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Aphrodite, in her many forms, has become a central figure of the neo-classical movement that gripped our world first in the nineteenth century and continues to do so today. For those living in antiquity, however, the nature of their interactions with Aphrodite would have been dictated by the period during which they lived and the social structures which dominated their communities. In this sense, we can use a number of sources to track the change in approaches to and perceptions of Aphrodite from the archaic period in Greece to the early empire in Rome.
In Hesiod’s Theogony, the birth of Aphrodite is inextricably linked to contemporary fears of femininity as a threat to the established patriarchal structures that sustained communities. When Kronos, aided and encouraged by his mother, takes “the huge sickle with its long row of sharp teeth and quickly cut[s] off his father’s genitals,” the Hesiodic narrative depicts fears of broken succession and scheming wives as a direct threat to masculinity. Significantly, Aphrodite is born out this detached and broken masculinity, and first forms as an angry “white foam” – that the “whisperings of girls; smiles; deceptions; sweet pleasure, intimacy, and tenderness” are all born with Aphrodite is in line with the deep distrust of women Hesiod demonstrates more explicitly in his Works and Days. Yet to understand the oral nature of the Hesiodic tradition is to witness the horrifying nature of Aphrodite as depicted in the cosmogony – not only is she presented as an outsider, wherein her name places her at the edge of the Greek world, but emphasis is drawn to her subversive beauty as coupled with her ability to “deceive” men. It is clear from deeply familial and brutish nature of the conflict that gives birth to Aphrodite, that as Hesiod sought to shape a cosmos in line with his experience as a farmer and worker, the tradition incorporated fundamental fears of womanhood and personified them in Aphrodite as the first female divinity with human-like attributes created in the Theogony.
Unlike Hesiod’s popular didactic poetry, Homer’s Iliad concerns itself more with the lessons of the high politics and military relationships that drove key turning points in the Greek cultural memory. In the Judgment of Paris, it is Aphrodite to offers Helen to Paris in exchange for his favor, thus triggering the Trojan War and the impending fall of the city. In the Iliad, Aphrodite’s actions are condemned on the same terms. In Book III, she removes Paris from the battlefield and “puts him down in his own fragrant chamber” to await the arrival of Helen. Firstly, Aphrodite’s intervention in a dramatic battle between two soldiers invokes the fear of women as emasculating during times when a strong sense of masculinity is required – to say, as Paris does, “let us drop war now, you and I, and give ourselves to pleasure in our bed” is a clear violation of the rites of battle as established in antiquity, and it is Aphrodite herself who instigates this violation. Yet Aphrodite’s real transgression occurs when she forces Helen to lay with Paris by threatening to “make hatred grow for [Helen] among both Trojans and Danaans” if she did not do so. In this sense, when Aphrodite tells Helen “I shall hate you as I have cherished you till now” the Homeric tradition mirrors the Hesiodic warning of the dual nature of Aphrodite’s beauty and abilities to deceive. More broadly, however, and perhaps most importantly, we see that Aphrodite’s instigation of sexual behavior between Helen and Paris in this scene seals the fate of the Greeks and Trojans to be destined for a catastrophic war. Both the Homeric and Hesiodic tradition were intrinsic, in different ways, to the creation of religious and social structures during times of rapid growth and change in the archaic period and it is clear in this sense that they both used Aphrodite as a sign of the threat of women and their ability to seduce men – while Hesiod projected his local fears of femininity onto the cosmos in the form of Aphrodite, Homer presents her as impediment to the duty of military men and thus to the stability of the political order.
In the Late Hellenistic period we are able to discern a somewhat different approach to Aphrodite by writers. In his Epitaph on Adonis, Bion presents Aphrodite in a moment of harrowing vulnerability following the death of her beloved Adonis. The repetition of “I lament Adonis” by Aphrodite, coupled with the deeply descriptive images of Adonis’s injuries, demonstrates a willingness of the author to make readers and followers of Aphrodite empathize with her on an emotional level. This is a stark contrast to the Hesiod and Homeric traditions where she is presented merely as a the product and cause of male conflict; in the Epitaph, her “woe” is for the mistakes of the “rash youth” and, in fact, her lamentations demonstrate a huge amount of love for humanity. An interesting allusion is made to this version of Aphrodite in Aristophanes’ Classical hit Lysistrata – complaining about the women are “out of hand,” a magistrate condemns a “noisy rooftop party for Adonis” and continues to note the women were “on the rooftop getting drunk and yelling ‘oh doomed youth.’” This is important to our inquiry into perceptions and usages of Aphrodite since we can infer that women who followed the foreign cult of Adonis adopted the position of the mourning Aphrodite as a form of protest in the lead-up to the Sicilian Expedition, as the date and context of the Lysistrata would suggest. In this sense, we see that by the end of the Hellenistic period Aphrodite had become a deity all citizens could empathize with and understand positively; but importantly, we can use this knowledge to argue that alternative ways of imagining Aphrodite were already being employed as early as the Classical period and that these, in contrast to archaic approaches, saw the deity as a medium of civic-ritual protest against the state’s disregard for life, as would have been the case during the Sicilian Expedition.
By the time of Virgil in the Aeneid, Aphrodite has been morphed into Venus and a much more accessible and likeable character has been forged. In the Aeneid, a seminal poem setting out the mythical foundations of a blossoming empire, Romans are said to have descended directly from Aphrodite herself. In this sense, she is central to the image of the state and those who would have led Rome during Virgil’s time, i.e. Augustus and Caesar, would have associated themselves directly with Venus as a figure central to the Roman cultural memory. This is a stark contrast to the archaic tendencies to portray Aphrodite as the product and cause of conflict among both common and official men. In Book II of the Aeneid we see a direct attempt to disassociate the Roman Venus from the Archaic Aphrodite – Venus asks Aeneas not to kill Helen, pleading “‘you must not hold the woman of Laconia, That hated face, the cause of this, nor Paris. The harsh will of the gods it is, the gods,” wherein the story of Helen’s seduction is changed to rid Aphrodite/Venus of any blame. In fact, the Roman Venus here actually seeks to moderate the reckless actions of men, whereas in the archaic accounts Aphrodite is the cause and product of male recklessness.
Our analysis of these sources reveals that broadly, over time, the image of Aphrodite changes to become a deity that represents passion and love as opposed to threat and seduction. Importantly, we see that the political implications of her archaic version are weakened by the Roman period, where she is integrated into the cultural memory and given a central position. This latter version of Aphrodite as relatable, exemplified by Bion, gave us an opportunity to discuss the ways in which Athenian women in the Classical period may have adopted the image of Aphrodite to protest the state’s decision to launch the Sicilian Expedition – this interpretation of a originally deity conjured up to depict feminine threat as a potential civic medium of protest somewhat contradicts Malinowski’s functionalist approach to myth, but gives us a more appreciative sense of the fluid nature of myth and their purposes.
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