Category Archives: Midsummer
Etymology: “Rising from the Sea,” Aphros “Sea Foam”
Other Names and Epithets: Αφροδιτη, Acraea, Amathusia, Ambologera (”She who Postpones Old Age”), Anadyomene, Antheia, Aphrodite Areia (“War-Like”), Aphrodite en kopois (“Aphrodite of the Gardens”), Chryse (mythology), Cytherea, Lady of Cythera, Despoina, Aphrodite Pandemos, Aphrodite Ourania or Urania (Heavenly Aphrodite), Aphrodite Benetrix (Married Love), Aphrodite Porne (Erotic Love), Pandemos, Urania, Lady of Cyprus, Philommeidḗs (“Smile-Loving” or “Laughter-Loving”), Eleemon (“The Merciful”), Genetyllis (“Mother”), Potnia (“Mistress”), Enoplios (“Armed”), Morpho (“Shapely”), Melainis (“Black One”), Skotia (“Dark One”), Androphonos (“Killer of Men”), Anosia (“Unholy”), Tymborychos (“Gravedigger”), Aphrodite Pontia (“Of the Deep Sea”), and Aphrodite Euploia (“Of the Fair Voyage”)
Aphrodite is the Greek goddess of love, specifically sexual love, beauty, desire and fertility. With an irresistible charm and beauty, Aphrodite is used to getting her way as many a mortal and god sought her favor. For those who spurned her, Aphrodite could be vindictive like many a Greek deity’s reputation for pettiness. Aphrodite is without a doubt, one of the best-known Olympian goddesses. In more modern times, Aphrodite is still seen one of many feminine icons from mythology who continues to feature in Western literature and arts.
Aphrodite’s Roman counterpart is Venus and their myths become very intertwined over the millennia to the point that their names are often interchangeable in Aphrodite’s myths.
Animal: Dolphin, Dove, Ducks, Geese, Heron, Ram, Sparrow, Swan, Tortoise
Colors: Blue, Green, Scarlet, White, Gold
Day of the Week: Friday
Gemstones: Lapis Lazuli, Pearl
Month: April, February, July
Patron of: Love, Lovers, Prostitutes
Plant: Apple, Lime Tree, Mandrake, Myrtle, Myrrh, Palm, Pomegranate, Poppy, Rose
Sphere of Influence: Love in all of its forms, physical, sensual, passion, relationships
Symbols: Girdle, Golden Apples, Scallop Shells, Mirror, the Ocean, Chocolate
Aphrodite Areia – Helmet, Lance, Shield, Sword, Victory
Aphrodite Pandemos – Ram
Aphrodite Urania – Tortoise for Domestic Modesty and Chastity
In Classic Greek art, Aphrodite is often depicted as a blue-eyed, golden-haired woman with pale skin. For the Greeks, she was the very ideal of beauty. Statues of Aphrodite depict her as the height of Grecian physical beauty. At first, there was nothing to distinguish Aphrodite from other statues of goddesses, not until around the 5th century B.C.E. Statues of Aphrodite from Cyrene and Esquiline in the 1st century B.C.E. were called Aphrodite Kallipygos or “Aphrodite with a Beautiful Derriere.”
Classical art and sculpture from the 5th century B.C.E. will show Aphrodite as fully clothed, once the 1st century B.C.E. comes, do nude statues of Aphrodite appear. The most famous of the Aphrodite sculptures was carved by Praxieteles. It is during the Hellenistic era of Greece that the first nude statue of Aphrodite, the Venus de Milo appears in the 2nd century B.C.E.
Aphrodite is often shown accompanied with her son Eros, also a god of love.
What’s In A Name
We know the first part of Aphrodite’s name, aphros means sea foam or foam and alludes to her birth from the ocean when Uranus’ gentiles were thrown in the sea by his son Cronus. There were early attempts by scholars to link Aphrodite’s name to a Greek or Indo-European origin. Given the strong connections of Aphrodite to the Middle East and likely of Semitic origin.
Nineteenth and early twentieth scholars who accepted the etymology of “sea form” for the first part of Aphrodite’s name have tried to connect the second part of the name “-odite” to mean either “wanderer” or “brite.” As there’s disagreements, some scholars have even gone so far as to link Aphrodite’s name to the Assyrian barīrītu, the name of a female demon found in Babylonian texts. Others have tried for the Etruscan word of “eproni” for “lord” making the last part of Aphrodite’s name an honorific. The name continues to be debated as to what the correct translation and etymology for Aphrodite’s name is.
The epithets of Urania for Heavenly Dweller and Pandemos for “Of all the people” likely try to connect her as a goddess of universal love and everyone. In his Symposium, Plato argues that the epitaphs of Aphrodite Ourania and Aphrodite Pandemos are two separate deities.
There is a lot of evidence and discussions that Aphrodite very strongly began as the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar or the Phoenician Astarte and the Syro-Palestinian goddess Ashtart.
Pausanias records that the first people to worship Aphrodite were the Assyrians and then the people of Cyprus, followed by the Phoenicians at Ascalon. From there, Aphrodite’s cult and worship spread throughout most of Greece.
Looking at the epitaph of Aphrodite Ourania shows a connection to Inanna as the Queen of Heaven. Early art and literature that describes Aphrodite is very similar to Inanna. Like Inanna, Aprodite was worshiped as a war goddess, at least in the second century B.C.E. Pausanias makes mention where in Sparta, she is worshipped as Aphrodite Areia, meaning “warlike.” Pausanias also records that early statues in Sparta and Cythera show Aprodite bearing arms. Modern scholars use this connection of Aphrodite with her Middle Eastern origins. It makes sense when ancient Grecian culture once stretched as far as where modern Turkey and Syria are today.
Doves – One of Aphrodite’s symbols, the dove is also connected to Ishtar as one of her symbols. Scholars have noted that the Greek word for dove is “peristera” is likely comes from the Semitic phrase of “perah Istar” meaning “bird of Ishtar.” How interesting. Doves appear in a lot of ancient Greek art for pottery, reliefs, and sculptures depicting Aphrodite.
At one point, early comparative scholars have tried to link Aprodite with Eos, the Greek goddess of the Dawn. It works and relies on linking to the Proto-Indo European Dawn goddess of Haéusōs who is then linked to the Greek Eos, the Latin Aurora and the Sanskrit Ushas.
Both Aphrodite and Eos are known for their erotic beauty and sexuality. They have both had relationships with mortal lovers (as have a good number of Greek deities). Add in, that both goddesses are associated with the colors of red, white, and gold. The myth of Aphrodite rising from the sea has a similarity to the Rigvedic myth of Indra defeating Vrtra and freeing Ushas. Which then brings the last comparison of Aphrodite and the Indo-European goddess Haéusōs both having a parentage that links them to of a sky deity.
Maybe, but it is the alternative mythological and etymological link when the Middle Eastern connection isn’t accepted. Plus, the whole Proto-Indo-European language is largely theoretical with many modern scholars leaning towards the Mesopotamian connections.
As a goddess of love, beauty and sexual desires, Aphrodite was and still is worshiped by a wide variety of people from nearly every walk of life. For ancient Greece, this is the everyday people up to the higher, ruling class
As a very sensual goddess of love, particularly sexual love and beauty, Aphrodite’s priestesses were known to engage in sexual activities themselves as part of worshiping her. It should be noted that this didn’t make them prostitutes, it was part of the job description for priestess of Aphrodite. If you’re seeing every woman as a goddess to held sacred, cherished, respected and worshiped, you’re not far from worshiping Aphrodite or any goddess or god of love. It is going to get carnal.
