Aphrodite

She's the rapture of love-making, the consummation of sexual attraction--both inside and outside of marriage. She's also the bloom of gardens and bowers, the goddess of spring's return and budding flowers. Her names, whatever their mysterious origins (some assoicate the month April with Aphrodite's name), have given us words like 'aphrodisiac' and 'venereal'--indicative of both the positive and negative sides of her power.

For the Romans especially, she was often seen as the procreative force behind all the natural world and the GENETRIX (mother) of the Roman people, as, according to mythic tradition, descendants of the Trojan survivor Aeneas. The Roman poet Lucretius (1st c. BCE) begins his great philosophic poem on the nature of the universe with an invocation to her (as his 'Muse'): Aeneadum genetrix, hominum divomque voluptas, / alma Venus ['O mother of Aeneas' race (the Romans), delight of gods and humans, nurturing Venus']. He goes on to praise her as the cause of all the teeming life in the sea and on the earth--and as tamer/pacifier of the war god Mars, who becomes putty in her embrace. For Lucretius, Venus is a metaphor for nature itself. Greeks and Romans also identified her with the enchantment of peaceful seas and tranquil breezes--the sources of good sailing.

But in her major appearances in myths we see her primarily as the powers of love and sex --operating for good and ill--both within and without marriage. Therefore, since under patriarchal restrictions respectable female sexuality is supposed to operate only within marriage, many interpreters associate Aphrodite primarily with male sexual drive and with prostitution. Hence, Hesiod's possible pun on her Homeric epithet 'smile-loving' [philommeides]: 'loving male genitals' [philommedes]. Or perhaps, it is Hesiod who presents the older version, and Homer makes the epithet more 'respectable.' Men apparently did have, in at least some contexts, culturally permitted, if not sanctioned and encouraged, sexual outlets outside of marriage; the main limit in such encounters or affairs was that they must not involve another man's wife. When married women engaged in extramarital sexual relations, the repercussions and penalties could be extreme for both partners in the adulterous affair. Blundell's concluding comment on Aphrodite is that sex and motherhood didn't mix; powerful sexual desire was, from a male perspective, dangerous in wives and mothers. Aphrodite, then, is no model for married women. Phaedra is the prime example, but there are others: Helen, Clytaemestra, Medea, Apollo's unfaithful mistress Coronis, etc.

In her destructive aspect (mysterium tremendum), which is probably her prevalent aspect in Greek mythic literature, Aphrodite is the power that shatters marriage. The Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite understates the situation when it declares that Aphrodite leads astray even the mind of Zeus so that he 'forgets' his wife Hera (36-43). Zeus, as Ovid's Metamorphoses shows, is the very model of philandering--a rapist whose pursuits not only shatter the lives and happiness of numerous maidens and nymphs but also destroy the expectations of their fathers and homes. The power that Aphrodite (as an emblem for sexual passion) wields is the power to undo and destroy the foundation of Greek culture: the oikos, family or household. [She is also, of course, the attractive power (mysterium fascinans) that initiates marriage and offspring.] As Aristotle says, the polis, the city that is the public culmination and fulfillment of human society, is built upon oikoi, the private families that produce children for the polis' growth and preservation. And the institution at the center of the oikos is marriage. In her various aspects, Aphrodite both initiates/secures marriage and also destroys it.

Consider Hippolytus and the power Aphrodite exercises over all three of its main characters. Phaedra seeks to be the model wife; even when under Aphrodite's power, she calls upon Artemis and seeks honorable ways to control her 'mind-wandering sickness' (line 283): in succesion, the methods of restraint (self-control, sophrosyne), silence, and finally death. She would be the chaste wife and mother. She calls on Artemis ( 227) partly, of course, so that she might be where Hippolytus is--out in the wild, free from the restrictions imposed by marriage, household, and city. But she also seeks (through Artemis) the kind of purity and chastity proper to a wife. Euripides' contemporary, Socrates, was probably preaching at about this time the claim that the beginning of virtue is knowledge; knowing the good = the power to be good. Phaedra is a prime example of the opposite reality in the impotence of the mind to restrain the passions.

What about Theseus' sexuality? Under Aphrodite's power he has led the life of a typical mythic hero--not as prolific and promiscuous as Heracles, perhaps, but of the same sort. When the Chorus ponders the causes of Phaedra's sickness, one of the main possibilities is that Theseus is off pursuing another woman (151). And in some versions of the tale, he is indeed off with Pirithous trying to abduct Persephone from Hades while Phaedra is becoming infatuated with Hippolytus. Theseus has already had affairs (or worse) with Ariadne, Phaedra's sister, Helen, and the Amazon Antiope (or Hippolyte). Why is it that Theseus believes Phaedra's story rather than Hippolytus'--perhaps because Aphrodite is his model for sexuality. Phaedra's version of extra-marital sexual passion makes more sense to him than Hippolytus' abnormal and unnatural male chastity.

