Almost every culture of the ancient world had a perfectly beautiful goddess who was associated with love and procreation. It was a constant archetype in mythology and continues to be a trope in modern literature.
The Greek version of this goddess was Aphrodite. She epitomised the traits considered desirable in a Greek woman.
She was beautiful, regal, and charming. She and her children had power over love and desire.
Aphrodite could be a jealous goddess who punished those who angered her, but she was still seen as so physically perfect that no man could resist her charms.
The goddess of beauty is an ancient archetype, but how was it introduced to the Greek world? The iconography of Aphrodite shows us that she was just one in a long line of beautiful but dangerous love goddesses.
Aphrodite is generally described as the goddess of beauty.
She was certainly described in those terms. Ancient writers depicted Aphrodite as desirable and regal, clothed in finery and rich jewels.
In art, the belief in Aphrodite’s beauty was just as apparent. All gods were portrayed as idealized and perfectly proportioned, but Aphrodite was noteworthy for having all the attributes of the ideal feminine form.
She was young and slender, but with feminine curves. She was frequently shown nude or only semi-clothed to further emphasize the attractiveness of her form.
Aphrodite was most famously declared the most beautiful of the Olympian goddesses when Paris was given the chance. While she, Athena, and Hera all bribed the prince as well, it was always implied that Aphrodite was the victor for her attractiveness as well as her promise of the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.
Aphrodite represented more than just beauty. As the embodiment of the perfect female, she also represented the emotions that such beauty could inspire. She had the power to inspire Helen to love Paris to keep her promise to him.
Aphrodite was a goddess of love, specifically romantic and sexual attraction. Her son Eros caused people to fall in love with one another, but he usually did so at his mother’s express command.
Aphrodite often used this power to punish her enemies by making them fall in love with poor matches, even monsters. Aphrodite was a goddess of love, but she could also be jealous and vindictive.
She was attended by the Erotes, personifications of the specific types of love who were also said to be her sons. They included spirits of unrequited love, desire, and flattery.
Her daughter and companion, Peitho, was the goddess of persuasion. In association with Aphrodite, this more specifically meant seduction.
Aphrodite was not just a deity of love, but was the goddess of sexuality, pleasure, and procreation.
Unlike many fertility goddesses, Aphrodite was not strongly associated with marriage. In fact, one of her most famous myths describes her extramarital affair with Ares and how she was eventually caught in the act by her husband, Hephaestus.
Aphrodite was not an embodiment of the ideal wife, but rather of the ideal sexual partner. To most Greeks marriage was an institution of necessity, not love, so Aphrodite represented the type of woman that Greek men would pursue outside of their marriages.
She was not meant to be a goddess of the home. Aphrodite was a goddess of pleasure rather than domesticity.
Of course, the Greeks were not the only ancient culture to worship a goddess who embodied female beauty and physical attraction.
The beautiful female goddess of love is a widespread archetype in mythology, one that is embodied in the Near Eastern goddess Inanna.
The Sumerian Inanna was worshipped by the cultures of Babylon, Akkad, and Assyria under the name Ishtar. The Canaanites called her Astarte.
Under her various names Inanna had a similar mythology and iconography. Like Aphrodite and the Roman Venus, this goddess had been adopted by the region’s neighboring cultures and made their own.
Inanna was what historians refer to as a trans-functional goddess. She had many meanings and domains, which allowed her to touch on nearly all aspects of human life.
One of Inanna’s domains was that of love and beauty. She was shown and described as exceptionally beautiful, youthful, and well-dressed.
Under the name Astarte or Astaroth, this goddess was spread through the eastern Mediterranean by Bronze Age traders. The Phoenicians, who also introduced writing to the lands of Greece, worshipped their own version of the Sumerian goddess.
Early images of Aphrodite are almost indistinguishable from those of the Phoenician Astarte. Originally Aphrodite carried some of her eastern counterpart’s connotations of war and violence as well, explaining some of Aphrodite’s darker epithets in Greece and her association with Ares.
The Phoenicians traded with the Minoans, the ancient people of pre-Greek Crete, as early as the 20th century BC. They influenced that culture’s religion, which is through to have been spread to mainland Greece through both commerce and conquest.
The Phoenicians also traded with the Mycenaeans, the first major culture to develop on the Peloponisian peninsula. The Mycenaeans established control over much of the region as the Minoan civilization declined, and were acknowledged even in antiquity as the forefathers of Greek culture.
Through these civilizations, the Phoenicians exerted economic and cultural influence over the region for over a thousand years. They helped to shape the foundations of Greek art, law, and religion.
Most historians agree that many of the Greek deities originated with those of the Phoenicians, which in turn had been largely adopted from Babylon, Sumer, Assyria, and the other ancient civilizations of the Near East.
The link between the Greek goddess of love and the Sumerian is just one example of the way in which religious archetypes spread through the Mediterranean. Just as the Minoans and Mycenaeans had put their own regional variation on the goddess, so too would the Romans eventually adopt the Greek Aphrodite as their own Venus.
Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of beauty and all the emotions it excited.
She was portrayed as an idealized young woman with perfect features. While writers often described her as finely clothed in the style of a noble woman, artists often showed her in the nude to further showcase her perfect figure.
As the representative of ideal beauty, Aphrodite was the goddess of love and romance in the Greek world as well. Her son Eros had the power to make people fall in love, which Aphrodite used to both reward her favorites and punish those who angered her.
The love Aphrodite represented was often a particularly sexual one. She was the goddess of passion and pleasure who was associated with the act of procreation more than maternalism or marriage.
Aphrodite almost certainly developed from an ancient Near Eastern goddess, who was herself a form of an even more ancient love goddess archetype. This figure was brought to the region by Phoenician traders and settlers who influenced the pre-Greek cultures of the Mediterranean.
This adoption and evolution would continue through the ages. Just as the Greeks had adopted the Phoenician goddess, who in turn had been adopted from earlier Mesopotamian cultures, the Romans would later adapt Aphrodite as the goddess Venus.