As such, Aphrodite had several shrines and temples dedicated to her. Her main temples and cults were to be found in Cythera and Cyprus.
Gynaikonomoi – If it hasn’t been noticed before, women in many Greek and even Roman myths aren’t treated well, whether goddess or mortal. The Gynaikonomoi or Magistrates in Charge of Women are mentioned in the 1st century C.E. Sparta.
Marriage – Pausanias records the practice of the mothers of brides sacrificing to a wooden image known as Aphrodite Hera, an epitaph of either goddess connecting the ideals of love and marriage. Pausanias goes on to mention a seated statue of Aphrodite Morpho or the “The Fair Shaped Aphrodite” that had a veil on her head and chains on her feet. Lovely. This statuary clearly meant to connect the role of brides and a woman’s place in a marriage with her duties with wives being faithful to husbands.
Prostitutes – Yes, Aphrodite is the patron goddess of prostitutes. The city of Corinth was known for the high number of prostitutes and courtesans. With Corinth also being one of Aphrodite’s main cult centers with a major temple, it led to early scholars believing in the concept of “sacred prostitution” in Greco-Roman cultures with nearby islands of Cyprus and Cythera and even Sicily being associated with prostitution. There are records of many dedications to Aphrodite found in poetry and pottery by courtesans that have been found. Plus, you add in that Aphrodite’s Mesopotamian counterpart Inanna is also associated with prostitution. While the idea of “sacred prostitution” persists in some schools of thought, the idea is getting discarded more and more.
Amathus – This is one of Aphrodite’s centers of worship on the island of Cyprus.
Corinth – On mainland Greece, this city was one of Aphrodite’ centers of worship.
Cyprus – Aphrodite’s center of worship was clearly on this island as evidenced by the numerous sanctuaries dedicated to this goddess. Aphrodite would be called Cyprian for her connection to this island as her birthplace.
Cythera – Another island where Aphrodite’s worship was prominent. It had been a Minoan colony at one point. Some myths will place Aphrodite’s birth as being here, giving her the epitaph of Cytherea. The island was certainly a stopping point for the trade route between Crete and Peloponesus which in turn could mean that the myths might have evidence of how Aphrodite’s cult came from the Middle East to Greece.
Pandemos – This the oldest of Aphrodite’s cult-sites that dates back to 230 B.C.E. Here, Aphrodite was known as Aphrodite Pandemos or “Aphrodite who is Common to all the People.” This Aphrodite was associated with the hero Theseus and worshipers of Aphrodite Pandemos sought out her blessings for uniting the people of Athens. Not just for personal relationships, but political connections too. The cult of Aphrodite Pandemos is very likely led to the formation of democracy.
This city located on Cyprus is the location for one of Aphrodite’s most well-known temples, especially in the ancient world. It is thought that the rites dedicated to Aphrodite were a blend of oriental and Aegean influences that could ultimately trace their origins to the Mesopotamian Ishtar and Phoenician Astarte. Archeological studies have shown that the cult of Aphrodite dates back to the Late Bronze Age, roughly 1200 B.C.E. and continue uninterrupted up to the Late Roman Era towards the 4th century C.E. There are suggestions that Aphrodite’s worship could possibly go back to the Chalcolithic Era. Female figurines and charms have been found dating to the third millennium and religious sanctuaries called temenos were well established before the construction of any Late Bronze Age structures.
Prior to this, Pausanias thought Aphrodite’s cult was introduced from Syria and of Phoenician origin. Prior to more modern Archeology, people that that Aphrodite’s worship and cult dated back before Homer’s time of around 700 B.C.E. with mention of Aphrodite’s altar in the Odyssey.
Paphos is also the location that the Greeks say where Aphrodite landed when she arrived at Cyprus when she rose out of the sea. An oracle was also to found here in Paphos. The Sanctuary of Aphrodite Paphia was a pilgrimage destination for her followers. The city gains its name from Paphos, the son of Pygmalion and Galatea.
During this era of classical Greek history that many are familiar with, the Greeks began to identify Aphrodite with the Egyptian goddesses of Hathor and Isis. Aphrodite would become the patron goddess of the Lagid queens. As was Egyptian custom, Queen Arsinoe II was claimed to be the mortal incarnation of Aphrodite.
Aphrodite’s worship spread to the city of Alexandria with many temples dedicated to her that could be found around the city. The cult of Adonis was introduced to the city by Queen Arisone II. The Tessarakonteres galley had a temple dedicated to Aphrodite with a marble statue. Another temple dedicated to Aphrodite Hathor would be established in the second century B.C.E. at Philae. Statuettes of Aphrodite would become very common for people to do personal devotions during the Ptolemaic era in Egypt and last through when it came under Roman rule.
The Romans readily adopted and identified Aphrodite with their own goddess Venus who was originally a goddess of agriculture, fertility, vegetation, and Spring. This would become official in the third century B.C.E. when the cult of Venus Erycina is introduced to Rome by way of the Grecian sanctuary for Aphrodite on Mount Eryx in Sicily. From here, the iconography and imagery of Aphrodite along with her myths would be attached to Venus.
Further cementing this adaptation is that Aphrodite was revered as the mother of the Trojan hero Aeneas in Greek myths and the Romans hailed him as the ancestor to Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome. With this connection, Venus as Venus Genetrix, the mother of the Roman nation became prominent. The Greek worship of Aphrodite began to emphasis more and more her connection to the city of Troy and Aeneas. More and more Roman influences and elements began to connect Aphrodite as more maternal and militaristic and more connected to the bureaucracy that Aphrodite became a divine guardian of numerous magistrates.
Parentage and Family
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born from the dismembered genitals of Uranus after Cronus cut them off. She rose up from the sea where they landed after being thrown.
Sometimes the primordial sea goddess Thalassa is given as Aphrodite’s mother in the myth with Uranus.
According to Homer’s Iliad, Zeus and Dione are her parents.
As a result of mixed parentage, depending on if you go by Hesiod’s Theogony or Homer’s Iliad, Aphrodite is going have several siblings.
Aeacus, Angelos, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Dionysus, Eileithyia, Enyo, Eris, Ersa, Hebe, Helen of Troy, Hephaestus, Heracles, Hermes, Minos, Pandia, Persephone, Perseus, Rhadamanthus, the Charities, the Horae, the Litae, the Muses, the Moirai, or the Titans, the Cyclopes, the Meliae, the Erinyes (Furies), the Giants, the Hekatonkheires
Hephaestus – Husband and god of Smithing and Volcanoes.
With Adonis, Aphrodite is the mother of Beroe and Golgos.
With the god Ares, Aphrodite is the mother of: the Erotes: Anteros, Eros, Himeros and Pothos (though sometimes Pothos is listed as Eros’ son). Other children of theirs are: Phobos, Deimos, Phlegyas, Harmonia and Adrestia.
In early myth, Anteros was originally born from the sea alongside Aphrodite, later on, he comes her son by Ares.
With Butes, Aphrodite is the mother of Eryx, Meligounis, and a number of unnamed daughters.
With Dionysus, Aphrodite is the mother of Hymenaios, Iacchus, and the Charities (Aglaea, Euphrosyne, and Thalia)
With the god Hermes, Aphrodite is the mother of the androgynous deity Hermaphroditus.
With Phaethon, Aphrodite is the mother of Astynous.
With the god Poseidon, Aphrodite is the mother of Eryx, Rhodus and Herophilus.
With the mortal Prince Anchises, Aphrodite is the mother of Aeneas
Peitho has no father is given for him.
Priapus – either the gods Adonis, Ares or Dionysus is their father.
