The celebration of our bodies in an act of love is a beautiful expression of sexual drive and erotic awakening. Art, movies, literature, and even religion use sex as a basis for everything good or bad in a world torn by censorship and shame. Degradation into pornography keeps the human libido a hot topic.
Attempts to regulate morality often fail by people noted for dedication to the spiritual and divine. At times even ministers cannot abide by their own straight and narrow ways. Morality is often determined by personal definition and context alone. The sex drive itself is taboo.
As the romance genre feels the impact of AIDS and precocious teens, writers examine their own values and story lines. Few allow their freedom of expression and rights under the Constitution to be denied. AIDS is not transmitted in the pages of a novel and precocious teenagers are part of our history. A look at the beginning of eroticism offers insight into the debate over censorship of novels. Without answering questions based on convictions and ideals only an individual can determine the past is a window, revealing obsessions, fantasies, and secrets of our ancestors.
From the annals of ancient Greek mythology is a goddess who inspires our deepest longings and elicits our worst fears. Aphrodite was a symbol, a religion to some and a perverted cult to others. She influenced Roman culture and her effect on contemporary American society is profound.
Mythologists cannot agree on the details of her legend. Their books are full of contradictions, since much is subject to interpretation. Sources are numerous.
Most believe Aphrodite was a fertility goddess from the eastern Mediterranean before she reached the islands and mainland of Greece, where she became one of twelve deities in the Olympian pantheon. In the Near East she was also a goddess of war. Her oldest shrine was in the Phoenician city of Ascalon, her most ancient temple at Paphos in Cyprus. Michael Jordan, author of the Encyclopedia of Gods, believes she was identified with two principal cults of antiquity, the Eleusinian and Cabeirian mysteries, known for the worship of obscure fertility spirits to bring safety, good fortune, and crops.
A popular symbolic account of her birth makes her a strange creature of the sea, conceived of bloody foam when her father-god Uranus had his genitals severed and cast into the water by his son Cronus. Aphrodite rose from the ocean on a mussel shell. She shook the drops of water from her long hair and they turned to pearls at her feet. Traders brought her legend across the sea to Cyprus.
Patricia Monaghan, author of The Book of Goddesses and Heroines, discusses the tale's allegorical meaning. "The sky impregnates the great sea womb with dynamic life, a story that the Greeks reiterated in the alternate version of Aphrodite's birth by the sea sprite Dione and the sky god Zeus."
In another version Aphrodite was the child of Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth. This is a throwback to the fertility goddess beginnings.
Aphrodite had numerous affairs with gods and mortals. She had many children, none fathered by her husband Hephaestus, god of smith craft.
Monaghan continues, "The energy that Aphrodite represented, however humanly true, was almost incompatible with Greek culture. The Great Goddess of impersonal, indiscriminate lust meshed poorly with the emerging Greek intellectualism." The Greeks converted her into a "personification of physical beauty."
Michael Senior, author of The Illustrated Who's Who in Mythology, comments, "She personified chiefly unmarried love, and her influence is seen mainly in adulterous affairs."
Aphrodite Genetrix or Nymphia was the only interpretation of the goddess that stood for marriage. Single women and widows prayed to her for assistance.
Plato distinguished her two ways. He considered her a symbol of spiritualized love and called her Urania or addressed her as Aphrodite Pandemos, also known as Porne, the titillater. This crude version of the love goddess was worshipped at Babylon, Paphos, Athens and Corinth in a ritual of sacramental prostitution. At Corinth over one thousand women participated and enjoyed high rank as priestesses in public festivals.
All material sacrifices were bloodless, such as flowers or incense. Considered sacred to her were myrtle, rose, apple, poppy, sparrow, dove, swan, swallow, tortoise, ram, the planet Venus, and the month of April.
By the third century B.C. she was enshrined by Julius Caesar and worshipped in imperial Rome as a good luck charm, bringer of victory, protector of female chastity, and patroness of sensual pleasure. The Romans called her Venus. The statue called "Venus de Milo" and Botticelli's painting "The Birth of Venus" are among the most famous artistic representations. Early statues were modest. The first erotic interpretation was a statue from Cnidos (340 B.C.). She was often depicted naked with the child Eros, god of desire, attributed as her son in later literature.
According to Monaghan it is now impossible to distinguish Venus from Aphrodite. The Roman version was full of charm and beauty. "In this early Italian form, Venus was far less complex than the goddess with whom she was merged."
In Gods and Mortals in Classical Mythology, Michael Grant and John Hazel write, "Whereas Aphrodite often appeared as either a cruel or a ridiculous figure in early Greek literature, she was seen by the Romans as a much more serious and benevolent character."
One of Aphrodite's most famous affairs was with Ares, god of war. Monaghan considers this a "symbol of the relationship of female carnality and male competitiveness." Aphrodite herself was sometimes depicted as an armed warrior with a helmet.
The goddess had weaknesses. Her human characteristics gave her sexual appeal as well as spiritual inspiration.
Robert E. Bell, author of Women of Classical Mythology, states, "Aphrodite was the embodiment of the Greek ideal of love and beauty, the immortal blend of heavenly perfection and mortal fallibility."
The goddess of love was worshipped from 1300 B.C. until 400 A.D. Christianity changed the course of the world and our concept of a higher being. Veneration of the Virgin Mary replaced Aphrodite with a maternal ideal of femininity that lingers today.
Literary references for Aphrodite are found in numerous works: Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, Theogony and Hymn to Aphrodite by Hesiod, and in various temple hymns, such as the Hymn of Sappho.