It is generally accepted that the Greek goddess Aphrodite derives from an ancient Near Eastern predecessor such as the Sumerian/Akkadian goddess of love and war, Inanna/Ishtar. Parallels between Sumerian and Greek literature including similarities between the circumstances of Aphrodite’s birth myth and components of the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh are evident, particularly in regards to scenes concerning Ishtar where, not only is she thematically similar to Aphrodite, but the activity being performed by her is also very close to later Aphroditean scenes in Greek literature such as the Iliad and Odyssey.
Aphrodite also shares ritual similarities such as incense altars and dove sacrifices with the Near Eastern goddess Astarte (a Greek version of Ishtar) on Cyprus. The themes associated with these goddesses are: descent from a sky god, youthful beauty, conspicuous sexuality, influence over human and animal procreation, vegetative lushness, and warfare. This type of goddess is also a patroness of prostitution and never appears in the role of wife or mother, perhaps because she is closely associated with men and their interests. In myth she appears as a dominant female whose male consort tends to suffer death or disaster in some form.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite is born from the testicles of heaven - the sky god Ouranos – and the sea. Her birth results when Kronos, son of Ouranos, castrates his father with a sickle and throws the testicles away. The blood from the wound falls on Earth and generates the Erinyes, Giants and Ash-tree Nymphs while...
The genitals, cut off with admant
And thrown from land into the stormy sea,
Were carried for a long time on the waves.
White foam surrounded the immortal flesh,
And in it grew a girl. At first it touched
On holy Cythera, from there it came
To Cyprus, circled by the waves. And there
The goddess came forth, lovely, much revered,
And grass grew up beneath her delicate feet.
Her name is Aphrodite among men
And gods, because she grew up in the foam,
And Cytherea, for she reached that land,
And Cyprogenes from the stormy place
Where she was born, and Philommedes from
The genitals, by which she was conceived.
Eros is her companion; fair Desire
Followed her from the first, both at her birth
And when she joined the company of the gods.
From the beginning, both among gods and men,
She had this honour and received this power:
Fond murmuring of girls, and smiles, and tricks,
And sweet delight, and friendliness and charm.
Interestingly, Aphrodite is not born from an act of sexual love between embodied deities, but from an act of violence: as a result of the rupture of conjoined heaven and earth. Associating sexuality with aggression and violence has Near Eastern precedents as is depicted on Syrian and Babylonian cylinder seals where erotic encounters between divine females and males are accompanied by scenes of human and animal violence, bringing sexuality and danger together. Ouranos’ severed testicles evoke associations ranging from the beginning of time brought about by the separation of the primordial couple, to the two-sided coin of dual compulsion and trepidation toward sex.
Both Aphrodite and the Sumerian Inanna/Ishtar were daughters of the sky god and goddesses of sexuality, in Aphrodite’s case Hesiod has her born right out of Ouranos’ testicles, whereas while there is a parallel for the castration of Inanna’s father Anu by Kumarbi in the Enuma Elish, it does not result in her birth. The combination of Sumerian literary parallels in the Theogony, the mention of Aphrodite’s Cypriot birth place and her very primal, rather threatening birth myth indicate that Hesiod perceived her as a pre-Olympian independent ‘Eastern’ goddess. As the daughter of Ouranos, the Hesiodic Aphrodite is two generations older than Olympian Zeus and, we can assume, independent from him.
The fifth Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (author unknown), while explicitly mentioning her Cypriot origin and hinting at the goddess’s Near Eastern characteristics such her power over all creatures including wild animals and her association with the Phrygian mountain and hence the goddess Kybele, also involves a subduing of this once-dangerous goddess of sex. While the first five lines of the Hymn tell us how all beings are under the sway of Aphrodite’s power, we then find that three goddesses – Athene, Artemis and Hestia - are not actually able to be swayed by her because they do not involve themselves in sex. The Hymn seems to be a turning point in Aphrodite’s sphere of influence: up until now she has been able to cause whomever she chose to couple, disregarding the bonds of marriage and the vertical hierarchy between immortals and mortals: ‘nothing has escaped Aphrodite, either of the blessed gods, or of mortal men. She even led astray the mind of Zeus…’. Whereas in Hesiod, Aphrodite preceded Zeus and was independent of him, in the Hymn she becomes a ‘daughter of Zeus’ and is thus subject to his power. Somehow, perhaps simply because Zeus is the god ‘who is the greatest and has the greatest honour’, he is able to use Aphrodite’s own power against her to teach her a lesson – to subdue her and reign her in under his control so that he is not under hers. ‘He wanted to bring it about as soon as possible that not even she was set apart from a mortal bed…’
Aphrodite’s demotion in the Hymn is extreme. It is not toward one of her own kind - an immortal - that Zeus causes Aphrodite to yearn, but to a mortal: the Trojan youth, Anchises – she even becomes pregnant to him. While the goddesses thought to be Aphrodite’s Near Eastern counterparts had mortal love interests who died, such as Adonis who later became associated with Aphrodite as well, these were not forced upon them nor did the goddesses become pregnant. In Greek mythology it was a great hardship for immortal goddesses (and gods) to be parents to mortals because the mortals invariably died, so Zeus is teaching Aphrodite the worst kind of love lesson for a god, the one that involves contact with death.