Aphrodite is counted among the twelve major deities who resided on Mount Olympus, the highest mountain peak in Greece and all of Europe. For the Greeks, this was the perfect location for where the gods would preside at while keeping watch on humankind down below them.
As there are several deities within Greek mythology, just who numbers among the Olympians varies. It’s generally agreed that the twelve major Olympians are: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Ares, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Hermes, and then either Hestia or Dionysus.
Also called Aphrodisia, as the name implies, this was a festival held in Aphrodite’s honor and was celebrated in many places around Greece during midsummer. It was a festival involved substances believed or known to cause sexual arousal and desire. This festival was most notably in Athens and Cornith.
In Athens, Aphrodisia would be celebrated in the month of Hekatombaion to celebrate Aphrodite’s rule in the unification of Attica. In the old Grecian calendar, the month of Hekatombaion corresponded with the month of July and was the first month of the year.
The priests of Aphrodite would purify the Temple of Aphrodite Pandemos with the blood of a dove that had been sacrificed. The altars would than be anointed and the statues of Aphrodite Pandemos and Aphrodite Peitho would be carried down to be ritually bathed.
This is another festival that honored Aphrodite in Athens. Not much is known about this festival.
The fourth day of every month was also held sacred to Aphrodite.
Attendants Of Aphrodite
Charities – The Graces in Roman mythology, this group of goddesses were known to accompany Aphrodite. They were Aglaea (“Splendor”), Euphrosyne (“Good Cheer”), and Thalia (“Abundance.”) They were worshiped as goddesses in Greek long before the arrival of Aphrodite.
Erotes – Aphrodite’s many sons who all presided over a different aspect of love.
Eros – Is the primary son who most people think of as accompanying Aphrodite. Most people are familiar with his Roman name of Cupid. By either name, Eros is the god of lust and sexual desire. Eros is described as one of four original primeval forces born at the beginning of time in Hesiod’s Theogony. After the birth of Aphrodite, Eros joins Himeros to become one of her companions.
Harmonia – A minor goddess of harmony. She is Aphrodite’s daughter with Ares, she is sometimes seen accompanying her.
Hebe – The goddess of youth, she is the daughter of Zeus and Hera. Hebe sometimes accompanied Aphrodite.
Horae – The Hours, they are the daughters of Zeus and Themis. Their names are Eunomia (“Good Order”), Dike (“Justice”), and Eirene (“Peace”).
In Sappho’s “Ode to Aphrodite,” the goddess is described as riding in a chariot that is pulled by sparrows.
Aphrodite isn’t just a Love Goddess, the sexual acts associated with her, Aphrodite’s attributes extend to the fertility of animals and vegetation, not just humans. In the story of Aphrodite’s affair with Ares, the version of the story found in the Iliad has Aphrodite returning to Cyprus so she can renew her virginity in Spring. Something she apparently does after each liaison. Some even suggest so far as to identify Aphrodite as a Mother Goddess as she gives birth to the crops each year. However, I think that domain is well and thoroughly covered with Demeter and Persephone. Though given the story of Aphrodite and Adonis, Mother Goddess and fertility still easily fits.
Pomegranates are thought to be associated with Aphrodite as the red seeds symbolized sexuality. An interesting side note, Greek women sometimes used pomegranates as a form of birth control.
Venus – When equating Aphrodite with the Roman goddess Venus, the poet Lucretius calls Aphrodite as a Genetrix for her creation and creative role in the world.
Plus, the aspects of Aphrodite as a fertility goddess really fit when under Roman influence and they have identified many of Aphrodite’s myths to their goddess and are busy tacking on Venus’ aspects to her Grecian counterpart.
This is the domain that Aphrodite is really known for, Love, all kinds of love. The many epitaphs that Aphrodite has denote which form of love she presides over.
Aphrodite Benetrix – Married Love
Aphrodite Porne – Erotic Love
Aphrodite Urania – Heavenly Aphrodite, Spiritual Love, the kind that is unconditional and all of creation.
That’s just a few of the names that cover the many types of love that Aphrodite presided over. In addition, Aphrodite had numerous sons, most notably Eros who would accompany her and who represented the different types of love.
Birth Of A Goddess
There are a couple different origin stories for Aphrodite.
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, Aphrodite was born when Uranus was castrated by his son Cronus and the severed member was thrown into the ocean. As the ocean began to churn and foam, Aphrodite rose up out of the waves. With Zephyr’s help, this Wind God blew the young goddess towards the island of Cyprus where flowers sprang up from her footsteps as she stepped on land. There, Aphrodite was welcomed by the Charities. From there, Aphrodite was dressed and taken to Mount Olympus to be presented to the other gods.
Other variations have Aphrodite arriving at Cythera. Seafood is known as aphrodisiacs as they are seen related to Aphrodite’s birth from the sea.
It is for the places of Cyprus and Cythera, that Aphrodite is also known by the names of Kypris and Cytherea.
It has been pointed out that Hesiod’s Theogony is likely pulled from the Hittite epic “The Song of Kumarbi” where Kumarbi overthrows his father, Anu the sky god by biting off his genitals and thus becoming pregnant to give birth to Ishtar and Teshub.
Homer, in his Iliad, however, says that Aphrodite is the daughter of Zeus and Dione. A note here is that Dione’s name is possibly a feminine form to Dios and Dion, both alternative names for Zeus and that both Zeus and Dione had a cult center in Dodona. Hesiod names Dione an Oceanid in his Theogony.
Marriage To Hephaestus
Following the genealogy with Zeus, he feared that the other gods would fight each other over who would get to marry Aphrodite.
Figuring himself wise and clever, Zeus married Aphrodite off to Hephaestus, the Smithing god. Imagine Hephaestus’ surprise, him the least comely of the gods and disabled. Elated, Hephaestus put all his efforts and skills in smithing to create the most exquisite jewels that he could for his bride. He even made a girdle of finely wrought gold with magic woven into it for Aphrodite.
While Hephaestus was happy with his marriage, Aphrodite wasn’t too pleased with the arrangement. She would have greatly preferred someone far more attractive and like many of the gods, she does have her affairs and dalliances.
Strophion – This is what Hephaestus will have crafted for Aphrodite, translations into English will call it a girdle. As lovely as this magic girdle is, whenever Aphrodite wore it, no one was able to resist her charms and was already irresistible to many. It’s been commented that Hera sometimes borrowed Aphrodite’s magic strophion from time to time.
The other name I have come across for this girdle or belt is cestus, which in Rome, a cestus is a set of armored leather gloves worn by boxers. That could be a translation error though as Aphrodite’s strophion was called “keston himanta” or (kestos himas) and that might be the source of confusion.
A final bit to note, is that this style of strophia were also used in depictions for the Middle Eastern goddesses Astarte and Ishtar.
Folklore – Instead of Zeus handing Aphrodite off in marriage, it is Hera who does so. In this one, Hephaestus made a golden throne for his mother Hera. When Hera sat down on the throne, it trapped her, and Hephaestus refused to release her until Hera agreed to give Aphrodite to him in marriage. Pleased that his mother agreed to the marriage, Hephaestus then gods to make his bride-to-be some jewelry, including the strophion that is often translated to mean girdle.
There are a few versions of Aphrodite’s marriage and who Hephaestus is actually married to.
Iliad – Aphrodite is the unmarried consort to Ares. Hephaestus’ wife is Charis, one of the Charities.
Odyssey – Book Eight is where the blind singer Demodocus describes Aphrodite as the wife to Hephaestus when the story of Aphrodite and Ares’ Affair is related.
Theogony – Aphrodite is unmarried, Hephaestus’ wife is Aglaea, the youngest of the Charities.
