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Aphrodite of Cyprus by Jacqueline Karageorghis

(Aspect of Cyprus)

Petra tou romiou area in Paphos District

Aphrodite of Cyprus

Cyprus does not pay enough tribute to the memory of this ancient divinity, and is not sufficiently proud of having been her chosen birthplace and of sheltering her greatest sanctuary. There is no doubt that Christian moral tradition has contributed towards stifling the memory of a far too pagan cult, considered to be generating licentiousness even though Christian religion in Cyprus has sometimes adopted certain sites and aspects of ancient worship. Indeed, Aphrodite of Cyprus is not merely the blonde goddess of love, grace and beauty, who indulges in her amorous whims, as depicted in a simplistic mythology. She is an ancient-old divinity whose origins are linked to the worshipping of the powers of life.

How has the island become famous as the Island of Venus? This fame was preserved thanks to the Greek and Latin texts which were rediscovered by the humanists of the Renaissance who quoted them frequently. They bequeathed to our poets and painters this alluring image of Cyprus, island of Venus. Tradition says that the goddess was born from the foam of the sea and was carried by the sea waves on the coasts of Cyprus, to Pafos, which has become the sacred place where Aphrodite was venerated.

It is true that Cyprus was throughout antiquity one of the most important, if not the most famous place, where Aphrodite was venerated. In historical times, the goddess had several sanctuaries on the island, the most famous being in Pafos, a place called "omphalos of the earth", on an equal footing with Delphi (Hesychius). Archaeological findings have confirmed the legend.

However, if one goes back to the sources, the legend is far from being so simple as the poets describe it, and the archaeological findings have revealed other aspects of the goddess which differ from the ones attributed by Greek mythology. Myths are uncertain. They provide clues, which are however difficult to be interpreted.

It is Hesiod in the 8th century B.C. who refers us in his Theogony to the mythical birth of Aphrodite in the midst of a cosmogony which
explains the creating of the world. In the beginning there was Chaos. Then Earth was created (Gaea) and with her Love, (Eros)... Gaea bore starry Heaven (Uranus), with whom she conceived Oceanus and numerous sons and daughters, the youngest being Cronos who developed a hatred for his father Uranus. Gaea herself wished to free herself from Uranus who was suffocating her. She thus equipped her son Cronos with a sickle... Here comes the famous passage referring to the birth of Aphrodite: Cronos chopped off his father's members and cast them away to fall behind him ... they were swept away over the main for a long time, and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh. In this foam grew a maiden who first drew near Cythera, and from there she was carried to sea-girt Cyprus, and it is there where the beautiful and respectable goddess came forth and green grass grew about her beneath her light feet. (Theogony 190-195).

Aphrodite, according to this strange myth, is therefore the daughter of Heaven (Uranus), as she was born out of the foam which was created by the sperm of Uranus. Hesiod's Theogony, which has no doubt borrowed elements from oriental cosmogonies, where there is often reference to power struggles among the first generations of gods, also copies a Theogony attributed to Orpheus: in the beginning there was Chaos. Creation was monstrous and anarchic. Cronos, by mutilating his father, put an end to this disorderly creation and from then began the reign of Aphrodite associated with Eros. We must surely see in the goddess called Aphrodite the goddess of fertility who perpetuates life through power of desire among the species to reproduce. Already, the Ancients, through a kind of pre-scientific thinking, conceived life being born out of the sea, as experts confirm nowadays. Aphrodite created grass under her feet, for her arrival fertilised the earth.

Hesiod is the only source to reveal this supernatural birth, but there are other texts that mention the arrival of Aphrodite to Cyprus, carried by the waves of the sea. Hymn II to Aphrodite, going back to the 7th century B.C. describes beautiful Aphrodite, wearing a golden crown, the venerated goddess who possesses an exclusive privilege to the island of Cyprus, where the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud moaning sea in soft foam. There the Hours welcomed her joyously and clothed her with heavenly garments (Hymn II, 1-6). The myth of the birth of Aphrodite from the sea has remained embedded in the memory, and
has often been quoted by poets of the Classical period, scholars of the Alexandrine and later periods and Latin authors such as Ovid and Virgil. However, Homer makes no mention of her supernatural birth; for him she is the daughter of Zeus and Dione (Illiad, III, 374, and Odyssey VIII, 308). He associates her very closely with Cyprus, referring to her as Kypris in the Iliad (V, 330, 422, 458).

