Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility in Greek mythology. To her followers, Aphrodite represented the power of physical love and desire. She was a popular goddess, worshiped throughout the Greek world. She also inspired many works of art and literature. The myrtle was Aphrodite’s special tree, and the dove was her sacred bird. In Rome, she was known as Venus.
Two myths tell about the birth of Aphrodite. In one, she emerged fully grown from the foam of the sea (aphros in Greek) and washed ashore. In another story, told by the poet Homer, she was the daughter of Zeus, the supreme ruler of the gods, and the goddess Dione. Aphrodite married Hephaestus (called Vulcan by the Romans), the blacksmith to the gods.
* mortal human being; one who eventually will die
Aphrodite had several lovers, including Ares, the god of war, and the handsome youth Adonis. Despite Aphrodite’s efforts to protect Adonis from harm, he was killed by a wild boar (probably Aphrodite’s jealous husband) while hunting. Aphrodite’s love for the mortal* Anchises of Troyresulted in the birth of a son, called Aeneas, who became a great Trojan warrior and the subject of Vergil’s epic poem, the Aeneid.
Aphrodite’s connection with the city of Troy appears again in a story known as the Judgment of Paris. According to the story, a golden apple marked “for the fairest,” or most beautiful, was left at a wedding banquet by an uninvited guest, the goddess of Discord. The goddesses Hera, Athena,and Aphrodite each claimed the apple. To settle the dispute, Zeus sent the goddesses to Paris, the handsome Trojan prince.
Each goddess offered Paris a special gift to win his favor. Hera said she would make him a great ruler; Athena offered to help the Trojans in battle; and Aphrodite promised to give him the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose Aphrodite and presented the golden apple to her. Keeping her promise, Aphrodite helped Paris take the beautiful Helen away from her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta. This led to the Trojan War, which the Greeks fought to bring Helen back.
During the Trojan War, Aphrodite supported Troy, and sometimes came to the city’s aid. In the Iliad, Homer describes a battle in which Menelaus seized Paris by the helmet and started to drag him away. Aphrodite rescued Paris by loosening the bindings of his helmet so that it fell off. Then she enclosed him in a mist and transported him home to safety.
According to some legends, Aphrodite’s birth in the sea occurred near the islands of Cythera and Cyprus. These islands were sacred to Aphrodite, and each had important temples dedicated to the goddess. One of the Homeric Hymns describes Aphrodite as having arisen from the “delicate foam” and carried on the “breath of the wet wind” to Cyprus.
Aphrodite’s beauty inspired great works of art, among them a statue at Cnidus made by Praxiteles in about 350 B.C., and another famous statue, known as the Venus de Milo, which dates from the 150s B.C. In addition, several Greek poets described Aphrodite’s extraordinary beauty and her influence in matters of love. (See also Divinities; Mars.)