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Aphrodite. Goddess of Love and Desire. Aphrodite. Aphrodite was the goddess of love, symbolizing intoxicating sexuality and beauty. The word for a sudden, irresistible urge is “an aphrodite” – “I have an aphrodite for some chocolate and if I don’t get some soon I’ll die!”

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Goddess of Love and Desire



Aphrodite was the goddess of love, symbolizing intoxicating sexuality and beauty.

The word for a sudden, irresistible urge is “an aphrodite” – “I have an aphrodite for some chocolate and if I don’t get some soon I’lldie!”

She was the only goddess portrayed nude in Greek art (where male nudity was normal but female nudity was exceptional).

She violated many of the most basic social limitations on women.


she was famous for her affair with Ares, and was more often shown with him than with her husband in Greek and Roman art.

Married to Hephaestus,


She also had affairs with mortals, acting more like a god than a goddess:

Anchises, by whom she bore the Trojan hero Aeneas, who later founded Rome, and

Adonis, who was killed by a wild boar during a hunt.

Her affair with Ares produced Eros, and her affair with Hermes produced Hermaphroditus.

Not your average housewife.


Aphrodite’s birth

  • There are two competing stories of her origins. Probably most Greeks didn’t worry about this “conflict.”
  • Aphrodite Urania (heavenly Aphrodite):
  • Hesiod tells us she is born from the severed genitals of Uranus and sea-foam (aphros). So she was:
  • older than the gods
  • born from elemental priciples, with no mother but the sea
  • sister to the Furies and forest nymphs

Aphrodite Pandemos (Aphrodite of the people)

  • Homer (and most other sources) show Aphrodite as the daughter of Zeus by Dione (whose name means simply “goddess” and who never appears again). So she is:
  • integrated into the Olympic family, subject to her father’s authority
  • a little wild, feminine and frivolous

Aphrodite, Eros and Pan - ca. 100 B.C. E.


The Graces and the Horae

These are the companions of Aphrodite.

Greek myth abounds with female groups.

The Graces and Horae show the Greek tendency to personify ideas, and also to envision a “collective feminine.”


The pleasing, sensuous motif of Aphrodite adorned by the Graces and Horae remains powerful in Greek art: a characteristic moment.

Roman Mosaic from Tunis, 3rd c. CE

I shall sing about beautiful and revered Aphrodite of the golden crown, who holds as her domain the battlements of sea-girt Cyprus. The moist force of the west wind brought her there amidst the soft foam on the waves of the resounding sea. The gold-bedecked Horae gladly received her and clothed her in divine garments. On her immortal head they placed a crown of gold . . .


Aphrodite’s rising from the sea is another common image. Though she is not a sea goddess, the lush watery images are very sexual.

In her pierced ears, they placed flowers of copper and precious gold. About her soft neck and silvery breasts they adorned her with necklaces of gold, the kind that beautify the Horae themselves when they go to the home of their father. Then they led her to the immortals, who took her into their welcoming hands, and each god prayed that she would be his wedded wife and he would bring her home . . .


Here is the same motif in a Celtic-influenced stele from England. The goddess and her nymphs are evocative in many cultures.


Origins of Aphrodite

Goddess of love and sex, associated with the ocean and the East (Cyprus), and also with the morning star (the planet Venus), Aphrodite may be linked with other Eastern goddesses, especiallyInanna.


Like Aphrodite, Inanna was a goddess of sexual pleasure (shown here with her consort Dumuzi), associated with the morning star. She had further importance as a goddess of the date palm (agricultural fertility), warfare, and the communal storehouse.

Shown here with the lion (her rejected lover?) and emblems of war, Inanna looks very different from “Golden Aphrodite”

What other goddess is seen with lions?


But she had similar cultural functions. Tivka Frymer-Kensky observes,

“[The] goddess Inanna . . . serves the important role of modeling a role that women were not expected to fill and that was not considered socially desirable. She represents the nondomesticated woman, and exemplifies all the fear and attraction that such a woman elicits. She is the exception to the rule, the woman who does not behave in societally approved ways. . .

What Greek goddesses are associated with owls and wild animals?


“[She is] a woman in a man’s life . . . dangerous, fearsome and threatening because of her freedom, and yet, at the same time, appealing and attractive . . . the ultimate femme fatale” (25, 29).

Aphrodite’s marital infidelity, leisured indulgence of her own beauty, liaisons with not only other gods but mortals too, and independent life, were anathema to a woman’s role in the real Greek family.

But both men and women loved and honored her . . .