Hesiod situates the arrival of Aphrodite in Cyprus, although not explicitly in Pafos. The link between Aphrodite and Pafos was, however, well established among the Ancients. Cyprus and in particular Pafos, is the birthplace of Aphrodite, writes Aeschylus (quoted by Strabon). Pomponius Mela, a Latin poet of the 1st century A.D. mentions Pafos as the place where the goddess was said to have touched ground: Pafos and Palaepafos, where Venus emerged for the first time from the sea, as its inhabitants confirm it (II, 7). Nonnos, a poet of the 5th century A.D. mentions that the inhabitants of Cyprus still show traces of Aphrodite's footprints. The mythical place where she was said to have come ashore is called "Petra tou Romiou" or the "Rock of the Greek", associated by popular tradition to Dighenis Akritas, the legendary hero of the Byzantine era in Cyprus. The site is certainly of sublime beauty, with three large rocks protruding above the water in a small bay lined on the east by white cliffs. The question that arises is: why precisely in this spot? Several explanations have been put forward, some more convincing than others: the sea is more foamy at this spot. When there is a storm, the waves strike the beach and -break' into foam; in exceptional cases the "breaker" shoots up in a column like a water-spout and falls back in an outward cascade of foam in which one can imagine seeing a human figure rising from the sea (a phenomenon described by J.L. Myres in BSA, 41, p.99). Or could it be the presence of the upright protruding rocks, cult objects in ancient oriental religions, that has given rise to the myth? Did the coastline, however, look the same during ancient times? Undoubtedly, oral tradition alone has consecrated the site.

In fact, archaeological findings have confirmed the legend, informing us that the south-western area of the island has been the cradle of a cult of fertility during the Chalcolithic period (3800-2300 B.C.). Various sites in this region, from Erimi to the east to Lemba and Kissonerga west of Pafos and in particular, Souskiou, near Palaepafos have brought to light precious vestiges of an already developed civilization, where fertility was the object of worship. In the tombs and settlements numerous small stylised figurines of real
beauty have been found, the great majority being female figures. Some, cut out of picrolite, a soft local stone, depict a woman with her arms extended in the form of a cross and with her legs bent from the knees, in a position interpreted as that of labour. These small idols were sometimes worn as neck-pendants, serving perhaps as talismans. Other terracotta figurines are significant. They represent pregnant women or parturients sitting down on a stool. One of them even shows painted between her legs the head and arms of the child that is being born to her. A large limestone figurine is a very schematic dea gravida, having emphasized breasts and pubis, a very long phallic neck and a small flat head turned towards the sky. These figurines most certainly bear witness to a goddess of fertility who transforms the act of giving life to a sacred act. Human fertility in times when the dangers of birth-giving were mortal and infant mortality sky high, was of particular importance, in the same way as was nature's fertility for a rural society that depended on crops and animal rearing. Ritual ceremonies took place around sacred places in sanctuaries of which traces have been found. Also, these small figurines were laid in the tombs because they were associated to the forces of life and maybe secured some kind of survival. The very ancient fertility cult found in the region of Pafos perhaps explains the myth of the goddess' emergence on its shores and most certainly too, the existence of her largest sanctuary in his very area.

The Odyssey contains the most ancient reference to a temple of Aphrodite in Pafos. Thus, in Odyssey VIII, 360-366, Aphrodite goes to Pafos where she had her sanctuary and her altar perfumed with incense. Moreover, in Hymn I to Aphrodite, 58-65, she went to Cyprus, and passed into her sweet-smelling temple (she had a temple and a fragrant altar there). As soon as she went in, she pushed the glittering doors. There the Graces bathed her and rubbed her with heavenly oil...

Archaeology comes here once again to confirm the written sources.

