When Zeus needed a problem solved, he offered marriage to Aphrodite as a reward. Unfortunately, the winner was the god neither of them expected or wanted.
Aphrodite was in love with Ares, but was given in marriage to Hephaestus. The lame smith was a poor match for the goddess of beauty, and the marriage soon had problems.
When Aphrodite continued her love affair with Ares, Hephaestus caught them in the act and arranged for the entire pantheon to laugh at them.
The marriage ended in humiliation and scorn for the goddess, but there was a happy ending eventually. Hephaestus made a much better match with his second wife and Aphrodite and Ares were finally able to be together for good.
The story of Aphrodite’s marriage and divorce is more than just an amusing tale of Olympian gossip. It also contained lessons for the men of Greece on what type of woman, and man, made for a good spouse.
The story of Aphrodite’s marriage is one of the most memorable tales of the very human exploits of the gods of Olympus.
Aphrodite was a daughter of Uranus, born from sea foam when the Titans overthrew their father. When the Olympians took power she was accepted and, in the absence of her father, was brought under the dominion of Zeus.
The king of the gods gathered the Olympians together to discuss the marriage of Aphrodite. As both a king and her father-figure, Zeus had the authority to arrange her marriage and decided it was time Aphrodite had a husband.
The main contender for the role was the god of war, Ares. Though they seemed like an unlikely match, it was well-known that the two were deeply attracted to one another.
The meeting was interrupted, however, when Hera found herself unable to move from her throne. The seat had been a gift from her exiled son, Hephaestus, and when she sat in it she had been enveloped in unbreakable bonds.
None of the gods in attendance could break the fastenings and Zeus declared that Hephaestus must be brought before him to free his mother and answer for his trick. The one who brought Hephaestus to Olympus would be awarded Aphrodite’s hand.
Of course, it was assumed that Ares would be able to easily subdue his brother. Hephaestus was lame and Ares was confident that he could outfight him.
As was typical of his character, Ares charged into the lame smith’s workshop with no plan but to fight. He was driven off with a spray of molten metal and returned to Olympus in defeat.
Dionysus tried a different tactic. He approached Hephaestus with gifts of wine and, when the smith was suitable intoxicated, proposed a plan that was much more favorable than being brought before Zeus in chains.
Dionysus convinced Hephaestus to turn himself in and go to Olympus of his own volition.
Zeus was surprised when Hephaestus willingly released Hera, but even more surprised when he demanded his reward. As the one who had brought himself before Zeus, he was entitled to marry Aphrodite.
Zeus was the ruler over all laws and he could not argue that under the conditions he had set Hephaestus did, in fact, have a claim to Aphrodite. The goddess of beauty was married to a god who had been expelled from Olympus because he was deformed.
Aphrodite was predictably unhappy with this arrangement. Displeased with her marriage, she continued her affair with Ares.
Their trysts did not remain a secret for long. Eventually Helios, who saw everything that happened on earth and Olympus from his position in the sky, told Hephaestus what was happening.
The smith made use of his unbreakable chains once again, fashioning a fine net to hang over the bed he shared with his wife. He laid his trap and told Aphrodite that he was taking a trip to visit earth.
As soon as he left, Aphrodite sent word to her lover. Ares arrived at the palace of Hephaestus in moments.
When the pair went to bed together, the trap Hephaestus had set was sprung. The unbreakable net fell onto them, trapping them in place.
Hephaestus had, of course, not gone to earth. He had been waiting to catch his unfaithful wife.
Not only did Hephaestus catch Ares and Aphrodite in bed together, he decided to further their humiliation by calling the rest of the Olympians to come see them. The goddesses demurely stayed away, but many of the gods came to see the spectacle.
Poseidon alone took pity on Aphrodite and pleaded for clemency for Ares. They were freed and each retreated into hiding to avoid embarrassment.
Hephaestus and Aphrodite parted ways. He entered into a second marriage to Aglaea, one of the Graces, and was by all accounts much happier with his new wife.
Ares and Aphrodite seemed to have continued their relationship, although it was not clear whether they were considered married. They went on to have many children together and were often shown together, for example when they fought on the same side in the Trojan War.
