BMCR 2011.01.14

Aphrodite. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World

, Aphrodite. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. London/New York: Routledge, 2010. xvi, 155. ISBN 9780415775236. $30.95 (pb).

For the last few years, Greek gods seem to have been a fashionable issue, more so than during a large part of the previous century, when most scholars prioritized ritual above the divine or heroic addressees. Such a trend has been recently highlighted by Jan N. Bremmer in the introduction to a collection of essays jointly edited with Andrew Erskine: The Gods of Ancient Greece. Identities and Transformations.1 In the book’s first essay, Albert Henrichs asks the question ‘What is a Greek god?’ and he refers to the Routledge series “Gods and heroes of the ancient world” in a footnote. Since the “Aphrodite” under review here has been published in this series, Henrichs’ brief critical remarks need to be addressed before assessing the new “Aphrodite”. I will also take this opportunity to set out the methodological background of the present review.

Henrichs underlines the fact that the concept of the Routledge series is “a stark reminder of the widespread tendency to study the Greek gods individually and in isolation from one another.”2 Such an assessment is surely correct. However, the question it raises is closely related to the methodological problem of studying a multifarious system. In a monograph, one runs the risk of focusing too restrictively on the chosen deity, but the regional option (the only alternative model at the moment)3 has its own limitations insofar as it conveniently marks out connections within a local system, without necessarily addressing the question of the presence of Athena, Zeus, Dionysus, Aphrodite, etc. in all these local systems. Moreover, if this point is taken into consideration, the analysis of single deities within a local pantheon runs the risk of resorting to a “canonic” and basic description of the divine persona without comparing it with other local evidence. Another (often implicit) option is to consider that a Greek god is a different deity each time in every local configuration, without any connection with its Panhellenic image. For those who do not subscribe to such a conception, a monographic approach is legitimized by the necessity of taking into account all the aspects of a single deity, conveyed by various kinds of evidence (literary, epigraphic, archeological). Nevertheless, a deity-centered perspective must remain open and does not exempt scholars from looking more widely in order to identify associations and partnerships within the divine world described in narratives and honored in cults.

Let us return to the series “Gods and heroes of the ancient world”. As its foreword makes clear, volumes published within this series are expected to propose a middle ground between both perspectives, by focusing on an individual deity, while at the same time dealing with a god within a broader pantheon. In 2009, just before the publication of “Aphrodite”, the volume on Apollo, written by the well-known historian of Greek religion Fritz Graf, perfectly achieved the series’ intentions with a well-informed, well-balanced presentation of the god, doing justice to Apollo’s various aspects within a multifarious system and building his interpretive study on all the available evidence.

Aphrodite is the next volume in the Routledge series. The goddess represents a beautiful and appealing subject for research, and indeed studies of Aphrodite have met with flourishing editorial success for the last four decades at least.4 The challenge of writing such a volume was not an easy one for two reasons. The first is the high quality of the preceding volume on Apollo. The second is the growing interest in the worship of Aphrodite, a subject that is becoming increasingly more complex than the standard concept of the goddess would imply, i.e. the basic ideas of love and beauty: the local cults of the goddess entail a close relationship with sexuality ( ta aphrodisia), but also with marriage, human reproduction and vegetal moisture, life force and civic bodies, maritime and warlike enterprises… so many issues that largely go beyond what is suggested by a simple reading of some literary texts.

The volume on Aphrodite is divided into seven different chapters under three main headings. The first heading asks the question “Why Aphrodite?” and provides a brief introduction. The second heading encompasses the “key themes” in five chapters (“Birth, origins, names”; “Love, sex, war”; “Beauty, adornment, nudity”; “Intimacy with mortals”; “Sea and Sky”). The third and last heading explores the legacy of the goddess (“Aphrodite afterwards”) in a chapter entitled “After Greek antiquity”. The structure of the three headings is imposed by the series, but the content is an authorial choice.

Reviewing in detail the volume’s introduction provides important clues to understanding M.S.C.’s authorial point of view.

The opening sentence is clear: “Aphrodite is the ancient Greek goddess of erotic love and beauty”: this traditional image is never questioned in depth. Afterwards, we find the goddess’ birth as described by Hesiod: “[she is] born from the sea spume around the severed genitals of Ouranos” (in fact, the goddess comes more bluntly from the sperm of the severed genitals). Then her Homeric parents are mentioned, her father Zeus and her mother Dione, who is curiously labeled as a “sea goddess” (Homer never mentions such a quality and Dione, while in the Theogony, she is a daughter of Okeanos, who is not the sea but the primordial river). Immediately afterwards, the vexata quaestio of Aphrodite’s origins is mentioned: “Aphrodite’s cultural heritage reveals Near Eastern, Indo-European and Cypriot features”. This is a ‘syncretic’ version of the scholarship on the subject, which perpetuates the questionable reconstruction developed by P. Friedrich in his Meaning of Aphrodite in 1978.5 M.S.C. also provides some insights regarding some of the cults of Aphrodite: “She is revered as Pandēmos, ‘She who Belongs to all the People’, and poets describe her as Philommeidēs, ‘smile loving’. She is especially revered by prostitutes and seafarers” (p. 3). Such an association signifies a particular interpretation: Pandēmos is implicitly related to sex and prostitutes, while such an epiclesis is almost always a civic one. Moreover, to place prostitutes and seafarers at the forefront of Aphrodite’s worshippers is a distorted way of introducing the reader to her cults. As other cult titles begin to appear from the very start, we find Pontia and Pelagia, Euploia and Limenia, but Pelagia is a literary epithet for Aphrodite and not a cult-title (in contrast to the case of Isis). The concluding sentence of this first introductory paragraph “Who is Aphrodite?” is puzzling: “Aphrodite’s influence extends over the intermingled realms of sky, land and sea. Her extraordinary power still prevails in the world today”. Some assertions made in the next sentence are more astounding than puzzling: “Aphrodite is a goddess of immense authority and universal significance. One of the most widely worshipped deities in Greek antiquity, Aphrodite is venerated in many different religious cults [are there cults other than “religious”?] all over the Mediterranean.” After such claims, how could historians of Greek religion convincingly support scholarly approaches advancing the case for single deities?