Aphrodite & Pandora
From Hesiod’s Works and Days, Zeus tasks Aphrodite to create Pandora, as the first woman to punish mankind after Prometheus’ stealing fire and gifting it to humans. Aphrodite makes Pandora to be both physically beautiful and sexually attractive so men will fall for her and lead to opening the box by which to release evils upon the world. Aphrodite’s attendants of Peitho, the Charities and the Horae contribute by gifting Pandora with gold and jewelry to be even more attractive.
Love Affair With Adonis
This is perhaps the most famous of Aphrodite’s affairs with a mortal by the name of Adonis.
Accordiing to Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Adonis is the son of Myrrha who was cursed by Aphrodite and turned into a Myrrh tree. Depending on the version of the story, either Myrrh’s father takes an axe to split open the tree or nine months later the tree burst, splitting open with Adonis being born.
Aphrodite found the infant and takes him down to the Underworld hidden in a chest to be entrusted into Persephone’s keeping. When Persephone discover a baby in the chest, she falls in love with the infant and takes care of him.
Later, Aphrodite returns to check in and discovers that Adonis has grown up to become remarkably handsome. By this time, Persephone is also rather attached to Adonis as well and what ensues is a custody battle of who gets Adonis.
Zeus took the matter into his own hands, in which he put the muse Calliope to arbitrate. She divided the year into three parts, saying that Adonis would spend one third with Aphrodite, another third with Persephone and the third part of the year as time to himself.
Having his own agency, Adonis comes to love Aphrodite more. It doesn’t help that Aphrodite cheated by wearing her magic girdle to cause Adonis to spend more time with her.
When it was time for him to go to the Underworld, Adonis refused. This angered Persephone so that she sent a wild boar to kill Adonis. This wild boar is actually Ares in a jealous rage. As Adonis died in Aphrodite’s arms, he was either transformed into the anemone flower or wherever Adonis’ blood fell, a red anemone flower sprung up.
Another account says that in her search for Adonis, that Aphrodite’s feet became cut and pierced by thorns and that the blood from her feet is what turned into the Anemone flowers.
A slight variation holds that Aphrodite acted as a surrogate mother to Adonis.
Sometimes the boar is sent by Artemis in retaliation for Aphrodite killing Hippolytus. Other times, it’s Apollo who is the boar that kills Adonis. Or that Dionysus carried Adonis away.
Phoenician Connection – It has been commented that the story of Persephone and Adonis is nothing more than the Greeks adopting the Phoenician story of Ashtarte and Adon. In the Canaanite language, Adon means lord and the names of Adonis and Adon appear to have a very solid linguistic connection.
Sumerian Connection – Another connection is that of the story of Inanna and Dumuzid.
Vegetation God – Some accounts will say that Adonis wasn’t mortal, that he was a deity in his own right and that this myth explains his death and rebirth each year for Summer and Winter as Zeus stepped in at this point saying that Adonis must spend the summers with Aphrodite and the winters with Persephone in the Underworld.
With this connection in mind, it’s been noted that Adonis’ cult had underworld tones of life and rebirth. From this, Aphrodite became connected with the dead in Delphi.
Aphrodite & Dionysus
Aphrodite is known to have numerous affairs. Depending on the account read, depends on if, with this story if it is either Dionysus, Hermes, Adonis or even Zeus himself who Aphrodite comes to bear the son Priapus with.
Generally, Dionysus is given as the father of Priapus with Aphrodite. As the story goes, following the events of the Trojan War, Hera was angry with Aphrodite’s interference when all the other gods were forbidden to be there by Zeus.
While pregnant with Priapus, Hera applied a potion to Aphrodite’s stomach as the goddess was sleeping. This was to ensure the child would be born deformed and monstrous-looking. When Aphrodite gave birth to Priapus, she was horrified by the sight of an infant with a large, permanently erect genital, potbelly, and large tongue. Aphrodite left the infant out on a hillside to die of exposure. However, a huntsman found the infant and raised them.
Later, Priapus would discover his powers as a deity and the ability to cause vegetation to grow.
Aphrodite & Hermes
First, a little bit of history. There was at one point, a male version of Aphrodite known as Aproditus. This is a male version of Aphrodite who was worshiped within the city of Amathus on the island of Cyprus. Aphroditus would be shown in art as having the dress and body of a woman while sporting a beard. He would be shown lifting up his dress to show his genitals, thought to be an apotropaic symbol or warding off evil. Eventually, Aphroditus’ popularity would fade away and the feminine form of Aphrodite would prevail.
Hermaphroditus – Also called Hermaphroditos. With so many gods having affairs with the fair and lovely Aphrodite, it isn’t too much of a surprise that she would also haven one with Hermes. The child that they had was a very handsome and beautiful boy of the name Hermaphroditus. A naiad by the name of Salmacis fell in love with Hermaphoditus and in a rare twist, she tried to rape him. When Hermaphroditus tries to fight off Salmacis, the naiad prays to the gods that they should become one. The gods answer, it’s not clear which one or ones answer and Salmacis and Hermaphroditus fuse into one intersex being. Horrified by what happened to him, Hermaphroditus called on his parents, Hermes and Aphrodite to curse the fountain so that others who entered it’s waters would have the same thing happen to them.
Traces of Aphroditus’ cult are found within Hermaphroditus’ story.
Love Affair With Ares
This story is told in the Odyssey, Book Eight by the blind singer Demodocus. This is also a story that probably began as a folk tale among the Greeks.
The Sun-god Helios had spotted the two gods, Ares and Aphrodite in a tryst in the halls of Hephaestus. Helios went to inform Hephaestus of his wife’s affair who then decided to try and catch the two in the act. Being the master smith and craftsman of the gods, Hephaestus created a finely woven and nearly invisible net to ensnare the two in. Waiting for the right moment, he succeeded in trapping both Ares and Aphrodite within the net.
Wanting to make sure the two were properly shamed and punished, Hephaestus called the other Olympian gods to come. All the goddesses declined to come, not wanting to be scandalized while all the gods did come and gawked. Some commenting to the beauty of Aphrodite and other stating they’d gladly trade places with Ares. In versions of the story, the gods agreed on Hephaestus’ right to be angry and in others, they didn’t care. In the end, when released, an embarrassed Ares returned to his home in Thrace and Aphrodite went to the city of Paphos on Cyprus where she would bathe in the sea to renew her virginity with the help of the Charities. It wouldn’t take Hephaestus long to forgive Aphrodite her affair as he missed her.
Elaborating on this story, a later addition, Ares had the youth Alectryon guarding the door to warn when Helios came by as he would no doubt inform Hephaestus of the affair. However, Alectryon fell asleep and Helios discovered the two’s affair. Ares, embarrassed and infuriated at being caught, turned Alectryon into a rooster and it’s that add-on to the story of Ares and Aphrodite’s affair that roosters always crow, announcing the rising of the sun in the morning.
Variation – A version of the story found in Homer’s Odyssey has Hephaestus refusing to release the lovers unless Zeus returned the bridal gifts. Zeus staunchly refused as he felt that Hephaestus shouldn’t have made the affair so public. Though in the Odyssey, Poseidon does agree to play Hephaestus’ price to release both Ares and Aphrodite.
From their affair, Ares and Aphrodite became the parents of several minor deities: Eros, Arethousa, Harmonia, Phobos, Deimos and Adrestia. Both Eros and Arethousa’s tended to have attributes more in align with Aphrodite. Adrestia tended to be more like her father Ares.
Aphrodite & Poseidon
It makes sense, that this story takes place right after Aphrodite’s affair with Ares. Poseidon fell in love with Aphrodite and there must have been a fling for there is one daughter, Rhode and a son, Herophilus who is attributed to Poseidon as being the father.