First, British excavations in 1888 and then systematic excavations carried out by a Swiss-German mission from 1973 to 1979 have brought to light the ruins of the temple of Aphrodite in Palaepafos, the most ancient vestiges of which dating back to the 12th century B.C.; enormous blocks (from 5 metres long by 2 metres high) of a fan enclosure wall, two rows of bases that supported stone pillars,
some capitals and horns of consecration. It has therefore been possible to redraw the plan of the temple of that period: an open temenos surrounded an enclosure wall with, on the western side, a covered building with a colonnade. This plan is characteristic of courtyard temples known from this period in the Near-East, but the construction of the enclosure wall out of enormous blocks is characteristic of the architectural style imported in the island by the Achaeans who are said to have arrived and settled in Cyprus in the 12th century B.C. There are various traditions around the founding of the temple and Ancient Pafos. Kinyras, a mythical king of Cyprus known to Homer, is said to be the founder of the town and the temple of Aphrodite; the priest beloved by the goddess, according to Pindar. Kinyras was of oriental origin, born of Pygmalion and the first of a long dynasty of priests dedicated to Aphrodite, the so-called Kinyrades. He undoubtedly represents the indigenous population of Cyprus who lived on the island before the arrival of the Achaeans, known as Eteocypriotes. However, another tradition transmitted by Pausanias says that Agapenor, king of the Arcadians, returning from Troy, reached the shores of Cyprus and founded the city of Pafos and the sanctuary of Aphrodite. This legend probably refers to the arrival of the Achaeans in Cyprus in the 12th century B.C., who built new buildings, such as the enclosure wall of the sanctuary in Pafos.

Homer in his epics and Hymns resumes undoubtedly ancient traditions, going back probably to the end of the Bronze Age, and describes in numerous passages the arrival of Aphrodite at her Sanctuary in Pafos, where she used to come to be bathed and dressed by the sacred servants called the Hours or the Charites. In the Odyssey (VIII, 360-366), Aphrodite, having been caught red-handed in the arms of Ares by her husband Hephaistos, flew to Pafos where she had her sanctuary and her altar perfumed with incense; there she was anointed with the immortal oil of the eternal gods by the Charites who dressed her with admirable clothes, wonderful to look at. In the Homeric Hymn I to Aphrodite (Hymn I, 58-68) the goddess went to Cyprus, to Pafos, where her precinct is and a fragrant altar, and passed into her sweet-smelling temple. As soon as she went in she pushed the glittering doors. There the Graces bathed her and rubbed her with heavenly oil. And laughter-loving Aphrodite put on all her rich clothes, and when she had decked herself with gold, she left sweet-smelling Cyprus and went in haste towards Troy... Further on (Hymn I, 86-88) she is described as clad in a robe out-shining the brightness of fire, a splendid robe of gold, enriched with all manner of needlework, which shimmered
like the moon over her tender breasts, a marvel to see... Hymn II, 7-11 describes her jewels: On her head, the Hours put a fine, well-wrought crown of gold, and in her pierced ears they hung ornaments of bronze and precious gold, and adorned her with golden necklaces over her soft neck and snow-white breasts... In the Iliad (XIV, 214-218), the goddess is wearing on her bosom a curiously-wrought, embroidered belt, which brings desire and love, the magic girdle (Kestos imas). One can imagine the ceremonies that took place in the sanctuary of Pafos when the high priestess was being bathed, anointed and adorned in all her finery (a superb terracotta bath was found in the sanctuary building), and where sacred marriages (hieroi gamoi) took place, uniting the great priestess to the priest-king in order to secure the fertility of nature and of humans, according to an oriental tradition.

The local divinity, must have been adopted by the Greeks when they arrived on the island. Under the influence of Cretan colonies who settled in Cyprus in the 11th century B.C., she takes the form of a goddess with her arms raised. The arrival of the Phoenicians who settled in Kition during the 9th century B.C. and who took over existing temples which they dedicated to Astarte, their own goddess, reinforces once again her oriental character whose cult seemed very oriental to the Greeks (Herodotus associates it to the cult of Astarte in Askalon because of the sacred prostitution which was practised in Pafos). Therefore, the divinity that was worshipped during the Iron Age and whom the Cypriotes presumably did not yet call Aphrodite, was of a complex and original nature.

