Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, is possibly the most well known and most worshiped of all the Greek deities. There are two stories of her birth, the first calls her the child of Zeus and Dione, the second a foam-born child of the surging sea and the severed genitals of Ouranos – the heavens. Aphrodite’s cult began around 12-800 BCE, the child-of-Dione tradition is present in Homer (c. 800) and perhaps is the original story of her birth as understood by the Greeks. But as exposure to the older cultures of the near-east increased Aphrodite seems to have been greatly influenced by the powerful goddesses who ruled there and began to acquire some of their titles and events of their own myths.
The great mother-goddesses of the near east are ladies of magic, war, sex, fertility and the power of life itself. Inanna, Ishtar, Ashera, Astarte- even Atargatis- the mermaid goddess (with yet another connection to the sea) and many others have all influenced the character of Aphrodite and the way that she has been worshiped and understood by humanity, and echoes of their influence can be seen in Aphrodite in ways that many do not expect. Aphrodite is the power that draws things together- not only in love or lust but in all ways that unite- truly a powerful magic; and the associations of war and battle are not lost either. In Sparta especially, she was worshiped as a martial goddess; and after all, love is not unlike war- there is the hunt and the capture, the battle and the conquest.
In Kyprus (often considered the first land that she strode upon) Aphrodite was worshiped under the name Amathos and was a bearded hermaphrodite, uniting the male and female sexes. She also has connections to goddesses in other cultures as well. Freja of the Norse, the Roman Venus and her direct predecessor the Etruscan Turan, are connected to the character and history surrounding the presence that at we know as the Goddess of Love.
And what would the goddess of love be without lovers? Aphrodite had many, most coming from the ranks of the gods, though she was the mother of one great mortal hero - Aeneas of Dardania who fled Troy’s fall to found the Latin kingdom. Hermes and Dionusos were two of her many divine lovers and both fathered children with her, though her most famous lovers are Adonis, Hephaistos and Ares.
Hephaistos was called the husband of Aphrodite, she was rewarded to him at his return to Olympus in recompose for the treatment and ridicule received from the other gods due to his malformed body and scared and ugly face. At first look it seems odd that the ugliest of gods would be paired with the most beautiful, but Hephaistos is ingenuity, he is the creation of tools and the drive to create and invent. Along with the bonds of love that Aphrodite rules, the realm of Hephaistos was one of the driving forces that lifted humanity up and placed us on the path of civilization. These two qualities seem a natural pairing and it was not until war became a driving force of commerce and survival did the Goddess of love leave the industrious Hephaistos and become paired with (and mothered children by) Ares, god of war.
The most famous of her children- Eros, young god of love was a child of Ares as was Harmonia the first queen of Thebes and grandmother of Dionusos. Priapus, the over-endowed god of fertility was the son of Dionusos and Hermaphrodites was fathered by Hermes after Aphrodite agreed to make love to him for returning her favorite slippers.
While fertility and procreation and love are all under Aphrodite’s sway, lust and the expression of sexuality are also her gifts. In ancient times priestess-prostitutes would have sex with worshipers, these sacred whores would represent the very goddess herself and the act of sex would be an act of worship. It was a healing event – physically, mentally and spiritually. It became the act that unified heaven and earth, god and worshiper, spirit and flesh.
Aphrodite is the goddess of love. While she is seen strongest in the act of sexual love there are many other forms of love that she is present in and represents as well. There is the love between parent and child, the love between friends, the love of country and home. The love of art, the love of travel, the love of serving the gods. Aphrodite can even be seen in acts of ruin and hatred- for even those are acts of love to some, those who love destruction, the bond between foes- those who love to hate each other, the love of power over another. The rational dose not matter, so long as it is truly love.
Beauty is also within the sphere of Aphrodite’s influence- and beauty is a great power; the gods themselves delight in beauty. We need shelter to survive, we need clothing and food- but there lies deep within us a driving need to make these necessities beautiful, to decorate them and make them pleasing to the eyes.
My worship of Aphrodite is in the actions of doing all things that I love- sculpting, reading, writing; she is present in my worship of all the gods and in the love that I have for them. I feel her power within the kiss and embrace of my loved ones, within the laughter of my dearest friends and, most powerfully within the sounds of lovemaking and the caresses of my lover. I honor her by creating beauty, by finding joy in my own flesh and, above all, by acknowledging and respecting love wherever I may find it.