Aphrodite in the Hellenistic Period
“The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, also called Aphrodite; Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing. Love is the same force that human beings find at work in themselves whenever they feel joy, love and peace. Strife, on the other hand, is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed.” This quote comes from Empedocles, a philosopher and poet working before Socrates in Sicily. When you imagine Greek gods and goddesses, Aphrodite is always one of the first that comes to mind. She was a sense of hope for the Grecian and Roman people, being the embodiment of love, and was widely discussed because she was also one of the largest sex symbols in ancient society. Aphrodite’s history, why she was worshipped and her impact on ancient society are what separate her from the other gods and goddesses of the time.
All gods and goddesses seem to have strange ways of being born, which is all part of the mystique surrounding why they are a god in the first place. In Aphrodite’s case, she is believed to have been born from the white foam that came from the severed genitals of Uranus, who was the personification of heaven in Greek mythology, after his son Cronus threw them into the sea. While she is more commonly known as the ancient Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty, she was also worshipped as a goddess of the sea and seafaring by many and her Roman equivalent is the goddess Venus. Her husband was Hephaistos or Vulcan, the god of the forge, fire, and metal handcraft and the daughter for Zeus and a water nymph named Dione. In some myths, it is foretold that Aphrodite’s son is Eros, or Cupid, the god of love (textbook). Despite being the goddess of love and beauty, in many myths, Aphrodite is considered to be vain, ill-tempered and easily offended. She is one of the few gods who were actually married and she is continuously unfaithful to her husband, often cheating on him with Ares, the god of war and the opposite of her even-headed husband Hephaistos. In the Iliad by Homer, Aphrodite goes into battle with the intention of saving her son, but instead, drops him as she is flying because she gets hurt and abandons him. She is also the source of the start of the Trojan War, because she started the entire affair by offering Helen of Troy to Paris and creating the lust that Paris had for Helen after seeing her for the first time. A great quote on Aphrodite’s true nature is:
“Her [Aphrodite’s] domain may involve love, but it does not involve romance; rather, it tends more towards lust, the human irrational longing.”
Being the daughter of Zeus and the mother of Cupid, Aphrodite was able to be well recognized in ancient society and in today’s world as well. But what was so special about her that made people worship her and decide to use her as their muse as much as artists in the Hellenistic period did?
The female nude was not a part of the art world before the Hellenistic period. Only male nudes were seen as appropriate for the time because they showcased strength and nobility. Aphrodite was the first muse used for a female nude sculpture and it set a “new standard,” according to the textbook. Praxiteles created this audacious statue of Aphrodite in 350 BCE for Knidos, a city in Asia Minor. While other ancient art pieces suggested sexuality from the female body as opposed to showcased the male nude, this state of Aphrodite was the very first example where it was fully on display. In the statue, Aphrodite is readying herself for a bath. Her hands are carefully placed slightly covering her nudity, which only draws the viewer’s eye closer to what she is covering. In female nudes sculpted after this Aphrodite, artists also used the method of sculpting to show “modesty” but actually lead viewers to look at the sexuality of the muse. This statue was the starting point for a lot of artists who captured the female nude and was actually the model for many other Hellenistic works such as the Venus de Milo in 2nd century BCE. The textbook we have been using throughout the duration of this survey of art history course had a fun addendum on the Aphrodite by Praxiteles piece:
“According to an old legend, the sculpture was so realistic that Aphrodite herself journeyed to Knidos to see it and cried out in shock, “Where did Praxiteles see me naked?” The Knidians were so proud of their Aphrodite that they placed it in an open shrine where people could view it from every side. Hellenistic and Roman copies probably numbered in the hundreds, and nearly 50 survive in various collections today.”
One of the many reasons Aphrodite was so worshipped in the Hellenistic period was for her beauty. Other gods worried that jealousy among Aphrodite’s suitors would disrupt the peace among the gods and so Zeus married her to Hephaestus, so she was less of a threat to them. Other names Aphrodite carries are Lady of Cythera and Lady of Cyprus after Cythera and Cyprus where her biggest cult-followings resided in ancient times. She actually had a festival of her own, called the Aphrodisia, which was widely attended and celebrated in Greece, Athens and Corinth. In Corinth, having intercourse with priestesses was considered a method of worshipping Aphrodite, which came from her being the goddess of sexual love. Another draw for worshippers was Aphrodite’s close association with Eros, the Graces and the Horae (Seasons), which all accentuated her role as a promoter of fertility. Aphrodite was worshipped and loved for her powers over sexual love, fertility and beauty but she also left a lasting impression on ancient Greek and Roman societies.
