What is Aphrodite’s Symbol?
What is Aphrodite’s Symbol?
Every god in Greek mythology had certain symbols that were associated with them. What were the symbols of Aphrodite? Keep reading to find out!
Symbols and images were an important aspect of the gods and goddesses in ancient mythology.
In art, they could make the deity instantly identifiable. In literature they served as signs of the god’s presence and pleasure, or displeasure, with characters.
They served as focuses for worship and ways for devotees to display their allegiances. These symbols were even thought to confer protection from the god.
Some gods and goddesses had prominent symbols that remain with us to this day, like Athena’s owl or Zeus’s thunderbolts. Others are less well-known.
Aphrodite was one of the many goddesses whose symbols were recognizable throughout Greece. While most modern readers probably don’t think of them immediately, they are often still used to denote the goddess’s attributes.
Aphrodite’s symbols, including doves, shells, and fruit, are still used not only in images of her, but as enduring emblems of beauty and love. She was not the first goddess to use them, though.
History, archaeology, and even language tell us that Aphrodite’s symbols were borrowed from a culture that was already ancient when the first Greek people began to worship her. From white birds to red roses, the symbols of love and beauty we use today are some of the oldest in the world!
The Imagery of Aphrodite
Like most gods and goddesses, Aphrodite had a variety of symbols that were associated with her images and worship. As the goddess of beauty, her symbols were often objects and animals thought to be particularly beautiful.
Some of her most widely-used symbols were birds. Doves were especially important in the imagery of Aphrodite and the goddess was often shown surrounded by a flock of white doves in flight.
Doves were not just important in art, but in the worship of Aphrodite as well. At a temple near Athens, for example, it was customary to leave an offering to the goddess of beauty in the form of a small marble carving of her sacred bird.
While the goddess herself did not have any avian features, the members of her retinue typically did. Her children the Erotes, who were gods of love, were typically shown with white wings.
In some areas, sparrows replaced doves as the goddess’s sacred bird. The poet Sappho claimed that Aphrodite’s chariot was pulled by a flock of singing sparrows.
She was also associated with birds that lived on the water, probably because of her own origin story that claimed she was born from sea foam. She was sometimes shown next to or even riding on the backs of swans, geese, or ducks.
Waterfowl were not Aphrodite’s only symbol that connected her to the sea. Beautiful things that came out of the water, like shells and pearls, were also associated with the goddess of beauty that rose from the sea foam.
This imagery was not limited to ancient Greek depictions of Aphrodite or her Roman counterpart, Venus. Botticelli’s famous 15th century painting The Birth of Venus shows the goddess being carried out of the sea while standing in an enormous pink shell.
The Italian painter’s famous masterpiece also shows roses in the air around the goddess of beauty. Roses, described by one ancient poet as “the finest of flowers,” are another symbol of Aphrodite that has continued to denote love and beauty in the modern world.
She was also associated with certain fruits, particularly red apples and pomegranates. Some point to the red color as being associated with female anatomy and fertility, while others note that Greek women believed pomegranate seeds were effective contraceptives.
The ancient association of red to the goddess of desire continues to this day. Red is associated with both romance, with red roses being a preferred shade to give to a lover, and sexuality.
In some works of art, particularly from later periods, Aphrodite is also shown with a mirror. This image was used in art for centuries to denote a woman’s beauty and, in some cultures, vanity.
My Modern Interpretation
Many of Aphrodite’s symbols have endured for over two thousand years as markers of love and beauty. While few people now associate them with Greek mythology, doves and roses are still used to symbolize the goddess’s domains.
But historians believe that these symbols have lasted for much longer than two thousand years. Aphrodite’s symbols may be among the oldest in the world.
The Greek goddess of beauty is often associated with an ancient goddess from Mesopotamia and the Near East. Known as Inanna to the Sumerians, the Babylonians called her Ishtar and the Phoenicians knew her as Astarte.
Inanna was worshipped as early as 4000 BC in what is now southern Iraq. In the late Bronze Age she was brought to Greece as Astarte by Phoenician traders from the Mediterranean coast.
Early images of Aphrodite are almost identical to those of Inanna/Ishtar, including the symbols that continued to be associated with her. Doves, especially, were often used in images of Inanna and her temples.
In fact, the Greek word for dove, peristera, probably incorporates the name Ishtar. The Semitic phrase perah Istar means “bird of Ishtar.”
Inanna’s association with the planet Venus could also be a clue as to how she was reinterpreted in the Greek world.
Because of how closely it orbits the sun, Venus seems to move in odd ways relative to the earth. It appears to disappear from the sky entirely for several days, only to reappear on the opposite horizon.
Many ancient cultures, therefore, thought this bright spot in the sky was actually two distinct starts, the Morning Star and the Evening Star. While some writings and myths indicate that the Sumerians knew that Venus was one object that seemed to move erratically, other cultures associated the goddess of beauty with the Eastern horizon.
Some historians believe that the early Greeks combined the Phoenician Astarte with a local goddess. Some attributes of this goddess went into Aphrodite, while others remained separate.
Aphrodite may have once been the same as the dawn goddess Eos. Her birth from the sea mirrors the way in which the sun rises over the horizon in the morning.
The dawn goddess is a widespread archetype that the early Greeks did not adopt directly from the Near East. But Inanna/Ishtar’s association with the star of the morning could explain why the goddess of beauty took on attributes of the dawn in their mythology.
Many of Aphrodite’s symbols are still used in the modern world in reference to love and beauty, even if they are no longer associated with a goddess. Roses and doves, especially, are common elements in romance and weddings to this day.
Many of her other symbols linked her to the sea. Shells and waterfowl were often used in association with Aphrodite because she was said to have been born out of the water.
Some of her symbols continued to be used long after the Greek era as signs of female beauty and sexual attraction. Mirrors and pomegranates, for example, were often used in medieval and Renaissance art to depict both the allure and dangers of such beauty.
Some of Aphrodite’s symbols are still used today, but history shows that they are much older than Greece.
Aphrodite is almost universally believed to have been derived from the ancient Near Eastern goddess Inanna, who was also known by the names Ishtar and Astarte. Their functions and iconography were nearly identical in early Greece.
Doves were closely linked to the worship of Inanna. Evidence that Aphrodite’s symbol was brought from the Near East exists in the Greek word for the bird, which comes from a Semitic phrase relating to Ishtar.
Inanna/Ishtar was also associated with the planet Venus, which was named for the Roman version of Aphrodite. The Greek goddess’s attributes of a dawn goddess can be linked not only to other pre-Greek cultures but also to Venus as the Morning Star.
Aphrodite’s children, whose dove-like wings referenced one of their mother’s sacred birds, are still associated with love and romance today as flying cupids. But other images that accompany them, like roses and even the color red, can also be traced back as symbols of Aphrodite and even older goddesses of love.