It is possible that the Greeks who did not have in those ancient times any divinity called Aphrodite (her name is not mentioned among the Greek gods, quoted on the linear B tablets) met her in Cyprus in the form of this oriental goddess of fertility known under a certain name of oriental origin, which we ignore and they may have transcribed as Aphrodite. The simple etymology according to which 'Aphrodite' means the one that emerges from the foam, derived from the root -aphro-' - foam, is thought by linguists as fanciful. Homer and Hesiod are the most ancient sources to mention the name Aphrodite. In Cyprus, the most ancient inscriptions that we have mentioning the name of the divinity date from the 6th century B.C. These are dedications to Wanassa, (the Sovereign), Paphia (the Paphian) or Golgia (the Golgian). The name Aphrodite is not used in Cyprus until the period when Greek culture started to strongly influence local religion, that is from the 5th century B.C., along with the name of other Greek gods and goddesses.
According to mythology, Aphrodite had numerous love affairs, most of them in Cyprus. We know that she was the object of desire of all the gods and married the ugliest of all, Hephaistos, the smith-god. Zeus gave Aphrodite to Hephaistos because he offered him a bowl of excellent workmanship. To Aphrodite he offered a necklace sparkling with precious stones. Another tradition is preserved by two late poets, Apollonios of Rhodes and Claudianus: the cripple god offered Aphrodite a palace as a wedding present or, a piece of land surrounded by a golden fence, containing palaces of gold and precious stones. This was situated on a mountain of Cyprus, inaccessible to mortals, where a sweet climate prevailed, where the soil produced without being cultivated, and where there were two springs among green foliage. There lived Aphrodite surrounded by Erotes. Another poet, Atheneus, mentions the 'Baths of Aphrodite' where the goddess took her bath after having slept with Hephaistos. Aphrodite, however, was unfaithful to Hephaistos, having had the god of war, Ares, as her lover. The myth of the marriage of Aphrodite to Hephaistos and her affair with Ares, may reveal a historical reality. Archaeological discoveries have revealed that in the 11th and 12th centuries B.C., the Great Goddess of Cyprus became a divinity protecting metallurgy in association with one male god. Kinyras himself was a metallurgist king. Thus, at Kition, in the sacred quarters, two divinities were worshipped in the temples of Area II. Near the temples were copper-smelting workshops, which communicated with the temples. The use and trading of copper, which was the greatest wealth of the island at the time, was under the supervision of priests and priestesses, and the protection of the divinities of fertility. The discovery of statuettes of the Late Bronze Age, two female and one male, standing on a base in the form of an ingot, supports this hypothesis. The goddess who is represented nude (statuette Bomford, Ashmolean Museum Oxford and statuette in the Cyprus Museum), bears all the characteristics of a goddess of fertility. The god (bronze statuette found in Enkomi, today in the Cyprus Museum) is a warrior god, armed with a spear and holding a shield.

Aphrodite had other lovers in Cyprus. Here she fell in love with Adonis. According to a Homeric scholiast, Adonis was the son of Kinyras, Aphrodite's king-priest, and of the daughter of Pygmalion. According to the most common version (Apollodorus, Bibliotheke, 3.14.4, Plutarchus, Synagogue, 22) he was born of the incestuous love affair between Kinyras with his daughter, Smyrna or Myrrha. Having been tricked by his daughter, Kinyras realised only too late that he had slept with her. He wanted to kill her, but Aphrodite pitied
her and transformed her into a tree of the same name, the myrtle. According to another legend, the Orphic hymn describes Adonis as the son of Aphrodite herself. Whoever he may have been, according to Apollodorus, Aphrodite was struck by his beauty while he was still an infant: she gave him to Persephone to be looked after, but Persephone would not give him back and Zeus gave the following sentence: he divided the life of Adonis into three parts, one to go to Aphrodite, the other to Persephone and the third to Adonis himself. But, Adonis offered his part to Aphrodite, thus spending more time with her than with Persephone. Aphrodite was in love with Adonis and used to meet him in the woods, and followed him when he was hunting. But he was killed one day by a wild boar. Certain traditions relate the animal to the god Ares another the lover of Aphrodite, who turned into a boar in order to kill his rival. Others say the god Apollo himself killed him in his fury because the goddess had blinded his son Erymanthios who had seen the goddess nude taking a bath. Aphrodite was inconsolable at having lost her lover and from her crying and lamentation sprang anemones and other flowers from the earth. After his death, Adonis used to spend six months in Hades in the arms of Persephone and six months on Earth in the arms of Aphrodite.

It is hard not to see in Adonis a god of vegetation, fertilizing the earth in spring and then periodically disappearing. Besides, the Orphic hymn to Adonis addresses him as: You, god full of desirable springs, god who nourishes all the creatures, who disappears and comes back again in the course of beautiful seasons, you, who makes the plants grow, you, who loves hunting, sweet and desirable offspring of Aphrodite... come, happy one, bring to the faithful the fruit of earth...

