. As part of the deal, Aphrodite promised Paris the gorgeous, married Helen of Sparta, who then becomes “of Troy.” Aphrodite fatefully sides with the Trojans throughout the war; in The Iliad, she is wounded by Diomedes in combat while trying to save her son Aeneas, and at another point, she intervenes to save Paris himself. She also fought alongside Ares.

6) IRE, JEALOUSY, STING - Aphrodite’s legendary temper and jealousy.  Some examples include the stories of:  Eros and Psyche, which features Aphrodite’s jealousy of mortal Psyche’s beauty; the fight with Persephone over custody of the young Adonis which ultimately had to be decided by Zeus; envy over Hippolytus’ allegiance to the goddess Artemis, famously dramatized in Euripides’ play Hippolytus; and what she did to Nerites (see “Lovers,” #3 Above.)

Oil Jar in the Shape of Aphrodite at Her Birth, Greek,
380–370 B.C. Terracotta, pigment, and gold,8 3/8 in. high
 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Catharine Page Perkins Fund [Note use of shell]

7) REWARDS LOYALTY – Aphrodite favors those who worship her. One example: When sculptor Pygmalion, who disdains women, creates a gorgeous female statue made of ivory, he finds himself falling in love. He prays to Aphrodite at her temple; the statue comes to life and is named Galatea. Pygmalion marries Galatea, lives happily, and credits Aphrodite for the miracle.

But there are other aspects of Aphrodite, and much we still do not know about how the goddess was perceived and worshipped in her own temples during different eras and locations. This is puzzling, because according to art historian Christine Mitchell Havelock in her art survey book The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors, the goddess remained incredibly popular through different epochs: “Probably more ancient statues survive of the nude Aphrodite than of any other Greek divinity”(1).

In The Meaning of Aphrodite, written in 1978, Friedrich identifies a general scholarly “avoidance of Aphrodite,” and mentions several works by classicists in which she is treated as a minor deity or omitted altogether. Friedrich attributes this gap to “deep cultural and religious biases “ among scholars who attempt to comprehend and contextualize Aphrodite as a religious figure in antiquity (2).

When I attended the "Excavating Aphrodite” Symposium in April 2012 at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles as a general audience member, I was stunned to learn, from the expert archaeologists who shared research findings there, that most temples of Aphrodite still had not yet been fully excavated—and some not really at all. In the five years since, it is doubtful that major progress has been made, due to the financial, institutional, and cultural requirements for such major endeavors. (Here’s the most recent New York University report on excavations in Aphrodisias, Turkey, where Aphrodite was the city’s patron.)


When I first studied Aphrodite, I was always a bit baffled by the pairing of Aphrodite and Ares. Like Aphrodite and Hephaestus, the coupling is categorized as an allegorical unity of opposites: Love and War (Aphrodite and Ares), Beauty and Ugliness (Aphrodite and Hephaestus), Immortal and Mortal (Aphrodite and Anchises), etc.

But is war really the opposite of love? What if there’s another reason Aphrodite was paired with Ares?

In the Getty Villa’s 2012 art exhibit “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love,” there was classical art displayed that suggested Aphrodite’s link to militarism (Click here for an example.). One Roman statue displayed, “The Venus of Capua,” is a copy of a Greek statue featuring Aphrodite posing semi-nude with a military shield (the shield is now missing).

In Monica S. Cyrino’s book Aphrodite (2010), Cyrino considers war-related ties to the deity’s cult, observing that while Aphrodite could never be studied as a full blown goddess of war (49), there is at least proof of “possible militaristic elements” in her shrines and cults, such as accounts of armed statues of Aphrodite, as described by the travel writer Pausanias in the Second Century C.E. in cults found in Cythera, Corinth, with the best evidence at Sparta (51). There, Aphrodite was worshipped as a female Ares, or an “Areia,” known as “Aphrodite Areia” (51). Cyrino notes that there are other places where Aphrodite and Ares were worshipped jointly (e.g., Greece and Crete), but Aphrodite is not as militaristically represented in those places as she is in Sparta (51).

Information from the “Worshipping Aphrodite” page of the online record of the Getty Museum’s 2012 “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” exhibit is relevant: “
Although she [Aphrodite] is often perceived as having no connection with military matters, ancient literary sources preserve references to an armed Aphrodite as a cult statue at a number of sites. None of these survive, but intriguing finds from the Etruscan port of Gravisca offer positive evidence.” Their page features two images of Aphrodite wearing a helmet, and holding a spear (now missing).

In at least one location, her militarism seems to have pre-dated other characteristics. Lisa R. Brody, in her 2001 essay “The Cult of Aphrodite at Aphrodisias in Caria” writes:  “
The Aphrodisian goddess was perhaps above aIl known as a goddess of warfare in her early phases of development, and this continued even after she became known as Aphrodite. It is in fact her enduring reputation as a military divinity that motivates Sulla to make his dedication at the sanctuary in the early first century B.C.” (101). Although located in modern day Turkey, Greek religious practices were thought to be replicated closely at Aphrodisias.

The Roman Venus is not exactly the same as the Greek Aphrodite, but there was a Roman deity known as “Venus Victrix [Victorious],” who was celebrated by Julius Caesar, Roman soldiers and other noted military giants such as Sulla and Pompey.

