BMCR 2008.08.45

Entre ciel et guerre: Figures d’Aphrodite en Grèce ancienne. Kernos Suppl. 18

, Entre ciel et guerre : figures d'Aphrodite en Grèce ancienne. Kernos. Supplément ; 18. Liège: Centre international d'étude de la religion grecque antique, 2007. 336 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9782960071719. £33.00 (pb).

“Love’s a bitch.” It is such a simple little truism that in modern times, perhaps through sheer force of denial, we tend to overlook this fact. If this were not sufficiently irritating in dealing with our own romantic lives, it becomes especially problematic when trying to unravel ancient conceptions of love. It is just this problem that Gabriella Pironti (P.) addresses in her doctoral-dissertation-turned-book Entre ciel et guerre. For her, modern understandings of Aphrodite are hampered by modern ideas of what love is. Love is sweet; love is kind; love is (according to some amazingly sappy pop-culture from the 1970s) never having to say you’re sorry. Because of this modern construction of romantic love, Aphrodite herself becomes misunderstood in studies of ancient religion. She is stereotyped as a specifically feminine goddess, involved in matters of flirtation, marriage, and what the Medieval troubadours referred to as Fin Amor. Quite to the contrary, P. argues that Aphrodite’s timai are far more all-encompassing, involving the goddess in the realms of politics and even war. To prove her thesis, P. takes a radical position in her study of Aphrodite: She presents Aphrodite as a goddess associated with violence, domination, and warfare. “Ces nuances sombres, guerrières, et politiques, contradisent l’image irénique de la déesse et n’ont pas reçu suffisamment d’attention, sans doute parce qu’elles la contradisent. Elles nécessitent dès lors une analyse approfondie et attentive. . . . Afin d’affronter quelques-unes de ces compostantes apparement paradoxales de la figure traditionelle d’Aphrodite, nous avons choisi d’étudier le rapport qu’elle entretient avec l’univers d’Arès ” (13-14).

The book consists of an introduction, four chapters, and a general conclusion. Chapter I, “Aphrodite et la violence dans la Théogonie d’Hésiod” examines Hesiod’s Aphrodite and her role in the Theogony. P. begins her analysis of the violence inherent in Aphrodite by examining the violent nature of her birth. Eschewing (as she will throughout the book) the usual tendencies of examining Hesiod’s birth of Aphrodite from a Near Eastern perspective,1 P. examines instead the role of violence in the creation of the cosmos. As P. argues, both violence and sexual union were necessary to transform the initially amorphous Chaos into differentiated reality. Neikos separated earth from sky, the Titans from the body of their parents, and gave rise to the separation that caused individuals to long for each other. This longing led to sexuality, which gave rise to a new generation of beings. All of this was expressed in Aphrodite’s birth narrative: The violent castration of Ouranos and his flight from earth began the process of differentiation and led directly to the rise of the goddess of sex herself. Henceforth, generation would take place through “mingling in golden Aphrodite.”

There follows a digression wherein P. considers the theme “Love Conquers All” in the works of Hesiod, Homer, and the Homeridai. Here P. establishes a major connection between sex and violence in the persona of Aphrodite — the universally irresistible force of eros. “La violence par laquelle le désir s’impose à l’individu relève sans doute de cette loi cosmique qui pousse les êtres l’un contre l’autre, en les arrachant à eux-mêmes par une force divine qui les dépasse et qui n’admet pas de résistance: une loi qui, chez Hésiode comme chez Homère, agit à travers le désir qui vise à la mixis des corps et à la philotês, l’union intime”(47). Even Zeus is subject to its power both at the beginning of Homeric Hymn V and Book 14 of the Iliad. P. then returns to the theme of Aphrodite in Hesiod, now considering afresh the timai of the goddess as expressed in Theogony ll. 201 — 206. Rather than seeing merely the soft, “girly” side of Aphrodite’s prerogatives: “Maidens’ chit-chat, and smiles, and trickery, and sweet joy, and love and gentleness,” P. sees the harsh side of Aphrodite’s domain. Concerning the words mixis and philotês P. argues, “Cette dernière expression est analogue à celle concernant la mixis en dai, le mélange des corps dans la bataille. Le verbe meignymi concerne à la fois la rencontre guerrière et la rencontre sexuelle: les guerriers, tout comme les amants, se mélangent (52). Chapter I ends with two sections examining Aphrodite’s relationships both with Night and her progeny and, finally, with the god of war himself. In both instances, P. argues that Aphrodite was understood to be associated not with light and sweetness, but the dark, the vengeful, and the violent.

