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All lovers of classical mythology are familiar with Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty. Unfortunately, popular culture presents Aphrodite simply as a deity of petty desires. However contrary to such belief, Aphrodite was a unique and powerful deity whose influence was recognized in many areas of life. It is believed that Aphrodite was brought from Phoenicia to Greece by way of Cyprus. Phoenician colonists were known to bring her worship to Cyprus, Cytherea, and other islands along with their purple cloth dyes. This is reinforced in literature, as Aphrodite's mythical "home" is Cyprus. A monumental temple to Aphrodite also stands in Pathos on that island.
There are two versions of Aphrodite's birth. Hesiod's Theogony portrays Aphrodite as, being sprung from Uranus alone. Uranus, or Heaven, refused to allow his children to emerge into the light, and perpetually embraced the Earth, his wife Gaia and his son Cronus then castrated him with a sickle and threw his genitals into the sea, and so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden and out came an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call her Aphrodite because she grew amid the foam. This creation story is distinguished as that of Aphrodite Urania, or Celestial Aphrodite. Aphrodite Urania is a goddess of pure and spiritual love. The Urania birth story associates Aphrodite with the creation of the world and establishes her as one of the oldest divinities. As Aphrodite was born from the act that separated Heaven and Earth and created the world in between, she is present from the very beginning of time. The second story of Aphrodite's birth paints her as one of the younger divinities, and is closely connected with her later reputation as a minor goddess. In Homer's Iliad, Aphrodite was born from the union of Zeus with the Titan goddess Dione. This incarnation is referred to as Aphrodite Pandemos, or Common Aphrodite. Aphrodite Pandemos is the baser of the two goddesses, and is associated with physical satisfaction.
Although Aphrodite may seem insignificant in the presence of such deities as the sun-god Apollo or the warlike Athena, her power over love is revealed to be very influential upon closer examination. Aphrodite was very generous in using her powers to help her followers. She helped Meilanion gain Atalanta for his wife by giving him the golden apples that enabled him to distract and overtake Atalanta in a foot race. She had her son Eros strike Medea with one of his arrows so that she would fall in love with Jason of the Argonauts, which resulted in his overcoming her father Aeetes and gaining the Golden Fleece. She also cared for the orphaned daughters of Panderos and arranged for their marriages. Aphrodite also used her powers to destroy those who tried to disrupt or prevent the natural workings of love and sexuality. To punish Glaucus for refusing to let his mares breed, she caused the mares to throw him from his chariot during a race, after which they ate him. She caused the Sirens to grow wings as a result of their wishing to remain virgins. She also supported the Maenads' murder of Orpheus for condemning their promiscuity and advocating homosexual love.
In other instances, Aphrodite avenged other slights by causing the perpetrator to experience misfortune in the areas of love or beauty. After being insulted by six of Poseidon's sons, she struck them mad so that they raped their mother. She caused Aegus to be childless until he introduced her worship in Athens. When the women of Astypalaea angered her by claiming to be more beautiful than she, she made them grow cow horns. Clearly, Aphrodite's abilities were not simply some tools for creating petty loves. They were in fact a real instrument of power which could affect all beings. Without doubt, Aphrodite earned her reputation for foolishness and promiscuity as a result of her very liberated sexuality. However, this reputation was not so much a condemnation of her behavior as it was a fear of her uncontrollable nature. Aphrodite was one of the most unique of the Greek deities in the freedom of her sexual life. Aphrodite's charms came from her magic cestus, an embroidered girdle that, in both gods and men, aroused passion for the wearer. So great were Aphrodite's seductive abilities that every god, including the great Zeus, desired her as his wife. However, Aphrodite was too proud for any of her suitors and rejected them all. As a punishment, Zeus made her the wife of Hephaestus, the homely and lame smith-god. This union did nothing to curb Aphrodite's actions, and she discouraged Hephaestus from sharing her bed in addition to being unfaithful to him.
Perhaps the most celebrated of Aphrodite's affairs was her relationship with Ares, the god of war. Although such a union may at first seem incongruous, it is actually a match of two divinities of the same nature. Aphrodite, the beautiful maiden who attracts the attention of the most powerful of the gods only to decline him, refuses to be controlled by her marriage to Hephaestus--she will not be denied freedom in the area of her dominion. Likewise Ares, an overall rage ful and cowardly god, can never be predicted in his actions. Aphrodite's rebellious nature is reinforced by the creation of many children by her affair with Ares. In addition, Phobos and Deimos, Anteros, and Harmonia were even passed off as the offspring of Hephaestus. Unfortunately, the two were discovered by Helios, the sun, on an occasion when they slept too late. Helios told Hephaestus, who conspired to trap them. When Hephaestus heard the horrible tale, he went his way to his smithy, pondering evil in the deep of his heart, and set on the anvil block the great anvil and forged bonds which might not be broken or loosed, that the lovers might bide fast where they were.
Hephaestus' trap did nothing to deter Aphrodite from her extramarital activities, and the goddess had many children by both gods and mortals. Many of these children were associated with different aspects of love and sexuality. By Zeus she became the mother of Eros, the creator of sensual love. Eros often appeared as a winged infant equipped with a bow and a quiver full of love darts which never missed their mark and took effect on both god and man. His half-brother Anteros, son of Ares, punished those who failed to return the love of others. By Hermes she was the mother of Hermaphroditus, who was welded with a nymph into a body with both sexes. By Dionysus she had two sons, Hymen and Priapus. While Hymen was worshiped as the god of marriage, the monstrously ugly Priapus represented human lust. The most prominent of Aphrodite's mortal children was Aeneas, her son by the shepherd Anchises. Aeneas became the founder of the nation of Italy, and the mythical ancestor of the Roman people. Aphrodite's offspring show just how total her control over love and other passions truly was. Through her children, she had power over all areas of human emotion. As all people, despite their character or position in life, possessed some capacity for feeling, Aphrodite's influence was perhaps more widespread than that of any other god.
As proven by her actions in myth and her appearance in classical art, Aphrodite was a truly influential goddess. Despite the great misunderstanding of her by popular culture, she deserves appreciation as one of the most powerful and important Greek deities.