Were Aphrodite’s militaristic attributes subsumed? Were militaristic attributes acknowledged by specific cults, as part of local practices? Are the combat stories that involve Aphrodite from The Iliad (see #5 above, “The Trojan War”) indicative of a deeper military-related aspect of Aphrodite now obscured? Does her frequent pairing with Ares signal that she, too, was considered a deity of militarism? Certainly, the records of armed Aphrodite statues suggest that possibility. Or was their pairing instead indicative of a mixis (a mingling of deities), whose motto would be, as Cyrino writes: “Make love and war” (52)? Could it perhaps be related to Aphrodite’s role as the mother of Aeneas who fought many battles?

These are just a few of the questions I have about Aphrodite and militarism. I’m fortunate to have heard archaeologists working on excavating Aphrodite lecture on this topic.

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Venus Genetrix (Capitoline Museums) 


There are differences between the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus, but they are listed as nearly equivalents by the end of the second century B.C.E. (128). Cyrino summarizes:  “the emergence of Rome as an important player on the Mediterranean scene introduced new manifestations and interpretations of the Greek goddess. Aphrodite was subsequently appropriated and to some degree remodeled by the Roman cultural and political machine”(127). Cyrino notes that the Roman Venus, more than the Greek Aphrodite, is linked to vegetation, gardens, and springtime (127-8). [1]

One version of the Roman goddess is “Venus Genetrix,” or “Mother Venus,” celebrated as the mother of the Julio-Claudian dynasty through her son Aenaes, who is considered one of the progenitors of the Romans according to Virgil’s Aeneid.  Julius Caesar claimed direct lineage to the goddess (“Venus Genetrix”).
Cyrino writes that the Romans “soon began to appreciate the cultural and political benefits in having Venus as the foremother of their entire people…”(128).

This is one notable difference between Aphrodite and Venus. Cyrino says that Venus Genetrix “was invested with a much more maternal aspect than she ever embodied as the Greek Aphrodite…”(128). Venus was a popular figure for women in Rome to emulate, as explained on the “Roman Venus” page of the online “Aphrodite and the Gods of Love” Getty Museum exhibit:
“In Roman religion, Venus acquired a more matronly character than Aphrodite, and empresses were regularly identified with her. Denoting wifely virtues of fertility and decency, Venus's figure types were used for portrait sculptures of both imperial and citizen women.” (There’s a beautiful example of this--Livia’s portrait in a turquoise cameo--on the “Roman Venus” page).

The Roman Venus is seen as a mature wife and a mother—a model of decency. It is worth remembering that in myth and literature, both Aphrodite/Venus gave birth to many children, fathered by both deities and mortals, although not any with a spouse. Aphrodite/Venus had at least four children sired by Ares/Mars; Ovid recounts that she had two children with Hermes/Mercury; she also had a son with Anchises; and another sired by Dionysus (See “Lovers, #3 above). There’s an additional account of a child sired by Butes, an Argonaut whom she rescued from the Sirens.  That’s at least nine, and nine is enough; yet there are accounts of even more, e.g., the Erotes.

It is not surprising that a goddess who gave birth to at least nine kids would have a “matronly” resonance. Yet “Venus as Mother” seems obscured today, rarely articulated. Her “fecundity and fertility” have seemingly outshone her “maternal” nature. It seems odd that the “sexual pleasure” side of Aphrodite/ Venus is more prominent than her “Mother” side, because obviously, sex may lead to procreation, and she had many lovers. Did Venus’ childbearing resonance become subsumed because it was not perceived as “sexy”? Did we lose her Supermom status because of her parenting (e.g., such as is recounted in the Eros and Psyche legend) or the multiple fathers of her progeny? These are just a few of the questions that come to mind in relationship to our comprehension of “Venus the Mother.”


Militarism and motherhood are two neglected, formerly prominent, aspects of the goddess Aphrodite/Venus. There are others.[2] As new information is uncovered about the worship and meaning of Aphrodite and Venus, through excavations of shrines and temples in Greece, Italy, Turkey, and beyond, we should review and renew our modern interpretations of the goddess, especially from a depth psychological perspective. Aphrodite’s and Venus’s complexities are worthy of a dedicated re-examination. Although various aspects may seem puzzling or discordant when considering the goddesses in toto, fresh discoveries about Aphrodite and Venus will help us comprehend more about powerful female deities, the psyche, and take us a step closer to solving the eternal mystery of what it means to be human.

[1] The name Aphrodite, is connected to the month of April.
[2] For example, her maritime ties and her civic harmony symbolism.

©2017 “Other Aspects of Aphrodite” by Laura Shamas
©2017  Laura Shamas Rights Reserved


Laura Shamas, Ph.D., writes about myth, film, gender parity, pop culture, and more. Her new play Circular explores the relationship of Circe and Odysseus. Her essays have been published in The Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Huffington Post, Thrive Global, Ecopsychology Journal, Hollywood Journal, Spring Journal, Jung Journal; The Autry Museum blog; Women Arts blog; Bitch Flicks; Howl Round; Psychological Perspectives; the Women and Hollywood blog; and On The Issues Magazine, among others. She is grateful to have been previously published in Mythopoetry. PopMythology: Collected Essays is a collection of some of Shamas' myth essays. Website:

Laura's play, Circular, directed by Julie Proudfoot October, 2016 was part of the Fall Festival 2016 at Artemisia Theatre, Chicago.  For more plays by Laura see