Chapter II, “L’univers sous le joug: Des hymnes à Aphrodite au mythe de la tortue,” offers a full consideration of Aphrodite’s relationship with moisture and dampness, and further analysis of the theme “Love Conquers/Tames All”. Here P. abandons the chronological specificity of the previous chapter to consider a wider range of data for Aphrodite, stretching from the early epic poets through Roman-age commentators. The chapter begins with a study of Aphrodite’s epithet Ourania, once again eschewing possible Near Eastern origins in favor of “leur raison d’être” (107). Although in many ways this section appears to be a detour from the author’s main thesis — focusing more on Aphrodite as fertility goddess rather than war goddess — it foreshadows later sections where P. studies the associations between Aphrodite and bodily humors, as well as the role of mixis (here between earth and moisture) in Aphrodite’s persona. There follows a somewhat redundant section on the universality of Aphrodite’s powers.

The next three sections of Chapter II — “La violence et la loi,” ” Ourania, le gamos, et le domptage,” and “L’épouse, ‘proie de guerre'” revolve around Aphrodite and Eros in fifth-century Athenian drama. The theme of these sections is the power and even violence wielded by Aphrodite and Eros in their domination of humankind. P. notes the portrayal of both deities as tyrants in the plays of Sophokles and Euripides, and the violent fates of those who reject them, such as the Danaids and Hippolytos. Concerning the presentation of Eros in Hippolytos and Antigone, P. concludes, “le schema formel recoupe une articulation essentielle de la pensée religieuse des Grecs, à savoir qu’Éros est une puissance divine violente et incontournable, tout comme la déesse qu’il sert” (124). By contrast, “L’épouse” analyzes the role of Aphrodite and desire in the tragic story of Deianira in Sophokles’ Trakhiniai. Here, rather than focusing on the obvious relationship between warfare and lust in the story of Iole, P. focuses on Deianira as the object of violent desire, a helpless prize to be fought over, with Aphrodite herself as the battle’s referee. Thus P.:

Aphrodite trouve naturellement sa place au milieu de l’arène, là où s’engage le corps-à-corps de la lutte et où l’élan du désir bascule vers l’impulsion agressive. Lorsque la conquête d’une femme s’associe à une épreuve de virilité, Aphrodite ne reste pas aux marges de l’arène, aux côtés de la femme à conquer/rir, mais se tient au milieu, aux côtés des hommes, là où la virilité est en jeu. Et si la déesse peut décerner ce prix, c’est que la virilité sexuelle est dans un rapport de continuité avec la virilité tout court, y compris avec l’aspect guerrier de celle-ci (141).

Chapter II ends with a reconsideration of the turtle in Aphrodite’s iconography. Rather than accepting the traditional understanding that the turtle/tortoise represents the exceptionally domesticated wife who remains within domestic space, P. sees the link as one of violent sexuality. Referencing Roman-age authors such as Oppian, Aelian, and Plutarch, P. argues that for both tortoises and turtles, the female of the species is preternaturally opposed to sex. The males, then, must rape the females, either through physical violence or drugs. P. seems to be arguing that the tortoise/turtle is an emblem of Aphrodite as a goddess of rape, the combination of sex and violence.

Chapter III, “La déesse de l’ aphros et la fleur de la jeunesse,” is a study of Aphrodite’s dominion over young men and their sexuality, virility, and belligerence. The chapter begins with a study of Aphrodite’s name, not in terms of modern linguistics, but in terms of how the ancient Greeks themselves would have understood the word.2 The focus is on the aphros element, and specifically how Aphrodite’s relationship to moisture associates her with fertility, the vital humors, and semen. Of course, aphros is not merely moisture, but foamy moisture, which leads to the author’s further commentaries on Aphrodite’s associations with breath and boiling, aspects she shares, as notes P., with deities such as the Erinyes, Lyssa, Dionysos, and Ares. These links between Aphrodite and “boiling” vital humors culminate in the close relationships between the goddess and the maturation of young men, warriors really, who arrive at the age of sexual and military maturity simultaneously. Here, then, P. picks up the theme of Aphrodite as patron of young men as begun in the previous chapter. The connections between vital humors, “boiling,” and sexual maturation ultimately serve to enhance Aphrodite’s relationship with Ares and the world of warfare. “Compte tenu du fait qu’Aphrodite est dans un rapport plus qu’étroit avec l’écume spermatique et les aidoia, et qu’il n’y a pas de véritable solution de continuityé entre virilityé sexuelle et puissance guerrière, le couple qu’elle forme souvent avec Arès pourrait s’expliquer aussi en faisant appel à cette intersection majeure entre leurs domains respectifs.3

Chapter III ends with two sections on Aphrodite’s role as protector and guide of young warriors. Section 4 examines Aphrodite’s association with flowers as it pertains to the “bloom of youth” especially in young men. This yet again brings one back to the theme of Aphrodite as goddess of young, sexual warriors. In section 5, “Aux côtés des jeunes garçons,” P. explores the presence of Aphrodite in the lives of young heroes and warriors in both cult and literature. Prominent themes are the cults of Aphrodite in Crete, especially at Kato Symi Viannou; Aphrodite’s role in the tales of Theseus as narrated by Plutarch; and the Attic cult of Aphrodite Hegemone. In all cases, P. shows that Aphrodite is not merely responsible for the coming of age of young warriors, but that she stands by them in the early phases of their military careers.