The greatest impression that Aphrodite made on the people of the ancient Greek and Roman societies was her major role in the Trojan War. As previously mentioned, Aphrodite caused the initial affair leading Paris to Helen of Troy. At a wedding of two other gods, Zeus invited Prince Paris of the Trojans to judge a contest of who was the most beautiful goddess among Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. They each offered Paris gifts such as strength and invincibility from Hera, Asia and Europe regions from Athena and the most beautiful woman in the world from Aphrodite. He obviously chose Aphrodite, which led to Paris and Helen of Troy’s affair and since Helen was already married to the Spartan king and thus the beginning of the Trojan War. This aspect of Aphrodite interfering with both war and love at the same time revealed her more dangerous side, leading her subjects to both fear and worship her. Gods and goddesses are always messing with the mortal world in ancient myths and legends. However, those legends were so ardently believed that they have weaved themselves throughout ancient Greek and Roman history.
Aphrodite is always one of the first Greek gods and goddesses that comes to mind, when you first imagine them. She was a sense of hope for the Grecian and Roman people, the embodiment of love, sexuality and fertility. Aphrodite’s history, why she was worshipped and her impact on ancient society are what separate her from the other gods and goddesses of the time.
A Research on the Society’s Perception of Aphrodite
Aphrodite, in her many forms, has become a central figure of the neo-classical movement that gripped our world first in the nineteenth century and continues to do so today. For those living in antiquity, however, the nature of their interactions with Aphrodite would have been dictated by the period during which they lived and the social structures which dominated their communities. In this sense, we can use a number of sources to track the change in approaches to and perceptions of Aphrodite from the archaic period in Greece to the early empire in Rome.
In Hesiod’s Theogony, the birth of Aphrodite is inextricably linked to contemporary fears of femininity as a threat to the established patriarchal structures that sustained communities. When Kronos, aided and encouraged by his mother, takes “the huge sickle with its long row of sharp teeth and quickly cut[s] off his father’s genitals,” the Hesiodic narrative depicts fears of broken succession and scheming wives as a direct threat to masculinity. Significantly, Aphrodite is born out this detached and broken masculinity, and first forms as an angry “white foam” – that the “whisperings of girls; smiles; deceptions; sweet pleasure, intimacy, and tenderness” are all born with Aphrodite is in line with the deep distrust of women Hesiod demonstrates more explicitly in his Works and Days. Yet to understand the oral nature of the Hesiodic tradition is to witness the horrifying nature of Aphrodite as depicted in the cosmogony – not only is she presented as an outsider, wherein her name places her at the edge of the Greek world, but emphasis is drawn to her subversive beauty as coupled with her ability to “deceive” men. It is clear from deeply familial and brutish nature of the conflict that gives birth to Aphrodite, that as Hesiod sought to shape a cosmos in line with his experience as a farmer and worker, the tradition incorporated fundamental fears of womanhood and personified them in Aphrodite as the first female divinity with human-like attributes created in the Theogony.
Unlike Hesiod’s popular didactic poetry, Homer’s Iliad concerns itself more with the lessons of the high politics and military relationships that drove key turning points in the Greek cultural memory. In the Judgment of Paris, it is Aphrodite to offers Helen to Paris in exchange for his favor, thus triggering the Trojan War and the impending fall of the city. In the Iliad, Aphrodite’s actions are condemned on the same terms. In Book III, she removes Paris from the battlefield and “puts him down in his own fragrant chamber” to await the arrival of Helen. Firstly, Aphrodite’s intervention in a dramatic battle between two soldiers invokes the fear of women as emasculating during times when a strong sense of masculinity is required – to say, as Paris does, “let us drop war now, you and I, and give ourselves to pleasure in our bed” is a clear violation of the rites of battle as established in antiquity, and it is Aphrodite herself who instigates this violation. Yet Aphrodite’s real transgression occurs when she forces Helen to lay with Paris by threatening to “make hatred grow for [Helen] among both Trojans and Danaans” if she did not do so. In this sense, when Aphrodite tells Helen “I shall hate you as I have cherished you till now” the Homeric tradition mirrors the Hesiodic warning of the dual nature of Aphrodite’s beauty and abilities to deceive. More broadly, however, and perhaps most importantly, we see that Aphrodite’s instigation of sexual behavior between Helen and Paris in this scene seals the fate of the Greeks and Trojans to be destined for a catastrophic war. Both the Homeric and Hesiodic tradition were intrinsic, in different ways, to the creation of religious and social structures during times of rapid growth and change in the archaic period and it is clear in this sense that they both used Aphrodite as a sign of the threat of women and their ability to seduce men – while Hesiod projected his local fears of femininity onto the cosmos in the form of Aphrodite, Homer presents her as impediment to the duty of military men and thus to the stability of the political order.