Aphrodite’s power over wild animals on Mount Ida evokes the Phrygian goddess Kybele, ‘Mother of the Mountain’ (although she was not a mother at all), whose young lover Attis castrated himself. Recalling Aphrodite’s Hesiodic birth myth with its explicit castration scene and allusions to the Near Eastern idea of the equivalence of sex and danger, it seems more than coincidence that in the Hymn Anchises fears being ‘unmanned’ after having sex with Aphrodite. Whether we think of this state of ‘unmanning’ as being completely emptied of male virility or as literally castrated as was Attis, the general theme of post-sexual debilitation - hence danger and risk for the male - is present. The inclusion in the Hymn of the stories of Ganymede – a boy who will never mature – and Tithonos – a man who is perpetually incapacitated - further emphasise the theme of the male who is unable to achieve or maintain virility and/or generate children. While this is the kind of result a mortal male may have risked in an encounter with a Near Eastern goddess of sex such as in the case of Gilgamesh and Ishtar: ‘What bridegroom of yours did endure forever?’ or with a Hesiodic Aphrodite, in the Hymn Anchises obtains the very opposite of this. Aphrodite assures him that he will incur ‘no harm from me or the other blessed ones’, in addition he will become the father of ‘a dear son who will rule over the Trojans, as will the children born to his continually’. (This son will be Aeneas, from Virgil’s Aeneid fame). The dangerous, violent, unmanning Near Eastern goddess has done a complete turn about and now bestows fatherhood, progeny and illustrious lineage. Aphrodite has been chastised and controlled by Zeus, in the Hymn she is regretful, knows that her power has been diminished and that she has been brought to the same level as the other gods whom she used to control.
In Homer’s Iliad, while Aphrodite sides with Troy recalling her associations with Phrygia and the Near East, she is fully assimilated into the Olympian pantheon. Aphrodite is now explicitly the ‘daughter of Zeus’ and instead of being born from Ouranos and the sea, at line 330 of the Iliad we discover a mother, ‘Dione’, a female version of Zeus. There is a parallel to Ishtar in Sumerian literature here who, when spurned by Gilgamesh, goes up to heaven and weeps before her father Anu and a female form of her father, ‘Antu’. While Aphrodite played a major role in the circumstances that brought about the Trojan War, unlike the Hesiodic Aphrodite or her Near Eastern predecessors, the Iliad’s Aphrodite is neither dangerous, nor warlike. Although we know Aphrodite was associated with war in both myth from the Odyssey and in iconography, in the Iliad she is hopeless in battle. A mortal, Diomedes, is actually able to insult and physically injure her, Zeus explicitly tells her ‘No, my child, not for you are the works of warfare. Rather concern yourself with the lovely secrets of marriage…’, and Athene, goddess of war, hits her. Aphrodite’s weakness and unsuitability for warfare verges on the comical and she seems destined to be restricted to the role of beautiful Olympian daughter concerned only with attractiveness, sex and deception. While there is still a theme of sex and death in the background, Aphrodite seems inconvenient and pesky rather than directly dangerous.
In the Odyssey as well, the character of Aphrodite appears in a scene that has undertones of the Near Eastern goddess themes of sexuality and violence, but is mixed in with a comical treatment. Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite who have been having an affair are caught in a net by Aphrodite’s husband, Hephaestus. Having Aphrodite married to Hephaestus in the first place – a very clever but physically deformed god of fire and metalworking – diminishes her somewhat in that the couple are not visually physically compatible – unlike Aphrodite and Ares - although the marriage may refer to her association with copper smelting on Cyprus, or her epithet ‘golden’. Aphrodite becomes the object of laughter because of Hephaestus’ trap and while it is not derisive laughter and one of Aphrodite’s epithets is ‘lover of laughter’, this is an example of the harmless figure she appears as in Homer. Aphrodite is an object of desire for the other male Olympians and the only threat she offers is to the institution of marriage.
As we have seen in the above examples of the depiction of Aphrodite in archaic Greek literature, she has indeed been transformed from an ancient Near Eastern goddess of sex and war into a weak and unthreatening goddess associated with sexual desire and beauty. Although the Hymn to Aphrodite is compositionally later than Hesiod’s Theogony and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, thematically it can be seen to form a bridge between them as author of The Politics of Olympus, Jenny Strauss Clay suggests, though whether this was the intention of the original author cannot be known. The sequence of the transformation from a dangerous, powerful goddess of sexuality to an easily controlled object of men’s desire evident in the progression from Near Eastern myth, to the Theogony, the Hymn, the Iliad and the Odyssey indicates that while Aphrodite as goddess of sexual love was required for inclusion within the Olympian pantheon, her ‘Eastern’ characteristics were felt to be unacceptable. An Olympian Aphrodite needed to be submissive to the authority of Father Zeus, not vice versa, and it is the Hellenisation (making Greek) of Aphrodite and her incorporation into the Olympian pantheon that strips her – as she once stripped men - of her power.