Ancient Greek cities featured many temples and shrines to the gods of their pantheon. What exactly happened in those temples, however, is sometimes shrouded in mystery.
We know the Greeks gave burnt offerings to their gods and sometimes sacrificed animals to them. From both texts and archaeological records we can tell that many worshippers visited the region’s great temples, but only a select few were allowed in their inner sanctuaries.
Beyond these general practices, however, worship seems to have differed greatly between different sites. Even within the same area and at the same time, different temples and shrines had their own ways of showing devotion to their god.
From written sources we have some ideas as to how Aphrodite was worshipped in her temples and during her festivals, but there are issues to sort through beyond the usual regional variations. Descriptions of what happened inside the temples of the goddess of love are not only diverse, but seem to have also been written to shock their audiences.
The Greeks left behind no instruction manuals detailing the workings of their temples. While we know some general aspects of how worship was conducted, specifics often come from fragments pieced together from sources through the years.
We also know that worship even of a single god or goddess was not always the same in all times and places. Each local temple or shrine would have some of their own traditions, and worship of an individual deity could look quite different depending on where it took place.
One thing that was common throughout the Greek world was the practice of animal sacrifice. Portions of animals slaughtered for meat would always be set aside for the gods, but entire animals would be sacrificed during festivals and on particularly holy days.
Pigs seemed to have been a favored animal for sacrifice in the temples of Aphrodite. Pausanias notes this happening in Sicyon, while mentions in earlier texts also place this tradition in Argos.
Pausanias is one of our best sources of information about temple design and practices in the Greek world. Writing in the 2nd century AD, the Greek-speaking traveller wrote ten books chronicling his journeys through the Eastern Mediterranean and noting the particular landmarks and practices of the ares his visited.
His descriptions of the sacrifices made to Aphrodite on Sicyon are some of the most thorough we have from the ancient world. In addition to swine, he said, the thighs of animals were the portion most often set aside for the goddess of love.
In Greek tradition, such offerings would be burned so that the smoke to rise to the gods on Olympus. When sacrifices were being burned to Aphrodite, Pausanias tells us, the leaf of a particular tree that grew only near her temple would be added to the fire, which was built with aromatic juniper wood.
Pausanias also tells us who was in charge of seeing these fires lit. In Sicyon, entrance to the sanctuary within the temple was only allowed to a priestess, who took a vow of celibacy, and a virgin who dedicated a year of service to the goddess.
It was common for a limited number of people to have access to a temple’s inner sanctuary, but ancient writings show that these people varied in Aphrodite’s temples in different areas.
While the officiants in Sicyon were both women, there are records of some temples to Aphrodite that women were not allowed to enter at all. In other temples, only those who had purified themselves in very specific ways were allowed into the goddess’s holy spaces.
Outside of the sanctuaries, however, the temples were more open to worshippers. Throughout Greece, Aphrodite was held in high esteem by women.
Pausanias and others described women as being the most frequent visitors to temples of Aphrodite, particularly those about to marry. In some places, the bride herself brought votive offerings to the goddess, while in others the mother of the bride would pray to Aphrodite on her daughter’s behalf.
These offerings varied by region. Statues were common offerings, as were gold and jewelry, for all gods. In some of Aphrodite’s temples her sacred birds, doves, were either given as sacrifices or represented by small statuettes.
There were rumours, seemingly exaggerated, that pious brides were not the only women who held Aphrodite in high esteem. As the goddess of beauty and attraction, she was said to be the patroness of courtesans as well.
One ancient writer credited Aphrodite with bringing great wealth to the city of Corinth. Merchants and sailors spent so much money on the city’s pleasures that the proverb “Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth” grew popular.
Not all worship of Aphrodite was centered on joy and pleasure, however. In many parts of the Greek world, her chief festival was one of mourning.
In both Cyprus and Athens, the festival of Aphrodite was called the Adonia. It was named for Adonis, the beautiful human who had been loved by many of the gods.
When Adonis was killed, Aphrodite was said to have mourned him deeply. The Adonia was a recreation of this mourning, in which women reenacted Aphrodite’s intense sorrow complete with funeral rites for images of Adonis.
Music also seemed to play a key role in the worship of Aphrodite. Even in the typically serious culture of Sparta, poets described songs and dances meant to invite Aphrodite and the Erotes to join in revelry.