In the Late Hellenistic period we are able to discern a somewhat different approach to Aphrodite by writers. In his Epitaph on Adonis, Bion presents Aphrodite in a moment of harrowing vulnerability following the death of her beloved Adonis. The repetition of “I lament Adonis” by Aphrodite, coupled with the deeply descriptive images of Adonis’s injuries, demonstrates a willingness of the author to make readers and followers of Aphrodite empathize with her on an emotional level. This is a stark contrast to the Hesiod and Homeric traditions where she is presented merely as a the product and cause of male conflict; in the Epitaph, her “woe” is for the mistakes of the “rash youth” and, in fact, her lamentations demonstrate a huge amount of love for humanity. An interesting allusion is made to this version of Aphrodite in Aristophanes’ Classical hit Lysistrata – complaining about the women are “out of hand,” a magistrate condemns a “noisy rooftop party for Adonis” and continues to note the women were “on the rooftop getting drunk and yelling ‘oh doomed youth.’” This is important to our inquiry into perceptions and usages of Aphrodite since we can infer that women who followed the foreign cult of Adonis adopted the position of the mourning Aphrodite as a form of protest in the lead-up to the Sicilian Expedition, as the date and context of the Lysistrata would suggest. In this sense, we see that by the end of the Hellenistic period Aphrodite had become a deity all citizens could empathize with and understand positively; but importantly, we can use this knowledge to argue that alternative ways of imagining Aphrodite were already being employed as early as the Classical period and that these, in contrast to archaic approaches, saw the deity as a medium of civic-ritual protest against the state’s disregard for life, as would have been the case during the Sicilian Expedition.
By the time of Virgil in the Aeneid, Aphrodite has been morphed into Venus and a much more accessible and likeable character has been forged. In the Aeneid, a seminal poem setting out the mythical foundations of a blossoming empire, Romans are said to have descended directly from Aphrodite herself. In this sense, she is central to the image of the state and those who would have led Rome during Virgil’s time, i.e. Augustus and Caesar, would have associated themselves directly with Venus as a figure central to the Roman cultural memory. This is a stark contrast to the archaic tendencies to portray Aphrodite as the product and cause of conflict among both common and official men. In Book II of the Aeneid we see a direct attempt to disassociate the Roman Venus from the Archaic Aphrodite – Venus asks Aeneas not to kill Helen, pleading “‘you must not hold the woman of Laconia, That hated face, the cause of this, nor Paris. The harsh will of the gods it is, the gods,” wherein the story of Helen’s seduction is changed to rid Aphrodite/Venus of any blame. In fact, the Roman Venus here actually seeks to moderate the reckless actions of men, whereas in the archaic accounts Aphrodite is the cause and product of male recklessness.
Our analysis of these sources reveals that broadly, over time, the image of Aphrodite changes to become a deity that represents passion and love as opposed to threat and seduction. Importantly, we see that the political implications of her archaic version are weakened by the Roman period, where she is integrated into the cultural memory and given a central position. This latter version of Aphrodite as relatable, exemplified by Bion, gave us an opportunity to discuss the ways in which Athenian women in the Classical period may have adopted the image of Aphrodite to protest the state’s decision to launch the Sicilian Expedition – this interpretation of a originally deity conjured up to depict feminine threat as a potential civic medium of protest somewhat contradicts Malinowski’s functionalist approach to myth, but gives us a more appreciative sense of the fluid nature of myth and their purposes.