Aphrodite & Pygmalion
The myth of Pygmalion has its first mention in the third century B.C.E. by the Greek writer Philostephanus of Cyrene. The myth has a full accounting later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Pygmalion was a sculptor from the island of Cyprus who refused to marry any woman as he found them to all be immoral. Very well, Pygmalion sets about carving an ivory statue of Aphrodite that was so life-like that he fell in love with it.
So, in love with the statue, Pygmalion prayed to Aphrodite to bring the statue to live so he could marry it. Aphrodite heard the sculptor’s prayers and brought the statue to life, naming her Galatea. From their union, Galatea and Pygmalion had two children, Paphos, a son and from whom the capital of Cyprus would be named for, and a daughter Metharme as mentioned by Pseudo-Apollodorus.
Atalanta & Hippomenes
In this story, Aphrodite helped Hippomenes, a youth who desired to marry the maiden Atalanta. The catch was, Atalanta refused to marry any man unless they could beat her in a footrace, and she had the habit of beheading those who lost.
In comes Aphrodite give Hippomenes three golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides with the instructions to toss them before Atalanta as they raced. Doing as instructed, Hippomenes tossed the apples down in Atalanta’s path. Each time Atalanta bent down to pick up another golden apple, it would give Hippomenes more of a lead, allowing him to win the race and thus marry Atalanta.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story continues. Because Hippomenes forgot to give thanks to Aphrodite after words, she causes the two to become so infatuated with each other while in the Temple of Cybele. The two desecrated Cybele’s temple by having sex in it and an angry Cybele turned Hippomenes and Atalanta into lions.
Sometimes it is Zeus who punishes the two mortals. The Greeks believed that lions were not able to mate with other lions. Another version of the story will have Aphrodite turn them into lions when they forgot to give her proper tribute or offerings.
As it is Ovid’s Metamorphosis and the mention of Cybele, there’s a clear Roman influence on the second part of the story.
Aphrodite & Typhon – Pisces
Typhon, a monstrous god, attacked the Gods when they were down by the Nile River. In some retellings of the story, the Gods where there in exile or that just happens to be where they were at for one of their many battles with Typhon. In either eventuality, Aphrodite and her son Eros were among the gods along the Nile River’s banks when Typhon appeared to do battle. While Zeus and a couple of other gods fought it out with Typhon, Aphrodite and Eros had leapt into the river, changing into a pair of fish so they could make their escape. In other accounts of the story, Aphrodite and Eros tied themselves together with a rope so they wouldn’t get separated.
Another account of this story places the riverbank that the gods were walking along as being the Euphrates River and not the Nile River. There is also a very similar story found in a Manilius’ five-volume poetic work Astronomica in which the fish that become the constellation of Pisces carried Aphrodite and Eros away to safety.
Keeping with the Euphrates River connection, when an egg fell into this river, a pair of fish pushed it to the shore where doves then sat on the egg to hatch it. When it hatched, Aphrodite came out of the egg. In a show of gratitude, the goddess placed the fish up into the sky to become the constellation Pisces. Through these connections of the myth, Pisces is also known as “Venus et Cupido,” “Venus Syria cum Cupidine,” Venus cum Adone,” “Dione,” and “Veneris Mater.”
Eros & Psyche
Psyche happened to be an extraordinarily beautiful princess. This brought about the anger and jealousy of Aphrodite when people turned their attention to Psyche and worshiped her. Aphrodite enlisted the aid of her son Eros to help punish Psyche.
The idea is that Eros would cause Psyche to fall in love with the worst and vilest creature on the earth possible. Instead of doing as his mother bid, Eros fell in love with Psyche and took her home. He instructed Psyche that she was to never look upon his face.
All is well for a while until Psyche goes home to visit family and her sisters convince her to break Eros’ command and look upon his face. Psyche does this and hurt, angry, Eros flies away leaving poor Psyche behind.
Psyche beseeches Aphrodite for help with finding her lost love. Knowing who it is that Psyche is looking for, Aphrodite sets out a series of nearly impossible tasks for Psyche to do. Eventually Eros discovers what’s happening and as he can’t bear to see Psyche’s suffering, returns. The two are married with all the gods attending.
This story is an early model for the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast.
A Goddess Scorned
Many of the Greek gods have a reputation for being very fickle. Just as often as they favor mortals, they can also punish them too.
By the stories, Aphrodite is no different and she could be very gracious with those mortals whom she favored. For those mortals who didn’t fawn upon Aphrodite the attention and worship she felt she was owed, Aphrodite could be very vindictive.
Aegialeia – The wife of Diomedes, she was cursed by Aphrodite after Diomedes had wounded the goddess during the Trojan War. Aegialia was cursed with promiscuity and she had several lovers, among them Hippolytus. Now it could be, that Aegialeia was angry with Diomedes as she heard rumors, he was returning home with a Trojan woman and this was to get back at an unfaithful husband. When Aegialeia threatened Diomedes’ life, he took off for Italy.
Clio – When the Muse derided Aphrodite’s love for Adonis, Aphrodite caused Clio to fall in love with Pierus of Magnesia and they had a son, Hyacinth.
Eos – Aphrodite cursed Eos, the goddess of the Dawn to be forever, perpetually in love with an insatiable sexual desire after Eos had slept with Ares, god of war. Guess no one else was allowed to have Aphrodite’s sweetheart.
Glaucus of Corinth – He angered Aphrodite when he refused to let his chariot horses mate, as to do so would slow their speed down. Aphrodite bided her time and when the Funeral Games for King Pelias happened, the goddess caused Glaucus’ horses to go mad and tear him apart during the chariot race.
Halia – She is a sea nymph who bore six sons with Poseidon. When Halia’s sons refused to let Aphrodite land on their shore, Aphrodite drove them all insane, causing them to rape their mother, Halia. Poseidon buried his six sons within the island’s sea caves.
Hippolytus – The son of Theseus, he worshipped only Artemis, the goddess of virginity and hunting. Because Hippolytus refused any sexual intercourse, this upset Aphrodite who saw him as being very prideful. As a result, Aphrodite caused Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother to fall in love with him. Understandably so, Hippolytus refuses Phaedra’s advances. Phaedra however, is so distraught that she kills herself but not before leaving a note for Theseus, telling him that she committed suicide because Hippolytus tried to rape her.
This upsets Theseus who prays to Poseidon to kill Hippolytus for his actions. Poseidon answers by sending a wild bull to scare Hippolytus’ horses and smash the chariot so that he falls to his death along a seaside cliff. In the end, Artemis finally gets wind of what happened and goes to seek her own revenge against Aphrodite, which in some stories, is sending a wild boar to kill Adonis.
Leucippus – The grandson of Bellerophon, it is never clear what caused Aphrodit’e anger in this story. Only that the goddess caused Leucippus to fall in love with his sister. The sister was already betrothed to another and the betrothed found out about the incestuous relationship that Leucippus and his sister were having, went to inform their father Xanthius. Father Xanthius shows up at his daughter’s bed chamber and discovers his son, Leucippus there. As it’s dark, a fight ensues where the daughter is killed trying to escape and Leucippus kills his father as he doesn’t recognize who it is at first. Once he realizes what happened, Leucippus leaves to go be part of the colonizing of Crete and Asia Minor.
Myrrha – I covered this myth earlier in the story of Adonis. Myrrha’s mother, Queen Cenchreis of Cyprus had bragged that her daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite. In response, Aphrodite cursed Myrrha to fall in love with her father, King Cinyras who slept with her unknowingly. Eventually Myrrha turned into the myrrh tree and gave birth to Adonis.
