My song shall be of Aphrodite, queenly, golden-crowned and beautiful. Hers are the strong-walled towns of sea-washed Cyprus, where the West Wind, moist and warm, once carried her in downy foam across the rolling, moaning sea. Gladly the goldenribboned Seasons welcomed her and clothed her in a heavenly dress. On her immortal head they set a golden crown, well-wrought and beautiful; in her pierced ears they placed jewelry of gold and mountain-copper; and at her soft throat and her radiant breasts they hung gold necklaces, such as the golden-ribboned Seasons themselves wear when they go to their father’s house to dance the sensuous dances of the gods. When they had finished dressing her, they led her to the gods. They were enchanted at the sight, each stretching out his hands to her, each praying that he might take her home to be his wedded bride, breathless in his wonder at her beauty.
Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, On the west coast of Cyprus, the low headland at Paphos shimmers like a mirage in the baking sun. Nothing moves. And yet the air pulsates. It pulsates to the rhythm of dry cicadas’ screams as they drill their parched crescendo with increasing fervour through the searing heat in desperation to attract a mate. It pulsates in the rock-cut tombs, and in the theatre’s dusty bowl; it pulsates on the empty ancient streets, the crumbling cairns, the heavy palm trees. It pulsates in the rustling vibration of scorched grasses.
It is too hot, too merciless to stay here. Rather, we should drive south, out of modern Paphos with its garish bars and noisy nightclubs, down through the concrete cubes of Yeroskipou until, a little way past Kouklia, we reach the sea. Here, we shall scramble down the sandy dunes to the white-pebbled beach. The sea is turquoise. A lazy swell rolls slowly from the far horizon, curving closer, arcing until – with the softest sigh – its ripples stroke the shore. Only where the stack of rock thrusts unyielding from the waves does the sea foam, frothing and fermenting round the jagged base. It is a hypnotic place, a place of magic. For it was here from this white spume that many Greeks believed the goddess Aphrodite first rose dripping from the waves.
The Birth of Aphrodite
Aphrodite (‘Foam-Born’), goddess of desire and sex, was conceived when Cronus castrated Ouranus, his father. The severed genitals fell into the sea, froth effervesced around them, and Aphrodite first rose, naked and magnificent, standing on a scallop shell. Some said the shell conveyed her first to Cythera off southwest Greece, but, finding the island too insignificant, she continued on to Cyprus. Here she came ashore at the beach now called Petra tou Romiou (‘The Greeks’ Rocks’) near Palaepaphos, a few miles south of modern Paphos. The sixth-century bc poet Anacreon imagined Aphrodite returning here to swim:
Photo Gallery Paphos: Garden of Aphrodite
Paphos: Garden of Aphrodite Images
Like a lily in a garland of violets, she shimmered on the glassy sea, while on dolphin-back the wily Eros and care-free Desire rode the metallic waves, and troupes of fish arced, sinuous, beneath the waters, playing with the Paphian goddess as she swam
The birth of Aphrodite: the goddess reclines on her scallop shell while Erotes gambol around her, on a fresco from Pompeii’s ‘Casa di Venus’.
But Homer knew another account. For him, Aphrodite was born at Dodona in Epirus, the daughter of Zeus and Dione, a local goddess, whose name is simply a form of Zeus’ own. During fighting in the Iliad, when Aphrodite, her wrist injured, runs to her mother, Dione, for comfort, Zeus advises her: ‘War is not your vocation, child! Look to love and marriage, and leave fighting to swift Ares and Athene!’
Two Aphrodites, Two Erotes?
Some Greeks argued that there were in fact two Aphrodites, a notion explored in Plato’s Symposium, where a lawyer called Pausanias argues that there is a ‘Heavenly’ Aphrodite, born from the waves, and a ‘Common’ (or ‘Pandemic’) Aphrodite, born from Zeus and Dione. ‘Heavenly’ Aphrodite, born from Cronus’ genitals without a mother, inspired pure love and was manifested in homosexual desire. ‘Common’ Aphrodite, being the product of both male and female parents, was responsibile for heterosexual love – and, because this goddess was younger and more immature, Pausanias argued that her form of love was arbitrary and superficial.
A similar duality affected Eros (plural, Erotes), Aphrodite’s male companion god of lust. For Hesiod, he was the oldest of all gods, born at the dawn of time, and in mystic Orphism he was the son of Night and Erebus (Darkness). More commonly, however, Eros, with his bow and arrows ready to pierce his victims’ hearts with love, was said to be the son of Aphrodite, a young winged cupid, smiling and amoral, the product of his mother’s adultery with Ares, god of war.