Later on in the introduction, M.S.C. pinpoints “three most important ideas for understanding the Greek conception of Aphrodite”, which “arise out of the ancient sources”. We find:

1. Anodos or “going up”, referring to “the goddess who emerges from the sea into the sky”: the term anodos is not very well chosen since it implies a moving upwards that is completely absent from the Hesiodic description of Aphrodite’s birth. The goddess is formed at the surface of the sea by Ouranos’ sperm, and then she “travels” before arriving in Cythera and then Cyprus. M.S.C. is right to link Hesiod and Aphrodite’s power over the sea, but the goddess is not described as born “from the sea into the sky” as we read throughout this volume. This is a pity because one of the best insights of the volume is precisely the underlining of the link between Aphrodite and the sea (in the chapter “Sea and Sky”).

2. Kosmēsis or adornment, i.e. Aphrodite’s lovely appearance and powerful physicality. It is perfectly true that Aphrodite’s sphere of influence entails a peculiar accent on beautiful surroundings and finery, particularly in literary texts. However, M.S.C. overvalues such an aspect in confusing the divine persona and her powers. The consequence is a standard vision of Aphrodite as the divine incarnation of an eternal female ideal (p. 143: “Today, more than ever, Aphrodite is an enduring and eloquent symbol of the feminine divine”). In this way, Aphrodite has completely lost her political or even matrimonial dimensions, and so many of her male worshippers.

3. Mixis or “mingling”. M.S.C. is clearly aware of G. Pironti’s thesis6 where such a useful clue to understanding Aphrodite was used for the first time, but the systematic and indiscriminate use of the word considerably weakens its effective usefulness as an interpretive tool (“As the divine embodiment of mixis (!), Aphrodite also represents the union of sea, land and sky, as she expresses her capacity for mediation within those elemental networks.” [p. 5]. This is a sentence that remains completely obscure to me).

The next step in the volume’s introduction is the issue of the available evidence on Aphrodite. We find literary texts from Homer to the Roman period, and artistic representations, both kinds of sources offering “crucial information about how the ancient Greeks viewed her myths, meanings and functions”. Not even a single word about inscriptions and cults, a very significant absence echoing the meager cultic elements throughout the different chapters. Finally, the overview of such an introduction describes the book’s mission as an investigation of several key themes “that exemplify and define the idea of Aphrodite”. What is the “idea” of a Greek god? It could be a metaphoric way of referring to the complex network defining a deity’s specific features in contrast to other gods. However, the metaphor is here taken at face-value and we finally find two closely connected ideas of Aphrodite: erotic love and beauty.

I am conscious that I have chosen a very antipathetic way of reviewing this volume, by dissecting its introduction. I have done so because the problems revealed in these few pages recur throughout the volume. Searching for The Meaning of Aphrodite, as Friedrich did thirty years ago, is a perfectly respectable option and the very literary vision of the goddess held by M.S.C. lies within the same framework. As an historian of Greek religion, I do not share in such a vision, but this is my own responsibility. Nevertheless, far from being simply related to such a divergent scholarly approach, the critical remarks above arise from two problems. The first problem lies in serious mistaken assertions presented as early as the introduction and continuing throughout the whole volume. The second problem is based on the fact that this study of Aphrodite had to fit the series’ intentions, which are much more ambitious, as Graf’s Apollo has shown. The necessity of following the editorial line of the series ends in a superficial and often distorted vision of the cults, artificially connected with a (debatable) literary interpretation of Aphrodite as the “embodiment of the feminine divine”.

A volume “intended to interest the general reader as well as being geared to the needs of students” (p. xiii) has an informative responsibility even more important than in the case of scholarly studies to be read by colleagues. The “Aphrodite” of the Routledge series unfortunately provides an out-dated way of understanding a goddess who is not “one of the most widely worshipped deities in Greek antiquity” (a position that no god could claim…) but whose cults demonstrate that a Greek god is still more than an idea, or to be more precise, is often very different from our ideas about it.


1. J.N. Bremmer, A. Erskine (eds.), The Gods of Ancient Greece. Identities and Transformations, Edinburgh, 2010 (Edinburgh Leventis Studies, 5).

2. A. Henrichs, “What is a Greek god?”, ibid., p. 27, n. 32.

3. One of the last publications in this direction is particularly successful: R. Parker, Polytheism and Society at Athens, Oxford, 2005, esp. the last part entitled “Gods at work”.

4. See V. Pirenne-Delforge, “Flourishing Aphrodite: an overview”, in A. Smith, S. Pickup (eds.), Companion to Aphrodite, Leiden, Brill, 2010, p. 3-16.

5. P. Friedrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite, Chicago, 1978, p. 9-53, esp. the so-called “syncretic-cybernetic model” on page 52.

6. G. Pironti, Entre ciel et guerre. Figures d’Aphrodite en Grèce ancienne, Liège, 2007 ( Kernos, suppl. 18).