It doesn’t end there, Aphrodite continued her wrath against Queen Cenchreis and King Cinyras’ other three daughters, Braesia, Laogora, Orsedice to sleep with some foreigners and they ended up dying in Egypt.
Narcissus – One account has Aphrodite cursing Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection after he refused to worship her.
Pasiphae – In one version, for the birth of the birth of the minotaur, Pasiphae had failed to make the appropriate offerings to Venus (Aphrodite), as a result, the goddess caused her to fall in love with the white bull meant as an offering to Zeus.
Alternatively, the curse comes because Pasiphae is the daughter of Helio and this is Aphrodite getting back at him for exposing her affair with Ares.
Polyphonte – Was a young woman and another devote to Artemis who chose a life of virginity instead of marriage and children. Aphrodite cursed Polyphonte to fall in love with a bear. Her resulting monstrous humanoid bear children, Agrius and Oreius who were cannibals. Zeus got involved this time and turned Polyphonte and her children into birds of ill omen; owls and a vulture.
Propoetides – He and his daughters were from the city of Amathus on the island of Cyprus. They had failed to worship Aphrodite appropriately and she caused them to become the first prostitutes. It should be noted that this is a story found in Ovid’ Metamorphoses.
Tanais – The son of Lysippe and Berossos, he was a devote to Ares, fully committed to war. This upset Aphrodite as Tanais neglected love and marriage. The goddess cursed Tanais to fall in love with his mother Lysippe. As he refused to give up his chastity, Tanais threw himself into the Amazonius river, which after words was renamed to the Tanais river.
The Women of Lemnos – Because these ladies refused to offer sacrifices to Aphrodite, she cursed all of them to have a horrible stench. We’re talking bad, to the point that their husbands refused to have sex with them. The husbands went and had sex with their Thracian slave-girls instead. This angered the Lemnos Women, and they murdered all the men and their slaves on their island. Later, when Jason and the Argonauts show up, these women are just starved for a man’s affections, that with Aphrodite’s approval, she allows for the Lemnos Women to have sex with Jason and his crew whereby they can repopulate the island. From there on out, the Lemnos Women never failed to appease Aphrodite.
The Judgement Of Paris
The gods were feasting at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, who would become the parents of Achilles. All the gods were invited accept Eris who hadn’t received an invite. Chiron was in charge of the wedding invites and didn’t invite Eris due to her reputation for stirring up trouble. This understandably miffed Eris to no end. After all, everyone else got invited, why not her?
Coming off as seeking to be peaceful and no hard feelings, Eris proposed a beauty contest between the goddesses Aphrodite, Athena, and Hera. As the prize, Eris tossed a golden apple of beauty, or better known, the golden apple of discord. In some retellings, it is noted that the golden apple has engraved or written the word: “Kallisti,” meaning: “for the fairest.”
This dispute, one driven by vanity over who was the loveliest of the goddess would escalate and the hapless mortal Paris is called in to judge. Each of the goddesses attempted to bribe Paris to choose her. Hera offered political power, Athena offered battle prowess and Aphrodite tempted Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen.
Being a young mortal man, Paris chooses Helen and rewards Aphrodite with the golden apple. Only there is one problem, Helen is the wife of Menelaus of Sparta. In claiming and taking her, Paris sparks off the Trojan War. This causes Athena and Hera to side with the Greeks in the ensuing war.
Divine Set Up – If we go by the “lost” epic, The Cypria attributed to Stasinus, this whole Trojan War was planned on by Zeus and Themis. There’s only about 50 lines of text from the Cypria and its seen as a prequel to Homer’s the Iliad and explains how the events came about.
Some scholars look at Aphrodite’s connection to Mesopotamia with the War Goddess Ishtar as an explanation for the start of the Trojan War, saying that Aphrodite instigated it by manipulating Paris with a promise to marry Helen.
Aphrodite has a prominent and active role in Homer’s Iliad. In Book III, Aphrodite rescues Paris from Menelaus after a one-on-one duel to settle the matter. Aphrodite also appears to Helen in the form of an old woman, trying to persuade her to have sex with Paris. However, Helen recognizes Aphrodite by her eyes, neck, and breasts. Helen entreats with Aphrodite as an equal and the goddess rebukes Helen, threatening her. Not wanting a god’s wrath, Helen obeys Aphrodite’s command to lay with Paris.
In Book XIV of the Iliad, Aphrodite loans her kestos himas or magic girdle to Hera so she can seduce Zeus as he had forbidden the other gods to stay involved in the Trojan War at this point. While Zeus is distracted by Hera’s advances, Poseidon is aiding the Greek forces to be able to take the beach to invade Troy. Then in Book XXI, Aphrodite returns to the war to carry Ares away off the field of battle after he’s been wounded.
Anchises – He was a shepherd prince who lived on Mount Ida, whom Aphrodite fell in love with after Zeus convinced Eros to hit her with one of his arrows. After all, with Aphrodite being the goddess of love, it’s her fault that Zeus has so many affairs and is constantly on the outs with Hera.
Aphrodite pretended to be a mortal woman in order to marry Anchises. When Anchises saw Aphrodite, he asked if she was said goddess, saying he would build her an alter if she would only bless him and his family. Aphrodite lied, saying she was a princess from Phrygia. She explains how she came to understand the Trojan language due to a Trojan nursemaid as a child. How she had been snatched away by Hermes while dancing for a celebration to honor Artemis. The disguised goddess tells Anchises to take her to his parents.
From there, the two are married or Anchises so overcome with lust, couples with the goddess-princess. After their union does Aphrodite reveal who she really is, saying she will bare Aenease a son who will become the demigod Aeneas. As Anchises didn’t keep quiet about who the mother of his son was, Zeus struck him down with a thunderbolt and either blinds or kills him outright.
There are a couple of slight versions to this story such as Aphrodite allowed for Anchises to be able to flee the city of Troy.
Aeneas – Trojan Hero and son of Aphrodite with Anchises. In book V of Homer’s Iliad, Aphrodite rescues her son from Diomedes in battle. Diomedes, recognizing Aphrodite and viewing her as a weak goddess, spears her, nicking her wrist. When Aphrodite rides back to Mount Olympus in Ares’ borrowed chariot, Zeus tells the goddess that her specialty is love, not war as he mocks her for getting hurt.
Aeneas features in Virgil’s Aeneid to be Rome’s first hero and an ancestor to Romulus and Remus.
Note: It has been commented that the scene of Aphrodite and Zeus has similarities in the Epic of Gilgamesh where Ishtar laments to her mother Antu after Gilgamesh rejects her advances and is in turn, rebuked by her father Anu.
With Aphrodite’s birth and arrival from the ocean, some people have worshiped Aphrodite as a sea goddess. Several types of waterfowl such as ducks, geese, and swans would become associated with Aphrodite. Naturally, seashells are associated with Aphrodite. Seafood is considered an aphrodisiac due to this lovely goddess’ connection to the briny deeps.
As a sea goddess, Aphrodite protects those who travel the seas. This earned her the epitaphs of Aphrodite Pontia or Aphrodite of the Deep Sea and Aphrodite Euploia or Aphrodite of the Fair Voyage. The planet Venus that Aphrodite is associated with, served as navigational aid for ancient mariners as they plied the seas.
With the previously mentioned Mesopotamian connection to the goddesses of Astarte and Ishtar, Aphrodite may have arrived first as a goddess of War in ancient Greece. She was honored as such in Cyprus, Laconia, Sparta, and Thebes to name a few places. In Sparta, Aphrodite was known as Aphrodite Areia (“War-Like”), showing her connection to the god Ares.