In the 3rd century AD, wrote one of the most vivid descriptions of music in the worship of Aphrodite. In his writing a choir of young maidens, prompted to keep tune by a demanding chorister, sing of Aphrodite’s birth from the water, each looking up to the heavens with a “smile [in] an imitation of the sea’s calm.”
Much of what we know about the worship of Aphrodite was written by outsiders, describing customs that would be foreign to much of their audience.
Pausanias is one of the few ancient writers who described what he saw first-hand and did not seem to glorify that which he saw as unusual or foreign. While his works are still important for historians and archaeologists, however, they are not without fault.
The ancient travel writer sometimes contradicted himself and made unwarranted inferences, leading many historians to believe he was honest in his descriptions but sometimes inexact. Additionally, his works provide information on only a single moment of history.
Pausanias travelled through Greece in the 2nd century AD, at a time when the region was under the control of the Roman Empire and many ancient sites were already in ruins. The sites and practices he witnessed were only those of his own time, almost certainly different in some ways than those of earlier eras in Greek history.
In fact, most descriptions we have of the practices of worship in ancient Greece come from this period. Earlier writers wrote extensively about the gods and the workings of the universe, but paid little attention to daily life in this own country.
As a result, many of the descriptions we do have of Aphrodite’s worship describe should be taken with some scepticism. While Pausanias is generally considered to be more objective, the same cannot be said of many other writers.
Because Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality, some descriptions of her worship seem to have been written to shock and tittilate audiences.
Pausanias, for example, gives a rather matter of fact description of the temple of Aphrodite in Corinth. Strabo, however, often mentioned the city’s courtesans and inferred that many performed their jobs in, and were owned by, the temple itself.
Several centuries earlier, Herodotus made even more scandalous claims regarding the worship of Aphrodite in parts on Cyprus. In what he called “the foulest Babylonian custom,” every woman was made to sit naked in the temple and have intercourse with a stranger at least once in her life.
The claims of Herodotus are often disputed, however. Even in his own time, many believed that he made up many of his stories to entertain rather that educate, and there is no evidence that the ancient historian ever travelled to the island of Cyprus himself.
Furthermore, Herodotus was born in Helicarnassus, a Greek city that was under Persian control. The events of his early life, including a failed uprising by Greek residents and his family’s possible exile, lead many to see a bias in his writing.
If such rituals as those described by Herodotus did exist in his own time, they may not even have been related to Aphrodite. He descriped them as a Babylonian custom, so in keeping with the Greek tendency to associate foreign gods with their own they may have been performed in honor of an Eastern love goddess rather than the Greek Aphrodite.
From such scarce and possibly biased descriptions, we can make some assumptions about how Aphrodite was worshipped in the Greek world.
Like other deities she received burnt offerings within her temples, and in many areas pigs were the preferred sacrificial animal. She also received votive offerings in honor of marriages.
Her festival, the Adonia, was celebrated in many parts of Greece. It was a day of intense emotional release, during which her followers recreated the heartache the goddess felt upon the death of her lover, Adonis.
And while many writers intended to shock their audiences, there is evidence that worship on Aphrodite in some areas involved what historians refer to as sacred prostitution. Strabo was not the only writer to mention Aphrodite in association with the “guest-loving girls” of Corinth, making it clear that in at least one city she was worshipped by those seeking pleasure as well as love.
While few records exist of how, exactly, the gods were worshipped in daily life, there are some texts that survive regarding religious practices. Often, these feature variation by time and place in addition to the authors’ own biases and misinterpretation of events.
In the case of Aphrodite, we know she received burnt offerings like other gods, with pigs often being a favored sacrifice. In many regions, votive offerings were made on the occasion of a woman’s marriage.
Like all temples, only a select group of people were allowed into the inner sanctuary. Who was permitted to perform the most sacred rituals varied, as it did with many gods, between temples.
Music also seems to have played a role in religious practice. One writer detailed the careful practice of a choir in her temple, while another described dancing and revelry in her praise.
In many parts of Greece, Aphrodite’s chief festival was the Adonia, a commemoration of her love for Adonis. His death and her mourning were reenacted through funeral rituals and intense outpourings of emotion and grief.
While many of these practices were in keeping with what is known of the worship of other gods in Greece, Aphrodite also seems to have, in some places at least, been associated with the practice of sacred prostitution.
Some of these accounts seemed designed to shock readers, but the association between Aphrodite and sexuality lends credence to the idea that the physical act of love also played some role in her worship.