Sappho was the foremost female poet of the Greek world, called “The Tenth Muse.” Her poetry portrays Aphrodite as a powerful, often supportive and loving, but also unpredictable goddess. The relationship between poet and goddess seems almost intimate.

Sappho and Alcaeus, 5 c BCE Athenian vase painting


Sappho’s hymn to Aphrodite

Exquisitely enthroned, immortal Aphrodite, weaver of charms, child of Zeus, I beg you, reverend lady, do not crush my heart with sickness and distress. But come to me here, if ever once before you heard my cry from afar and listened and, leaving your father’s house, yoked your chariot of gold. Beautiful birds drew you swiftly from heaven over the black earth through the air between the rapid flutter of their downy wings.


“Who, Sappho, has wronged you? For if she runs away now, soon she will follow; if she rejects your gifts, she will bring gifts herself; if she does not now, soon she will love, even though she does not wish it.”

Come to me now too and free me from my harsh anxieties; all my heart longs for, accomplish. You, your very self, stand with me in my conflict.

Swiftly they came and you, O blessed goddess, smiling in your immortal beauty asked what I wished to happen most of all in my frenzied heart. “Who is it this time that you desire that Persuasion entice to your love?



The most common offering to Aphrodite was a dove: the sacrifice was individual and private, not public. This reflects a sense of intimacy in worshipping her.

This Roman wall painting shows a small private shrine to Venus in a woodland setting.


A woman worshipper with a tympanon (signifying ecstatic celebration) and an image of the goddess …



Aphrodite also had significant public sanctuaries, which were both sacred sites and tourist attractions. One was Cnidus.

Emperor Hadrian’s reconstruction of the Cnidus temple for his own private villa

At this site, the famous cult statue was displayed in the midst of an open, circular temple. The goddess moved everyone with her beauty, showing her sexual power – or was she an objectified female in a voyeuristic setting? The conflicting readings are so common in trying to understand sexuality in this patriarchal culture.


The cult statue of Cnidus was famous and much admired, therefore much copied, but we have only a fragment of a Roman copy preserved.

Late Classical* Aphrodite of Cnidos torso (fragment of Greco-Roman copy after cult statue by Praxiteles – original ca. 350-340 B.C.)


Another of Aphrodite’s most famous temples was in Corinth, on the Acrocorinth (high citadel). Prostitutes served the goddess there. (And the customers. . .)

To get there, you had to climb one huge hill!


Goddess of Prostitutes

Aphrodite was the goddess of prostitutes – everyone needs a patron deity, and who else would serve?

These figurines are sometimes defined as Aphrodite, but they may represent real exotic dancers. The costume is attested in other sources.



Also associated with Aphrodite is Priapus, an easily recognizable figure.

He’s Aphrodite’s son, but who’s the daddy? Adonis, Pan, Zeus, Hermes and Dionysus are all candidates.

Priapus is a fertility figure, another one who inhabits the “mailbox position” in a Greek or Roman house.

This fresco is from the entrance hall of a wealthy house in Pompeii (1st c. CE)


And his dad in others . . .

Actually Hermaphroditus began as a man, but was magically united with a nymph who loved him, and that’s how he ended with characteristics of both sexes.



But Aphrodite’s most notable offspring is her son, Eros.

Like her, he has dual origins, a primal presence in Hesiod and a more tame, conventional genealogy.

He is shown as a desirable young man, often winged. With his bow, he shoots love arrows into his victims, though he has other methods . . .

Eros, the blond god of lovers, strikes me with a purple ball and asks me to play with a girl wearing colorful sandals . . . (Anacreon)



Here Eros is shown more as an emblem, or a spirit, or a child, rather than as a young man.

On this model egg he is enticing a woman to love. On the flip side of the vase, two young men (her suitors?) look on.

Model egg, from a tomb, 420-400 BCE


Plato’s Symposium

In his dialog, the Symposium, Plato shows the philosopher Socrates discussing the nature of Love.

Socrates and his friends use the personified figure of Eros as a metaphor for the nature of profound ideas about life and love.


Plato’s Symposium

Aristophanes, a comic playwright, gives a comic story of separation of four-legged, four armed, two-headed lovers.

Is this what you desire, to be together as much as possible and never to be separated … the happiness of our race lies in the fulfillment of love; each must find the beloved that is his … a beloved who is of one and the same mind and nature …


Plato’s Symposium

Socrates quotes Diotima, a hetaira who showed him that love, though it begins with physical attraction, must mature into embracing the good and the beautiful:

He will realize that beauty in the soul is more precious than that in the body … he will beget beautiful ideas … he will see the beauty in morals and laws and that the beauty in all of them is related.



Aphrodite and Eros before a bride