Aphrodite and Eros and Filiform Aphrodite: A Comparative Study of Two Artworks
When selecting which pieces of art I wanted to compare, I came across a few options that I liked. I decided to choose Aphrodite and Eros as well Filiform Aphrodite. Both statues obviously are meant to represent Aphrodite but look completely different.
Aphrodite and Eros is a terracotta, seven and one quarter inch tall statue that was painted. Some of the paint has worn away but the color has remained. It was made in the third century B.C. Aphrodite is seated, holding a winged baby Eros in her left arm and a rattle in her right hand. The throne she is seated on is quite plain and simple but is a large scale for a chair. There is a thick pillow underneath her, in which she is seated upon. She has her head tilted downward and to her left, looking at Eros. Aphrodite’s hair looks like coarse wire pulled back, underneath a small bonnet. She is wearing a long, draped dress and her feet stick out underneath and are resting on a little foot bench. Her left foot is a little more forward than her right, almost representing the striding pose. Her right arm is a little too thick to be naturalistic, but otherwise her features are humanistic and naturalistic. Eros’ face looks like it belongs on a china doll, and is quite stoic. The rattle that Aphrodite is holding looks like a ball with a dowel rod sticking through it.
Filiform Aphrodite is a bronze statue made in the fourth century B.C. Aphrodite is extremely elongated and her body and features are not naturalistic. The most naturalistic part of her, is her face. Her eyes are almond shaped, and her mouth looks like she is frowning or has a resting frown face. She has no ears, presumably they are covered by her hair which looks like she is wearing a basket on top of her head. Aphrodite’s breasts and knees look like little peas stuck onto her body. Her arms are attached to her sides and look like penguin flippers. Her feet look like they are a horse’s hoof, and the only representation of her wearing clothing is one horizontal line right above her feet. She has no figure, and no discerning features that really identify her as a woman besides her pea looking breasts.
Both Aphrodite and Eros as well as Filiform Aphrodite are Greek sculptures representing the same Greek goddess. Both Aphrodite figures’ hair is represented to be pulled back in a bun, underneath a bonnet or other head covering. Aphrodite is depicted in both sculptures to have almond shaped eyes and an oval face. In both works of art, Aphrodite does not have any recognizable toes on her feet. Although we don’t know the artist of either of the sculptures, we know that each artist was trying to tell a story. We know their art represents the time period, themselves, and location in Greece.
I think it is fascinating to see the difference between the two pieces of art that were created only one hundred years apart. Not only are the sculptures created from different mediums but they don’t even look like they are representing the same person. Whereas Filiform Aphrodite is stretched like an elongated pole with a head, Aphrodite and Eros is clearly a woman only recognizable as Aphrodite since she is holding the winged Eros. Aphrodite and Eros is seated but Filiform Aphrodite is standing tall. Aphrodite and Eros was painted with great color and sculpted to show detail and look naturalistic, unlike the Filiform Aphrodite that was meant to be simplistic with focus on her height, head, and face. Aphrodite and Eros looks as if it could be a real scene of a woman holding a child. This is unlike Filiform Aphrodite that is just Aphrodite standing like a still statue, no pun intended.
All in all, Filiform Aphrodite and Aphrodite and Eros have similarities and differences which are contributed by the difference in a century of time, different artists, and different purposes as to why the art was made.
Aphrodite of Knidos: Historical Context and Interpretation of the Artwork
The artworks of ancient Greece and Rome have exercised an exuberant amount of influence on the cultures of several countries all over the world. Specifically, the areas of architecture and sculpture mainly influenced these artistic cultures. In fact, the statue Aphrodite of Knidos is one of the most renowned and most mentioned in literary sources. Thus, there is no question as to why this piece has been so prominent to me. Upon a trip to Italy, I was fortunate enough to see the elegance of Aphrodite of Knidos in person, and ever since then, have been intrigued by her Greek divinity. Though the exact date is unclear, Aphrodite of Knidos was created around the time of 350 BCE and depicts the goddess of love and beauty in marble stone. Unfortunately, like many works of art during this time period, the Aphrodite of Knidos did not survive. Luckily, however, several copies of various mediums were created before its destruction. Considered one of the greatest accomplishments by the sculptor Praxiteles, Aphrodite of Knidos was once described by Pliny as, “superior to all works, not only Praxiteles, but indeed in the whole world”. Praxiteles revolutionized the classical Greek art world by introducing the female nude as a subject for art. This innovative three-dimensional piece consequently became exceedingly monumental. Though Western culture’s obsession with the ideal female figure is unquestionable, Praxiteles’ statue Aphrodite of Knidos generalizes the ideals of beauty and demonstrates the growing search for the perfection of our realized ideals.