Chapter IV, “Aphrodite, Arès et le monde de la guerre,” is the culmination of the author’s thesis: Aphrodite is a goddess involved in matters military as well as amatory. The chapter commences with a study of Aphrodite’s role in the Trojan War and her relationships with its heroes. P. starts by eliminating from consideration Il. V, ll. 428-430, wherein Zeus indicates very specifically that Aphrodite is not a war goddess. From here, P. explores Aphrodite’s interactions with Paris and with Ares. For P., Aphrodite’s relationship with Paris manifests the goddess’s relationship with young warriors generally — Paris is the ephebic hero who, appropriately for a devotee of Aphrodite, prefers making love not war. In her analysis of the Aphrodite-Ares relationship, P. makes an interesting argument. Rather than seeing Aphrodite as the girly, non-martial goddess that Zeus describes in Book V, and rather than seeing Ares as the incompetent reflection of Athena, P. argues that what Aphrodite and Ares share is a vulnerability that emphasizes their physicality. Thus, both deities are linked in their immanence and portrayal of the physical repercussions of warfare. This argument reaches its conclusion in the section “Figures de la mixis : de l’éris à l’éros.” Here P. spells out her core argument, that Aphrodite’s role in warfare derives from her dominion over mixis, the violent coming together of human bodies, be that for reasons sexual or belligerent.

The remainder of Chapter IV explores the role of Aphrodite as war goddess, considering historiographic, art historical, and archaeological data. The first and most pressing question to be addressed is, of course, Cur armata Venus? The notion of the Armed Aphrodite begins and eventually ends in Sparta. In between, P. presents iconographic evidence of an armed Aphrodite in scenes of Gigantomachy and Titanomachy, and the cults the goddess shared throughout the Greek world with Ares. In an extensive subsection — “Les armes d’Aphrodite au service de la cité” — P. surveys the various martial roles and anecdotes attested for Aphrodite in the Greek poleis. Starting with Attica, P. returns briefly to Aphrodite’s epithet Hegemone before considering the shrines dedicated to the goddess after the Battle of Salamis and Konon’s victory at Knidos. There follows an extensive treatment of the prayer of the Corinthian women as commemorated by Simonides and recorded among other sources in Athenaeus. The cults of Aphrodite and Ares in Argos, Crete, and Tegea come next, including not only the cults of the deities themselves but aspects of gender-bending in the religious histories of these poleis (e.g. the poet Telesilla who fought off the Spartans by having Argive women dress as men). The survey culminates back in Sparta, where P. considers the full range of evidence for a martial goddess of that city. Next comes a brief section on the epithets of Aphrodite, especially as concerns Pontia, Pandemos, and especially Strateia before P. concludes with a reprise of her favorite theme: the close connections between the violent passions of sex and the violent passions or war. The concluding chapter offers a recap of this basic idea.

There are, as one might expect of a book that so thoroughly intends to push, and even break, boundaries in scholarship, some weaknesses in this book. Amongst a handful of small factual errors, lacunae, and typos, P. far under-dates the cult at Kato Symi, and displays little awareness of the full range of nude goddess iconography in her related argument about the goddess’s cults in Crete. The latter problem easily could have been addressed with a look at S. Böhm’s Die Nackte Göttin. In general, P. shows little familiarity with issues of archaeology or iconography. Her refusal to consider eastern or even Indo-European influences limits her possible interpretations, a fact which comes to the fore when dealing with issues such as Aphrodite’s name and epithets (especially Ourania), her relationship with Ares and its possible Cypro-Levantine origins, and even the cult of the goddess in Thebes, a city with strong mythic and historic links to the east.

More problematic are certain methodological issues. To begin, to push her hypothesis P. repeatedly contradicts the ancient authorities. Her study of Aphrodite’s persona in Hesiod begins, “Il est vrai que, dans les vers 205-206 où il est explicitement question de la timê d’Aphrodite, Hésiode n’évoque que ses compétences en matière de desire, de seduction et de sexualité.”4 Although P. builds upon Pausanias’s story of the foundation of Aphrodite Euploia’s shrine in the Piraeus by Konon, she discards his explanation of the cult and offers instead a theory based upon her own hypotheses but not attested in any ancient source.

