(Essay) 'The Hard Side of Aphrodite' by Hearth Moon Rising

 

She is a goddess to be approached with caution, even trepidation. If you feel no apprehension in matters involving her, then you have no thought of danger, obstacles, shattered illusion, broken trust – and if so you are a fool. Aphrodite does not like fools.

Robert Graves says of Aphrodite:

As Goddess of Death-in-Life, Aphrodite earned many titles which seem inconsistent with her beauty and complaisance. At Athens, she was called Eldest of the Fates and sister of the Erinnyes [Furies]: and elsewhere Melaenis (“black one”);…Scotia (“dark one”); Androphonos (“man-slayer”); and even, according to Plutarch, Epitymbria (“of the tombs”).

How could the goddess of love and beauty be associated with the frightful Furies or with Fate, always cruel because she decrees that life must meet with death? The Greeks saw beauty and ugliness in terms of complementarity. This is somewhat different from the Christian duality which sees another set of opposites, good and evil, at continual war with one another. The complements of

Birthplace of Aphrodite off the coast of Cyprus.
Photo by Paul

beauty and ugliness give birth to each other. Thus when Uranus is castrated by his son Cronus, his genitals flung into the ocean fertilize the sea-mother, precipitating the birth of Aphrodite. Out of an ugly incident arises something of great beauty. When Aphrodite and the god of war Ares get together, the child of their tempestuous fling is the goddess Harmonia, harmony, who is herself mother of the warring Amazons. Another child of Aphrodite, the ugly Priapus with the grotesquely huge phallus, tends a famous garden of gorgeous pear trees. Aphrodite’s husband is the misshapen and crippled Hephaestus, the unparalleled metal craftsman, who creates exquisite jewelry and other ornaments.

The story that best describes the nature of Aphrodite comes from the Greco- Roman myth “Cupid and Psyche.” Psyche is a young woman of extraordinary beauty who is compared to Aphrodite and even attracts a group of worshipers. Aphrodite considers this comparison a challenge and responds by putting Psyche through her paces. She arranges for Psyche to marry a terrible monster, a scheme that Eros (Cupid), who usually carries out his mother’s bidding, thwarts because he has fallen in love with Psyche himself. Aphrodite disrupts this romance and devises a series of seemingly insurmountable tests for Psyche to pass before she can be reunited with Eros. Psyche has no blemish on her character, she is completely innocent, but it is this very innocence that Aphrodite finds objectionable. Psyche must develop and display a strength of character before Aphrodite can embrace her.

Psyche in the Underworld
Painting by Eugene Ernest Hillemacher, 1865

Psyche’s last trial is a harrowing trip to the underworld to obtain for Aphrodite a small box of beauty from the death goddess Persephone. This trial, which underscores the relationship between Aphrodite and death, is a calculated set-up. Though Psyche has been warned not to look inside the box, no woman could resist the temptation to snatch a bit of extra beauty, not even a woman as beautiful and good as Psyche. It turns out that Persephone’s “beauty” is the sleep of death.

Perhaps it is inaccurate to say that Aphrodite does not like innocence; rather, innocence is something she actively seeks to destroy. Aphrodite is the goddess of hard lessons, of maturity. She forces her followers to grow up and learn about truth, which as the Greeks knew well is often ugly. One of the ways she compels mortals to develop character is through romantic love. Sexual attraction is a part of her terrible plot to make us understand and work through our difficulties and conflicts with others.

Aphrodite.
Anatolia, 2nd century b.c.e.

I well remember the resentment I felt after encountering one of Aphrodite’s trials. The experience involved confrontations with betrayal, deception, and the self-serving machinations of so-called allies. It was one of those grueling experiences where, if the lessons are recognized right way, their importance is not understood for many years. As I nursed my ill feelings, reviewing the part I felt Aphrodite played in my difficulties, I said to myself, “and if she were to come into this room right now, I would not even think she was pretty.”

Aphrodite immediately rose to the challenge. My jaw dropped as she entered and I felt stunned, numb, unable to form a thought of my own, confronted with her beauty. Eventually her figure faded in an onslaught of flowers of every color and kind imaginable, thousands of them. I understood then that Aphrodite’s beauty is so great that it cannot be contained in the female form – or in any form. I could do nothing but kneel and say, “Yes, you are beautiful. The most beautiful thing I have ever seen.”

Sources

Apuleius. The Golden Ass. Robert Graves, trans. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1951.

Evslin. Gods, Demigods and Demons: An Encyclopedia of Greek Mythology. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1975.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1960.