Other Greek goddesses fit this type as well, but unlike them Aphrodite’s domains were not restricted to marriage and motherhood. Unlike Hera, Demeter, or Gaia, Aphrodite was characterized by attractiveness and the physical act of procreation.
It is likely that the story of her marriage to Hephaestus arose out of older folklore. It may have served as an explanation to bridge the divide between different traditions regarding the goddess’s marriage by having her marry one partner and leave him for another.
It is tempting to see the story as evidence of Aphrodite’s significance in regards to her role as a fertility goddess, though.
While Hera represented the perfect wife and Demeter was a highly-devoted mother, Aphrodite’s role as a sexual goddess made her ill-suited for traditional married life. She was driven by desire and pleasure, not loyalty or matrimonial vows.
Marriage in Greek culture, particularly among the upper classes, was often arranged without regards for the feelings of the couple, particularly the bride. Marriages of convenience or for political gain had little to do with love or attraction.
Aphrodite was placed into such a marriage herself. While the ideal Greek woman would have been faithful to her husband, however, Aphrodite chose to follow her domain of love and desire.
This would have been an option for men in the Greek world, but not for women. In fact, several texts treat the issue of extramarital affairs by men as a matter of fact rather than an exceptional or frowned-upon occurrence.
As the subject of the male gaze, Aphrodite had all the attributes a Greek man would have desired in a mistress. The story of her marriage, however, showed that beauty could be a negative trait in a wife as it would, in the Greek way of thinking, make her more likely to be unfaithful to her husband.
The role of Ares has another interpretation in the context of the story.
Greek myths often featured the god of war in embarrassment or defeat as a way of minimizing his power and, thus, his threat.
The story of Aphrodite’s marriage mocks Ares twice. First he is driven away by a lame smith, then he is captured in a compromising situation and publicly ridiculed.
Ares was Aphrodite’s choice of lover because he was physically attractive, but the story makes it a point to make a fool of him nonetheless. By having the god of war outdone by the most physically imperfect god, the story continues the tradition of making Ares less intimidating.
The story can also be taken as a condemnation of Hephaestus himself.
The Greeks valued perfection and attractiveness, both in their gods and in people. Hephaestus had been thrown from Olympus because his physical imperfections reflected poorly on the entire divine community of gods.
He had returned, however, to claim Aphrodite’s hand through trickery and a distorted interpretation of Zeus’s decree. In Greek culture, a deformed and deceitful man would have been entirely unworthy of marrying such a great beauty.
As much as the story serves as a condemnation of the unlawful and immoral actions of Aphrodite and Ares, it also serves as a warning to men, like Hephaestus, who would try to marry too far above their station.
Aphrodite was a goddess of love, but her marriage to Hephaestus was famously unhappy.
Hephaestus won Aphrodite’s hand by exploiting a loophole in Zeus’s decree that the goddess would be given in marriage to the one who brought him to Olympus. Zeus had intended for Hephaestus to be brought in captivity, but by turning himself in Hephaestus, by the letter of the law if not the spirit, was able to claim Aphrodite as his wife.
Aphrodite, however, had wanted Ares to win the contest. Although she was married, she continued her affair with him.
They were caught by Hephaestus after he learned of their trysts from Helios. He not only captured them beneath an unbreakable net while they were in bed together, but invited the other gods of Olympus to witness their humiliation.
That event marked the end of Aphrodites’s unhappy and short-lived marriage. In stories set after the fact she was the consort, if not the wife, of Ares instead.
The marriage of Aphrodite may have served to unite opposing myths about the goddess. If two traditions differed in regards to her marriage, they could be explained by having her divorce her first husband for another.
The story also illustrates important lessons about the gods involved.
Aphrodite was the ideal woman in many ways, but the story shows that she was a poor choice of wife. Love and attraction were not necessary in the arranged marriages of the ancient world, and there was a caution that a desirable wife could lead to trouble rather than happiness.
The story makes it a point to humiliate Ares on multiple occasions. Even in a legend in which he is loved, having Ares be overpowered and humiliated was an important motif in Greek mythology to symbolically reduce the threat of war.
Finally, the story reflects poorly upon Hephaestus as well. By using deceit to marry a woman he was unworthy of, there was an implication that he brought his unhappiness upon himself.