Which brings us to Hippolytus. He is an anomaly--the chaste male, who has sublimated his sexuality into devotion to Artemis. Yet what are the consequences of a young male's rejection of sex? Hippolytus has set up for himself, as his ideal setting, the virginal meadow, unspoiled by culture's tools and technology (71ff.); he locates himself outside of marriage and outside of the city. His anomalous position is partly the result of his illegitimacy and of his being the son of an equally civilization-less mother, an Amazon. Yet Theseus, in setting him up in Troezen, has apparently sought to integrate Hippolytus within the oikos and polis of that place of Theseus' own birth --apart from Theseus' Athenian family and city. Hippolytus' alternative life-style, however, is a rejection of these cultural norms. Hippolytus seeks to be a-familial and a-political--that is, to define himself apart from normal Greek cultural contexts. Aristotle suggests that a person without a polis is not really a person--more animal or divine than human--for human beings are born to be fulfilled, and to fulfill obligations, within a civic community. In one sense, Aphrodite's imperative in this play is Greek society's demand that men and women perform the functions of normal adult sexuality. Hippolytus' preference for chastity and the untamed meadow is equivalent to a rejection of the obligations of citizenship--to create or preserve an oikos and to advance the polis--to provide for the next generation. Hippolytus is the virginal man who resists being subdued by Aphrodite. Consequently he suffers the Oedipal failure and nightmare of being wrongly accused of incest with stepmother and killed by father. It apparently doesn't pay to deny Aphrodite. Some critics believe Euripides is simply out to 'castigate' Hippolytus for his rejection of the 'love-itch,' as Paul Roche terms it; rather, I think, Euripides also intends his audience to consider the potentially tragic effects of society's demands (in this case, as Aphrodite represents those demands and Theseus enforces them) upon individuals who 'go their own way.'

From Phaedra's angle, therefore, Aphrodite is the power to shatter a marriage and an oikos; from Hippolytus', she is the power that shatters an individual who refuses to submit to her power. Too much Aphrodite or too little--it doesn't seem to matter; you are doomed. As the Nurse says, 'Cypris, you are no God, / You are something stronger than God if that can be'--the power to ruin a house (359ff.). The play's structure makes the difference between Hippolytus and all the human characters starkly clear. Perhaps in violation of Aristotelian unity, the play seems unusually divided into two halves: a first half dominated by Aphrodite's control over Phaedra, and a second half dominated by the Artemis' hold on Hippolytus. Most editors and translators also assume that the conflicting demands of Aphrodite and Artemis would also be made visible at opposite ends of the performance area by the two goddesses' statues and/or altars. Moreover, the human characters work out their tragedy in between Aphrodite's appearance in the prologue and Artemis' in the play's 'exodus' -- both of them perhaps deae ex machina -- but not just awkward plot devices, rather emblems of the play's 'psychological divide.' Euripides is famous for his interest in the psychology of his characters--especially his female characters--but here that interest extends to Hippolytus as well. The play ends, like the Bacchae, with a rather literal sparagmos: the rending and mangling of its male lead into parts, the result of the unreconcilable demands of chastity and the 'sex-itch.'

A properly tamed sexuality (not often evident in Greek tragedy), however, can be a source of heroic progeny and political achievement. And that is the sexuality that is ultimately celebrated in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. The subduing of Aphrodite to her own power is Zeus' pay-back for the troubles she's caused in his marriage and for the loss of maiestas (greatness, dignity, elevation) that he has suffered by falling subject to her power. Zeus subjects Aphrodite to marriage and motherhood, i.e. to the institutions that define mortal women in Greek society. Zeus places the goddess' awesome power within the controlled and controlling context of an oikos, a household initiated by, and designed for, marriage and offspring. Therefore, the Hymn acknowledges Arphrodite's legitimate role within the institution of marriage: the force of sexual attraction that leads to procreation, the perpetuation of the family. And that is a social 'good' that in turn makes cities possible. The poem, to be sure, creates for her a pseudo-marriage (pseudo both because she is a god and because she is Aphrodite!), but the oikos that results is a real one. And the poem celebrates the power of love to mediate between both the wild and the civilized and the mortal and the immortal. The model of Anchises' fate is not the anomalous one of either Ganymede or Tithonus, but that of normal heroic society. Marriage is the institution that subdues and tames women (and sometimes men) by subordinating them to the interests of the family and the state. And Aphrodite, too, has her own special complex of roles to play (along with Hera, Artemis, and Hestia) in helping Greeks think about marriage and family.

Return to Supplements Page