Adonis, whose name is semitic, cannot but evoke the oriental fertility divinities, the goddess Ishtar and her son and lover, the god Tammuz, whose marriage was celebrated every year in spring. Just as Adonis, Tammuz died and Ishtar went to the Underworld to find him and bring him back to earth, so that the cycle of the seasons would start again. Thus, the myth of the love of Aphrodite for Adonis no doubt recalls the oriental myth of the union of the goddess of fertility with the god of vegetation. There were ceremonies in honour of Aphrodite and Adonis at Amathus, during which there was a lamentation for Adonis and a supplication to him to return to earth
The cult of this divinity and the magnificent costumes of her priestesses are illustrated by precise iconographic evidence from the 7th century B.C. onwards. A number of terracotta figurines were found in Palaepafos on the site of the temple, depicting a woman in an adorned long low-necked robe the woman is lifting her arms up in a ritual gesture, like a divine majesty, a goddess or a priestess. Numerous other archaic figurines, wearing lavish and colourful costumes, sometimes with a long stole, ornated with rich jewels, necklaces with pendants, earrings, bracelets, are all indications of a magnificent cult. On archaic vases richly dressed women are also represented, wearing the stole, or a long scarf or belt probably servants of the goddess, or priestesses worshipping the tree of life or walking among the sacred trees, holding flowers or animals or birds. There are also representations of -hierodoules' (sacred servants) in the sacred gardens which we know surrounded the sanctuaries. One specific bowl even depicts erotic scenes in the gardens, making reference to the sacred prostitution mentioned by Herodotus. A large archaic amphora, the Hubbard amphora in the Cyprus Museum, shows on both sides scenes of the cult: on the one side, there is a sacred dance of young women holding branches and accompanied by a lyre player and, on the other side, between a sphinx and a bucrane, symbolising the sacred, precinct, a priestess sitting on a throne, drinking from a kind of narghileh some substance served to her by a sacred servant, a scene evoking perhaps divination practices. A great number of other terracotta figurines, laid as offerings in places of worship, depict a world of musicians, women playing the tambourine, or offering a bird, a flower, a dish of sweets. But next to these richly dressed figures, we find also figurines of the nude deity, pressing their breasts, another reminder that the goddess retained her oriental character of fertility goddess.

The first millennium B.C. seems to have been the age of gold of the cult of this great Cypriote goddess, who had on the island a number of other sanctuaries. During the archaic period, Golgoi, situated in the centre of the island (the region of Athienou-Idalion) was another of her sacred sites; however, archaeological findings have brought to light only few significant vestiges. She had consecrated sites of worship in Kition, Arsos, Achna, Amathus, Kythrea, Tamassos, Idalion, Lapithos, Salamis and others. The rite of sacred prostitution was practised, according to Herodotus, 1.105. 2-3, in her sanctuary in Pafos. Every girl had to come once in her lifetime to the sanctuary and made love to a stranger. The girls would sit in the sacred gardens with a crown of rope on their head. They waited
for a man to choose them by throwing at their feet an offering, no matter how small, for this offering was sacred, and say the words: -I invoke the goddess upon you'. No girl had the right to refuse. All the girls that were beautiful, says Herodotus, finished quickly, but the ugly ones had to wait as long as three or four years... According to Clement of Alexandria, mysteries were celebrated in the sanctuary and the initiated received an amount of salt and a phallus, in exchange for which they offered a coin to the goddess. Divination was another practice. The temple of Palaepafos, a site of great accumulated wealth, was still flourishing under the Ptolemies who dedicated numerous statues. During Roman times, the sanctuary placed under the patronage of the emperors, remained one of the most celebrated temples in the ancient world. Coins from Roman times illustrate the sanctuary of Pafos, an edifice in three parts in the cella of which there was a sacred stone in the shape the goddess was still worshipped. Pilgrims used to flock in procession and a big festival took place during which there were games as well as musical and literary competitions to pay tribute to the goddess. Divination was still practised and emperor Titus went to consult his oracle. The cult of Aphrodite was maintained in Cyprus at least during the first three centuries of our era, even while Christianity was spreading.

Source : Aspect of Cyprus

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