According to a possible apocryphal account by Pliny, a famous Roman author, Praxiteles received a commission from the people of Kos for a statue of the goddess Aphrodite. Praxiteles originally created two different statues; one fully clothed, and the other entirely nude. The citizens of Kos were immediately shocked and rejected the nude statue. The draped statue was sadly destroyed, leaving no evidence of its appearance and design. The rejected statue, however, was purchased by some citizens of Knidos, and became one of Praxiteles’ most famous pieces. This is mostly due to the attention drawn from the sexuality of the bare nude figure. The smooth marble statue depicts the goddess holding a piece of drapery over a vase. “Nude Aphrodite stands with a sleight weight shift in her legs, as evidenced by the bending of her left knee.” Her right hand gracefully covers her genital area, which detracts from thoughts of fertility and instead the viewer is drawn to sexuality. Her left hand holds a wrinkled piece of drapery hanging over a vase. Swiss archaeologist J.J. Bernoulli explains that, “a garment had to be nearby so that Aphrodite could grab it in an emergency and pull it around her in case anyone should unexpectedly come upon her. The vase contained the water for the bath.” Her pose is a classic example of contrapposto, as indicated by her unevenly distributed weight onto her right leg. Weight shift is also demonstrated by the curve in Aphrodite’s neck and hips. Her face is more precise than generalized, and hair is portrayed in a way to resemble real human hair. Her eyes, like all marble statues of the fourth century B.C., the exterior of the eyeball remained unidentified, and regardless if she was painted or not, her gaze is not toward a specific point. Also, “the natural depiction of the breasts and slight plumpness of the flesh on the abdomen” create “flesh” that “looks like it would yield under the pressure of a human touch.” Overall, Aphrodite of Knidos is a marble figure that overall composition provides a deep and enduring attribute of women.
As the first completely nude female statue, Aphrodite of Knidos monumentally stirred up the notion of the idealism of the womanly figure. Because the nudes during this time were all males, this statue went highly against the current cultural standards. This was also so shocking because at the time, men could control themselves, while women could not. The fact that this statue depicts a completely nude woman transforms the roles, giving the men feeling depraved and uncontrolled. Aphrodite, modestly covering herself, makes the point to the viewers of her basis of sexuality. Though “the eroticism involved in this statue doesn’t degrade her, in fact, when compared to the standard philosophy of women at the time, it celebrates her. It celebrates her modesty and her beauty.” This is perhaps why she is the ideal, physically as well as in her content. Her body was presented in a way that has never been presented before. This ancient Greek culture had an extremely strict view of feminine virtue, and Aphrodite of Knidos is so significant because she was able to transform the way women are idealized. Christine Havelock, writer of The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors, agrees in that Aphrodite’s beauty “resulted in an ideal conception of the human figure.” She is ideal, self-confident, and completely without strain. The statue also emits a sense of purity and tranquility. The Online Museum of Greek Art and Archaeology reveals that her nude form does a great deal to portray the idea of humanism. The contrapposto pose as well as plumpness of her figure creates an ideal image of the real-world woman. “When it is stated that “man is the measure of all things”, Aphrodite of Knidos proves that “woman” is also sufficiently demonstrative of this concept.” Though it is obvious that every single culture, present or past, has a unique idea of female perfection. These ideals are ever changing. Aphrodite of Knidos generalizes the ideals of feminine beauty of the ancient Greek culture. Touching on the themes of sexuality and modesty, Aphrodite of Knidos was the beautiful ideal to the people who had created it.
To conclude, the artworks of ancient times have been extremely influential to countless cultures today. Praxiteles’ statue Aphrodite of Knidos is one of the most influential pieces of Greek art, for it is included in most literary sources. Overall, Aphrodite of Knidos was the first nude female sculpture, and therefore, revolutionized the classical Greek art world. She contributes to the idealism of the woman figure, for she simplifies the ideals of beauty and introduces the growing search for the perfection of our realized ideals. Overall, Aphrodite of Knidos shows the never-ending, ever changing, ever growing search for the ideal figure.