The most egregious example is P.’s rationalization of Zeus’ speech to Aphrodite in Book V of the Iliad. To begin with, P. suggests that Homer should not be considered Panhellenic, and that he only presents a limited and pointedly atypical view of the goddess. “[L]es paroles de Zeus ne concernent-elles que l’Aphrodite de l’ Iliade ? . . . Il est donc préférable de ne pas projeter sur l’analyse des cultes l’image d’Aphrodite qui resort de l’ Iliade.”5 Although perhaps a good methodology to maintain in the study of Greek polytheism, P.’s argument here would carry more weight if she had applied a similar caveat to her fifth-century Athenian dramatic evidence, and if she could have accepted that, in the Homeric world at least, Aphrodite may in fact not be a war goddess. Instead, P. continues her rationalizations, arguing that the less than ideal warrior ethic displayed by Aphrodite’s favorite Paris, and his extreme fondness for the comforts of the bed, are due to his status as an ephebe, not effeminate incompetence or his close relationship with a non-martial goddess. Even if one were to dismiss the chronology that reckons Paris to be pushing 40 during the events of the Iliad, one would at least wonder why the much younger heroes Achilles and Diomedes had no such youth-based quirks. This entire section is extremely weak.

Another infelicity is P.’s tendency towards anachronism. Her study of “Black” Aphrodite in Hesiod is based primarily on works from Roman authors such as Plutarch, Pausanias, and even Clement of Alexandria (82-83). Her evidence for the Theseus stories likewise derives from Roman-age sources, and her novel analysis of Aphrodite’s turtle iconography, originally presented on a fifth-century BCE statue by Praxiteles, is also heavily based on Roman sources. P.’s epigraphic evidence is predominantly Hellenistic in date, and P. does not consider whether influences from east or west during this period may have influenced Greek cults. As F. Sokolowski has written, the epithet Strateia born by Aphrodite, Zeus, and Hekate in eastern Greece was probably related to the cult at Carian Labraunda, not warfare.6 As J. Wallensten has argued, closer connections with Rome starting in the third century influenced the way Greek officials “interacted” with the Roman national mother.7 Put simply, P. decontextualizes and universalizes the data that support her claims, just as she casts off as “atypical” that which contradicts her.

Finally, P. tends to force the evidence to fit her hypothesis. For example, she takes Aphrodite’s presence in stories of maritime adventures, such as the tales of Theseus or Konon’s shrine, as indicative of the goddess’s martial role rather than considering her associations with the sea. The fact that men display the traits of belligerence and sexual virility simultaneously indicates for P. that these two concepts must be combined under the auspices of Aphrodite. “Le parcours conduisant de la pubertyé à la maturité sexuelle est indissociable de celui qui conduit les jeunes garçons à devenir des guerriers et à intégrer la communauté civique. Pour eux, la saison d’Aphrodite coincide avec la saison d’Arès” (191). However, one might argue that boys grow up and spend some 40-50 years of their lives sexually and militarily active, along with all other aspects of adult life.

In the end, P.’s arguments for a martial Aphrodite are not entirely convincing. Nevertheless, P. has done a great service to the study of ancient Greek religion by forcefully breaking the mould into which so many scholars have so blithely encased Aphrodite. Entre ciel et guerre expresses well the harsher sides of ancient Greek love and sexuality in a way that is more coherent than A. Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet and far less polemical than B. Thornton’s Eros: The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality. This book will definitely become standard reading for anyone who wishes to understand not only Aphrodite’s persona in Greek religion, but the conceptual framework of ancient polytheism.


1. Pg. 14, “Ce n’est pas en regardant vers un prétendu prototype oriental de la déesse guerrière que ce dossier controversé sera abordé…”

2. P. 153, “mais en laissant de côté les étymologies scientifiques des modernes pour nous concentrer sur les étymologies ‘à l’ancienne’.” P. 154, “nous ne nous attacherons pas à déceler dans le nom d’Aphrodite les traces d’une éventuelle origine proche-orientale ou indo-européen de la déesse.”

3. Pg. 176. This idea repeats on p. 189.

4. P. 30. This issue reemerges on p. 75, “Hésiode n’évoque pas directement l’aspect violent que cette déesse peur parfois revêtir.”

5. P. 211, excerpted. See likewise pp. 221-222.

6. Fr. Sokolowski, 1955. Lois Sacrées de l’Asie Mineure. Paris. Pg. 155.

7. “Aphroditei anetheken arxas: A study of dedications of Aphrodite from Greek magistrates” Ph.D. Dissertation. Lund University, 2003.