Eventually, the war aspects of Aphrodite would be dropped, and the role left to Athena and Ares.
Early Christianity readily adapted many pagan symbols and icons to their religion. With Aphrodite/Venus, her symbolisms were given to Eve, prostitutes, and some female saints such as the Virgin Mary.
The story of Aphrodite’s birth became a metaphor for baptism. There is a Coptic stele dating from the sixth century C.E. where a female orant is wearing Aphrodite’s conch shell to show she has been recently baptized. Throughout the Middle Ages, folktales regarding Aphrodite/Venus remained popular.
In the fifth century C.E. North Africa, Fulgentius of Ruspe found mosaics of Aphrodite that he proceeded to interpret as a symbol for the sin of Lust, how Aphrodite’s nudeness meant that “the sin of lust is never cloaked” and that her swimming represented how all lust suffers a “shipwreck”. Fulgentius even argued how the symbols of doves and conch shells were symbols of copulation and that the symbol of roses represented the fleetingness of lust, that it has momentary pleasures that are soon gone.
Then we have Isidore of Seville who interpreted Aphrodite as a symbol of marital procreative sex, declaring how the story of Aprodite’s birth represents that sex can only be holy with the presence of semen, blood and heat for the purposes of procreation. Isidore also held that Eros/Cupid is a demon of fornication.
Venusberg – Dating from the Late Middle Ages, the Venusberg mythology would become popular in European folklore. The “Mountain of Venus” is a subterranean realm ruled by Venus and a folktale archetype for visiting the Otherworld. The most familiar appearance of Venusberg is in the German Tannhäuser legend in the 16th century.
Variations to this myth are the mortal lover being carried away to the realm of faerie by a fairy queen. Popular legends include Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin.
Modern Paganism & Wicca
In modern Paganism such as the Church of Aphrodite, Hellenismos, and Wicca, either Aphrodite or her Roman counterpart, Venus are goddess often invoked for casting love spells and love rituals. Aphrodite is often used in charms for making aphrodisiacs, philters, and love potions.
Astarte – Canaanite & Phoenician Goddess
A goddess of love and war was worshiped in the Middle East during the Bronze Age to Classical Antiquity. Astarte was identified by the Hebrews as Ashtoreth.
Hathor – Egyptian Goddess
The Egyptian Cow Goddess Hathor is frequently identified with Aphrodite.
It wasn’t uncommon for the Greeks and Romans to equate many of their deities with those of other cultures. The Romans especially did it with any gods whose people they conquered. In the case of Egypt and their gods, Hathor in her role as a goddess of love and beauty is synonymous with the Greek Aphrodite and the Roman Venus.
Inanna – Mesopotamian Goddess
Also known as Ishtar, she is the goddess of love, war and sexuality. She is known as the Queen of Heaven.
Isis – Egyptian Goddess
The Egyptian goddess of the moon, healing, magic and life who protected women and children. During the Hellenistic Grecian era, she was equated with Aphrodite.
Turan – Etruscan Goddess
The Etruscan goddess of beauty, love, and fertility. She was the patron goddess of the city Velch. She has been identified with the Roman Venus and Grecian Aphrodite.
Venus – Roman Goddess
As the Greek Goddess of Love, Aphrodite is often confused with or identified with the Roman deity of Venus, also a Goddess of Love. Thanks greatly to the influence of the Romans, many people will identify and equate Venus with Aphrodite. While both deities are Goddesses of Love, there are differences in the Roman myths and the Greek myths.
The Romans were famous for subsuming many deities in their conquest across Europe, particularly the Mediterranean area, and identifying their gods with those of a conquered culture. The most famous being the Greeks, where many deities were renamed to those of Roman gods. Prominent examples like Zeus and Jupiter, Hera and Juno, Ares and Mars and so on down the line.
With the Hellenization of Latin literature, many Greek writers and even Roman writers rewrote and intertwined the myths of these two deities so that they would virtually become one and the same. And that’s the tradition passed down through the centuries and has become accepted. Just that there are still some differences that separate the two.
Just as Aphrodite is often accompanied by her son Eros, so too is Venus accompanied by her son Cupid.
Other Names: All-Heal, Birdlime, Devil’s Fuge, Donnerbesen, Druid’s Herb, Golden Bough, Herbe de la Croix, Holy Wood, Lignum Sanctae Crucis, Misseltoe, Mistillteinn, Mystyldyne, Thunderbesem, Witches’ Broom, Wood of the Cross,
Deity: Apollo, Balder, Cerridwen, Freya, Frigga, Odin, Taranis, Thor, Venus
Sphere of Influence: Defense, Dreams, Exorcism, Fertility, Health, Hunting, Invisibility, Locks, Love, and Protection
Symbols: Friendship, Peace
Victorian Language of Flowers: “I surmount difficulties, I send you a thousand kisses.”
What Is It?
Mistletoe is the common name for plant that is parasitic (hemiparasite) in that it grows by attaching itself to the branches of a tree or shrub, taking water and nutrients from the host plant. The mistletoe species, Viscum album is the one referred to in folklore is that is native to Great Britain and most of Europe. It is characterized by having a smooth-edged, oval shaped evergreen leaves set in pairs along the stem and white berries that are known to be poisonous.
There are a variety of other species of mistletoe plants found in other countries of Europe such as Spain and Portugal and on other continents. American Mistletoe is also known as False Mistletoe as the homeopathic remedies and uses are different from the European Mistletoe. Over time, the term mistletoe has come to include other species of parasitic plants. Even plants get parasites…
Despite mistletoe’s parasitic nature, it does have an ecological benefit with being a keystone species in that it provides food for a variety of animals that feed on it as well as providing nesting material for various birds.
There used to be all sorts of folkloric beliefs about how mistletoe would come to grow on various shrubs and trees. By the sixteenth, botanists had it figured out that seeds were passed by the digestive tracts of birds who fed on mistletoe or by the birds rubbing their bills on trees to get rid of the sticky seeds. An early reference to this is in 1532, an Herbal book by Turner.
What’s In A Name
One etymology for mistletoe that seems fairly accurate are the Anglo-Saxon words for “mistel” meaning “dung” and “tan” meaning “twig.” Making the meaning of mistletoe as “dung-on-a-twig.” Which makes sense, people observed that mistletoe grew wherever birds roosted and thus did their business.
The Latin word “viscusas” and the Greek word “ixias” both refer to the white coloration of mistletoe berries and being thought of to resemble sperm. The same words “visand ischu” mean “strength” In the Greek and Roman mindsets, sperm was connected to strength and vitality and thus to fertility for life springing seemingly out of nowhere. Mistletoe berries harvested from Oak trees were believed to have regenerative powers.
Mistletoe is a plant strongly associated with Christmas, Yule and other Winter Celebrations where it is used in decorations for its evergreen leaves that symbolize the promised return of spring.
Hanging Mistletoe – Anyone standing beneath the mistletoe can expect to be kissed. This probably originates in Druidic beliefs where mistletoe is strongly connected with fertility as the white berries of the mistletoe resembled semen. Now, proper etiquette says that when someone is kissed beneath the mistletoe, a berry needs to be removed until all have been plucked, at which point, there are no more kisses.
One tradition holds that if any unmarried woman went unkissed after the hanging of the mistletoe, they would not be able to marry for a year.
British farmers would feed a bough of mistletoe to their livestock on January 1st, believing it would ward off any bad luck for the coming year. Alternatively, a farmer feeding mistletoe to the first cow calving in the New Year was what brought good luck.
In some regions of Britain, mistletoe would be burned on the twelfth night after Christmas to ensure any boys or girls who didn’t get kissed could still marry.
