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Aphrodite in The Hellenistic Period

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“The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing. Love is the same force that human beings find at work in themselves whenever they feel joy, love and peace. Strife, on the other hand, is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed.” This quote comes from Empedocles, a philosopher and poet working before Socrates in Sicily. When you imagine Greek gods and goddesses, Aphrodite is always one of the first that comes to mind. She was a sense of hope for the Grecian and Roman people, being the embodiment of love, and was widely discussed because she was also one of the largest sex symbols in ancient society. Aphrodite’s history, why she was worshipped and her impact on ancient society are what separate her from the other gods and goddesses of the time.

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All gods and goddesses seem to have strange ways of being born, which is all part of the mystique surrounding why they are a god in the first place. In Aphrodite’s case, she is believed to have been born from the white foam that came from the severed genitals of Uranus, who was the personification of heaven in Greek mythology, after his son Cronus threw them into the sea. While she is more commonly known as the ancient Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty, she was also worshipped as a goddess of the sea and seafaring by many and her Roman equivalent is the goddess Venus. Her husband was Hephaistos or Vulcan, the god of the forge, fire, and metal handcraft and the daughter for Zeus and a water nymph named Dione. In some myths, it is foretold that Aphrodite’s son is Eros, or Cupid, the god of love (textbook). Despite being the goddess of love and beauty, in many myths, Aphrodite is considered to be vain, ill-tempered and easily offended. She is one of the few gods who were actually married and she is continuously unfaithful to her husband, often cheating on him with Ares, the god of war and the opposite of her even-headed husband Hephaistos. In the Iliad by Homer, Aphrodite goes into battle with the intention of saving her son, but instead, drops him as she is flying because she gets hurt and abandons him. She is also the source of the start of the Trojan War, because she started the entire affair by offering Helen of Troy to Paris and creating the lust that Paris had for Helen after seeing her for the first time. A great quote on Aphrodite’s true nature is:

“Her [Aphrodite’s] domain may involve love, but it does not involve romance; rather, it tends more towards lust, the human irrational longing.”

Being the daughter of Zeus and the mother of Cupid, Aphrodite was able to be well recognized in ancient society and in today’s world as well. But what was so special about her that made people worship her and decide to use her as their muse as much as artists in the Hellenistic period did?

The female nude was not a part of the art world before the Hellenistic period. Only male nudes were seen as appropriate for the time because they showcased strength and nobility. Aphrodite was the first muse used for a female nude sculpture and it set a “new standard,” according to the textbook. Praxiteles created this audacious statue of Aphrodite in 350 BCE for Knidos, a city in Asia Minor. While other ancient art pieces suggested sexuality from the female body as opposed to showcased the male nude, this state of Aphrodite was the very first example where it was fully on display. In the statue, Aphrodite is readying herself for a bath. Her hands are carefully placed slightly covering her nudity, which only draws the viewer’s eye closer to what she is covering. In female nudes sculpted after this Aphrodite, artists also used the method of sculpting to show “modesty” but actually lead viewers to look at the sexuality of the muse. This statue was the starting point for a lot of artists who captured the female nude and was actually the model for many other Hellenistic works such as the Venus de Milo in 2nd century BCE. The textbook we have been using throughout the duration of this survey of art history course had a fun addendum on the Aphrodite by Praxiteles piece:

“According to an old legend, the sculpture was so realistic that Aphrodite herself journeyed to Knidos to see it and cried out in shock, “Where did Praxiteles see me naked?” The Knidians were so proud of their Aphrodite that they placed it in an open shrine where people could view it from every side. Hellenistic and Roman copies probably numbered in the hundreds, and nearly 50 survive in various collections today.”

One of the many reasons Aphrodite was so worshipped in the Hellenistic period was for her beauty. Other gods worried that jealousy among Aphrodite’s suitors would disrupt the peace among the gods and so Zeus married her to Hephaestus, so she was less of a threat to them. Other names Aphrodite carries are Lady of Cythera and Lady of Cyprus after Cythera and Cyprus where her biggest cult-followings resided in ancient times. She actually had a festival of her own, called the Aphrodisia, which was widely attended and celebrated in Greece, Athens and Corinth. In Corinth, having intercourse with priestesses was considered a method of worshipping Aphrodite, which came from her being the goddess of sexual love. Another draw for worshippers was Aphrodite’s close association with Eros, the Graces and the Horae (Seasons), which all accentuated her role as a promoter of fertility. Aphrodite was worshipped and loved for her powers over sexual love, fertility and beauty but she also left a lasting impression on ancient Greek and Roman societies.

The greatest impression that Aphrodite made on the people of the ancient Greek and Roman societies was her major role in the Trojan War. As previously mentioned, Aphrodite caused the initial affair leading Paris to Helen of Troy. At a wedding of two other gods, Zeus invited Prince Paris of the Trojans to judge a contest of who was the most beautiful goddess among Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They each offered Paris gifts such as strength and invincibility from Hera, Asia and Europe regions from Athena and the most beautiful woman in the world from Aphrodite. He obviously chose Aphrodite, which led to Paris and Helen of Troy’s affair and since Helen was already married to the Spartan king and thus the beginning of the Trojan War. This aspect of Aphrodite interfering with both war and love at the same time revealed her more dangerous side, leading her subjects to both fear and worship her. Gods and goddesses are always messing with the mortal world in ancient myths and legends. However, those legends were so ardently believed that they have weaved themselves throughout ancient Greek and Roman history.

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Aphrodite is always one of the first Greek gods and goddesses that comes to mind, when you first imagine them. She was a sense of hope for the Grecian and Roman people, the embodiment of love, sexuality and fertility. Aphrodite’s history, why she was worshipped and her impact on ancient society are what separate her from the other gods and goddesses of the time.

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