BookMusings: (Re)Discovering Pagan Literature

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On Aphrodite

A few days ago, I was perusing my newsfeed on FaceBook, when I came across a comment on the Classical Wisdom Weekly page: "Aphrodite is a whore."

I saw red and had to stop for a moment. Once I was coherent again, I posted a response. It was only a few sentences. I could have written much more; an essay; a whole book even. Suffice to say, those who would label Aphrodite a "whore" have 1) bought into the sexual double standard and 2) have a very shallow understanding of that Goddess.

Yes, Aphrodite is a Goddess with a keen interest in sex (not unlike Freyja, Inanna and The Kathirat), and sexuality is a vital, integral component of being human. But to see her as only that -- an adulterous nymphomaniac -- is to fail to comprehend even a fraction of her majesty and mystery and power. Aphrodite is sex and passion and the giddiness of a new crush; she is new love and love grown stronger with time; she is the love between friends, love between spouses, between parents and children, between siblings, between grandparents and grandchildren. She is love of the natural world, the link between humans and others. She is the fierce protectiveness and loyalty inspired by love. She is love of and devotion to country and community. She is the Goddess who inspires crazy risks and impulsive leaps of faith. She is the anger and rage born of a broken heart; she is the righteous revenge taken for shattered trust and broken promises; she is the grief and anguish felt for a lost loved one, a lost community, a dying country.

And she is beauty. She both is and inspires that awed humility we feel in the presence of a great work of art or a stunning natural vista or a newborn flower curling up out of the snow. She is also the desire to create beauty: a garden, a quilt, a sculpture, a painting, a bouquet, a home.

And that doesn't even touch on her connections to sea and sky, war and freedom, sovereignty and genealogy, and so much much more.

Aphrodite has been the subject of countless works of art, as well as poems, essays, graphic novels and even children's books. All, in their own way, contribute something to our understanding of this complex Goddess.

Two Queens of Heaven by Doris Gates and Trina Schart Hyman, for instance, chronicles her birth from the sea; her love for Adonis and Anchises; her son Cupid's love for Psyche; and the tales of Atalanta, Hero and Leander, and Pyramus and Thisbe. (The other Queen of the title is Demeter; a good fit, when you consider that Aphrodite's interest in sex extends to flora and fauna, as well; Aphrodite inspires the lust that allows Demeter's plants to grow and domesticated animals to procreate.)

In contrast to Two Queens of Heaven, which is relatively sombre and even tragic in tone, Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams' Goddess Girls series* is much more light-hearted. These coming-of-age tales set at Mount Olympus Academy follow several different teenage Goddesses -- Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Pandora, Persephone and Pheme -- as they navigate the trials and tribulations of school, mean girls, and first crushes. Though only very loosely based on Greek mythology, the series is nonetheless a great way to introduce curious girls to Goddesses like Aphrodite.

Children a bit too old for Two Queens of Heaven will probably enjoy Stolen Hearts, a graphic novel retelling of Eros/Cupid and Psyche by Ryan Foley and Sankha Banerjee. Deviating only a little from the original tale (Aphrodite is still the "villain"), this adaptation features a framing sequence with the wise female philosopher Demiarties, guest appearances by Persephone, Zeus, Apollo and Charon, and gorgeous artwork.

Like Two Queens of Heaven, Baring and Cashford's The Myth of the Goddess includes a combo chapter on Aphrodite, Demeter and Persephone. Opening with a line from Rilke  -- " ... for beauty is nothing / but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to bear" -- the authors examine Aphrodite's birth as related by Homer and Hesiod, the meaning of her name, her relationships with other Gods, and what it means to call her "Queen of Heaven and Earth."

While Baring and Cashford chronicle the history of the Goddess/es from prehistory through the present, in Savage Breast Tim Ward chronicles his personal encounters with the Deity as he visits sacred sites around the Mediterranean. He finds Aphrodite on Cyprus, her holy island. As he visits museums and ruins, his appreciation and awe grow. At one point, Ward comments "Up close, you are too dangerous for mortal man. .... the ability to pass judgment on a woman's flaws and feel oneself superior, all are rendered useless when Aphrodite sets my limbs on fire."

This sentiment -- that Aphrodite is dangerous -- is shared by Galina Krasskova at her Gangleri's Grove site. Shamans and spiritworkers, some of whom refer to Aphrodite and her sisters as The Ladies of the Pink Building, understand just how much it can hurt to earn their ire and disfavor; matters of the heart are not to be taken lightly.

Jason Mankey, on the other hand, sees Aphrodite as dangerous in another way: as the Goddess who oversees our most primal urges, she is a threat to the status quo, a danger to the social order. She is, ultimately, a Goddess of Freedom, encouraging rebellion against entrenched and oppressive social mores.

Speaking of the status quo: in her essay "Aphrodite, Ancestor of Kings" in Goddesses Who Rule, Beverly Moon examines the connections between Aphrodite (and then Venus) and ruling dynasties in Greece and Rome. Aeneas, for instance, the son of Aphrodite herself, founded the village which would eventually grow into Rome and the Julii (Julius Caesar and Augustus and company) based their claim to power on their descent from the Queen of Heaven. In the Hellenistic Near East, it was not uncommon to worship a deceased queen as a manifestation of Aphrodite. Even democratic Athens was home to a temple for Aphrodite Pandemos, "goddess of harmony and peace, [who provides] the common bond and fellow feeling that is the basis for community." 

Along with written works, Aphrodite has been the subject of innumerable works of art, from ancient times through the Renaissance and into the present. Aphrodite and the Gods of Love, compiled by Christine Kondoleon, includes images of more than one hundred sculptures, carved gems, mosaics, and vases, each chronicling a different aspect of her personality or element of her mythos. Malcolm Bull's The Mirror of the Gods, meanwhile, focuses on Venus in the artwork of Renaissance Europe. While sometimes depicted with her husband Vulcan, or Deities of agriculture such as Bacchus and Ceres, she is usually alone; it is only the Goddess, and the viewer, and the awe and lust and humility inspired by her beauty.

For modern devotional works, look to the Green Egg Omelette anthology, which collects some of the best articles, rituals and poems from the legendary journal. While the whole book makes for a fascinating read -- consider Ed Fitch's "Paganized Hymns" and Marion Zimmer Bradley's "A Feminist Creation Myth" -- section ten, "Gender and Sexuality," is of particular interest. It includes Tom  Williams' "Hymn to Venus," Diane Darling's essay "Agents of Aphrodite: In Her Majesty's Sacred Service," plus general pieces on sex, gender, polyamory, and sex as worship.

For those with an interest in the intersection between psychology and spirituality, Ginette Paris' Pagan Meditations includes a lengthy section on the Goddess. Over the course of seven chapters, Paris discusses the symbolism of Aphrodite's birth, the Goddess' connection to flowers and gardens, her link with depression, her ties to nudity and pornography, and the arrows of eros. While Paris is a Jungian by training, and thus has no belief in the Gods as autonomous beings, I nonetheless find her writings fascinating and insightful. 

The above represent just a fraction of the texts available on Aphrodite. There are many more that I could not recommend here because I haven't read them (Pierre Louys' poem Aphrodite: Ancient Manners, for instance, and Monica S Cyrino's academic text, Aphrodite). If I missed one of your favorites, please let me know. And next time someone calls Aphrodite a whore, send them here for a quick education.



*Holub and Williams just launched a new series about the Gods of the Greek pantheon entitled Heroes in Training

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.


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