Celtic Druidic Mythology & Traditions
In the Celtic language, the name for mistletoe translates to “All-Heal” as they believed this plant to have healing powers that could cure a number of ailments and held the soul of the host tree. By Mistletoe was held the chief of the Druid’s sacred seven herbs. The other sacred plants were: vervain, henbane, primrose, pulsatilla, clover and wolf’s bane.
The tradition of kissing under the mistletoe is attributed to the Druids who held the plant as being sacred. It held a magical virtue and served as a remedy to protect against evil. Mistletoe found growing on Oaks were especially sacred. Ovid’s writings mention how Druids would dance around oak trees with mistletoe growing on them. If mistletoe were to fall to the ground without being cut, it was considered an ill omen.
In Between – Seen as a tree that was not a tree. One of the things making mistletoe sacred was its seeming ability to spring forth out of nowhere. It represented the “in between” or a gateway to other worlds and spirit.
Harvesting – Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, circa 77 C.E. notes how the Druids revered the mistletoe. Pliny goes on to explain how white-clad Druids would use a golden sickle when harvesting mistletoe; taking great care to make sure that none hit the ground, believing that the plant would lose its potency and sacred powers. The sacrifice of two white bulls would follow. Pliny’s accounts are the most well-known documentation of Druid beliefs regarding the sacredness of mistletoe. Either the Midsummer or the Winter Solstice were the times to harvest and collect mistletoe. Better when done so on the sixth day after a waning moon.
Oak King & Holly King – This is a particularly old folkloric belief. With the Oak King and Holly King being personifications for the cycle of the year. Mistletoe berries found on an Oak tree were thought to be representative of the Oak King’s semen. So when the Oak King’s power waned and gave way to the Holly King, the harvesting of mistletoe and it’s berries off of Oak trees was symbolic of emasculating the Oak King. Hence, why two bulls would be sacrificed, to compensate the Oak King.
The white berries of mistletoe would be made into fertility potions as they were thought to be regenerative as on the Winter Solstice, the Oak King would be reborn, gaining power again as the new year progressed.
Fire & Lightning – It was thought that mistletoe would grow on an Oak tree that had been struck by lightning. For this, mistletoe was believed to be able to stop fires.
French farmers would burn mistletoe in their fields in order to have a successful harvest with the coming year.
Maidens would place a sprig of mistletoe beneath their pillows so they could dream of their future husband.
Herbe de la Croix – In Brittany, there is a legend how the cross that Jesus is to have been hung on was made from the wood of mistletoe. After Christ’s death, mistletoe is said to have been cursed or degraded to become a parasitic plant. Now days, thanks to 16th century Botanists discoveries, it’s better understood how the seeds of mistletoe or spread.
Immortality – Asclepius, the son of Apollo and god of medicine was greatly renowned for his healing skills to the degree that he could even bring people back from the dead. This knowledge of healing came about after Glaucus, the son of King Minos of Crete had fallen into a jar of honey and drowned. Asclepius had been called onto the scene and while there, saw a snake slithering towards Glaucus’ body. Asclepius killed the snake and then saw another snake come in and place an herb on the body of the first snake, bringing it back to life. After witnessing this, Asclepius proceeded to take the same herb and place it on Glaucus’ body and bring him back to life.
This herb is said to have been mistletoe. Now armed with this knowledge, Asclepius brought Glaucus back to life. Later, he would bring Thesues’ son, Hippolytus after the king’s son had been thrown from his chariot.
This angered Hades enough that he complained to Zeus that humans would become immortal and that there wouldn’t be anyone entering the Underworld. To prevent people from becoming immortal, Zeus agreed to kill Asclepius, doing so with a lightning bolt. Later, Zeus placed Asclepius’ image up into the heavens to become the constellation of Ophiuchus in honor and memory.
Golden Bough or Mistletoe is the plant Aeneas uses to enter the Underworld to Hades’ realm.
Saturnalia – Many traditions regarding mistletoe and the Christmas traditions are believed to trace their origins to this ancient Roman festival once held on December 17th of the old Julian calendar.
The Death Of Balder
This is one of the bigger, more well-known Norse stories. Balder’s mother Frigg, the goddess of Love had received a prophesy concerning Balder’s death, who was the most beloved of all the gods. Wishing to try and avoid this fate, Frigg got an oath from all living things that they wouldn’t harm her son. In her haste to do so, Frigg overlooked the mistletoe, believing it to be too small and inconsequential.
Leave it to Loki to learn of this oversight and to test the validity of the prophesy. Depending on the source, Loki either makes an arrow or a spear out of mistletoe and hands it off to the blind god Hod, instructing him to aim it at Balder. This act doesn’t seem so unusual when taken into account that many of the other gods were taking aim at Balder to test his invulnerability.
Hod then, unknowingly of Loki’s true intent, fires the mistletoe weapon at Balder and impales the god who soon dies. Frigg is grief stricken and Hermod rides off on Sleipnir down to the Underworld to plead for Balder’s release from Hel, how everyone loves him. The Underworld goddess replies that if this is so, then every being in the living world will weep for the slain god. If everyone does weep, then Hel will release her hold on Balder and allow him to return.
Hermod returns with the news and every creature on the earth cries for Balder. All, that is except for an old giantess by the name of Tokk (or Þökk, meaning “Thanks,”) she was most certainly and likely Loki in disguise.
With this failure to have everyone weep, Balder remained in Hel’s domain.
Some variations to this legend have mistletoe becoming the symbol of peace and friendship to make-up for it’s part in Balder’s death.
In the version of the story with a happy ending, Balder is restored to life, and Frigga is so grateful that she reverses the reputation of the offending plant–making it a symbol of love and promising to bestow a kiss upon anyone who passes under it.
The white berries of mistletoe are to have formed from Frigg’s tears when she mourned Balder’s death. Shakespeare makes an allusion to the story of Balder’s death by referring to mistletoe as “baleful.”
Peace & Love
Due to the above story, the Norse held the belief that hanging the mistletoe would be a symbol of peace, indicating that any past hurts and anger would be forgiven. Enemies would cease fighting each other for the day.
Under the incoming Christian religion as it spread throughout Europe, the symbolism of the mistletoe would be converted to have Christian meanings as older pagan beliefs and traditions would get adapted and changed.
For example, in the Norse story with the death of Balder, mistletoe would keep its meanings as a symbol of life and fertility.
Wearing sprigs of mistletoe is believed to help conceive, attract love and for protection.
During Medieval times or Antiquity, branches of mistletoe would be hung to ward off evil spirits. Mistletoe would be hung over the house and stable doors to protect from witches and keep them from entering.
Mistletoe could also be worn in amulets, bracelets, and rings for its magical qualities of protecting from evil, witches, poisoning and even werewolves!
Yes, there are medical uses for mistletoe. However, the white berries are poisonous as they do cause epileptic type seizures and convulsions. Keep the white berries away from small children and pets who might decide to try and eat them.
Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some information has changed.
Homeopathic Remedies – Due to the nature of the poisonous berries, it causes many cultures such as the ancient Celts to use mistletoe berries in remedies for treating convulsions, delirium, hysteria, neuralgia and heart conditions. Some Native American tribes used a tea wash for bathing the head to treat headaches and infusions for lowering blood pressure and treating lung problems.
Warning – Do make sure to consult an accredited medical source as some medical experts disagree about the applications of homeopathic remedies and information is likely to change with better data and research.
Mistletoe is seen as an all-purpose plant and has been attributed a wide variety of magical uses and even a number of herbal and homeopathic remedies. A lot of it ending up very contradictory and suspect as to which to see as accurate. Further, you want to make sure you have the right mistletoe species.