Most of this post most comes from my forthcoming book, Journey to Olympos: A Modern Spiritual Odyssey. If it seems like there are parts missing, that’s because there are – I didn’t want to publish the entire chapter on my blog for free. Sorry, I thought 8 pages was generous!
Aphrodite is the Greek Goddess of love, beauty, and sex. Although Victorian scholars and prudish attitudes have painted Her a Goddess of petty desires, She is much more complex and Her influence was recognized in various spheres of life. She is patron of all the arts of beauty and lovemaking, and we get the word “aphrodisiac” from Her name. She is considered a Goddess of all the pleasures of life, and of happiness; She is often referred to as “the laughter-loving Goddess”. Aphrodite is the force that drives us to connect with another, whether that connection is physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual. She is the hunger for union.
Although Aphrodite is counted as an Olympian, She is older than any of the other Olympian Gods. She was born when Kronos castrated His father Ouranos and threw the severed genitals into the sea. Where they landed, the sea foamed up, and from that foam She was born. So She was named Aphrodite, which means “Sea-Foam” or “Foam-born”. She had no infancy or childhood. She was born a beautiful, grown woman. Her birth clearly demonstrates that She is the embodiment of passion, born from the organ of passion. She is a primal force among the more civilized Olympian Gods. Certain later accounts name Zeus as Her father, but many scholars, as well as this author, consider that to an attempt to bring Her wild primal power under control, as in that time, fathers had total control over their daughters.
The rabbit is one of Her sacred animals because of its libido and was considered a potent symbol of fertility in many ancient cultures. The goose, sparrow, and the dove (still a symbol of peace) are also sacred to Her. The graceful swan, usually associated with Apollo, is sometimes considered sacred to Aphrodite, who has been painted riding one. Her most sacred plant is the red rose, which is still given as a symbol of love and devotion by lovers and spouses. Lettuce, daffodil and myrrh are considered holy to Her. And also the red anemone, the flower which sprung from the blood of her slain lover Adonis. The apple and the myrtle are Her trees. Pearls and cockle shells are sacred to Her as well, pointing to Her connection to the sea. The planet Venus (the Evening Star) was dedicated to Aphrodite because ancient astronomers thought it was the most beautiful star.
Aphrodite had an ill-fated marriage to Hephaistos, the blacksmith of the Gods, (at least in myth) and was deeply involved with Ares, the God of War. Ares and Aphrodite were often worshiped in each other’s temples. The union of War and Love makes sense. Aphrodite helps to temper Ares, to ensure that His raging power is directed at the proper target, so that it does not devastate everyone in His path, but only those who would do harm.
Aphrodite is a lot tougher than She is often given credit for. During the Gigantomakhia, the Gods’ war with the Giants, Aphrodite was often depicted driving Ares’ chariot into battle. She has epithets meaning “Bearing Arms”, and “The Dark”, and “Terrorifying”. She is also called Nikêphoros, which means ‘Bringing Victory”, and this surname is given to many Gods and Goddesses. She is also hailed as Areia, which means “Warlike”, “Of War”, and also “Of Ares”, as in “Ares’ Aphrodite”. When called Areia, She depicted in full armor, alongside Her lover. Bet you haven’t heard any of this before!
Eros and the Erotes
Most myths name Eros as the son of Aphrodite, either by Ares, or being born pregnant with him by Kronos. Although there is one bizarre story of Eros being conceived when Penia, the Goddess of Poverty, seduced Ponos, the personification of hardship, labor and toil! As this story goes, he chooses to serve Aphrodite because he was conceived at her birthday party. Which only goes to show that no matter how many texts you have saying one thing about a myth, there will be others saying quite the opposite.
It is a lesser known fact that there were believed to be a whole race of young, winged Love Gods called Erotes. Many, if not all, of the Erotes are children of Aphrodite. The three main Erotes to follow Aphrodite were Eros, her son, and Himeros, the Progenethoi of Procreation, and Pothos, God of Sexual Longing.
Anteros, one of Aphrodite’s sons by Ares, is one such Erote, and is the God of Unrequited Love. Another is Hedylogos, the God of sweet-talk, whose parentage is not named. Hymenios was the Erote-God of weddings. He is shown holding a bridal torch that was commonly carried in wedding processions. There are many more Erotes, but most of them are unnamed.
Other Attendants of Aphrodite
Aphrodite was attended by the Kharites (Graces) of both the elder and younger generation. The three elder Kharies are the Goddesses of the Graces – Thalia (“Good Cheer”), Aglaia (“Splendor” or “Beauty”), Euphrosyne “Mirth/Merriment”). They were the most important of the female attendants of Aphrodite, and followed her everywhere she went. She is also attended by some of their children, such as Eudaimonia, Goddess of Happiness, Pandaisia, Goddess of Banquets, and Paidia, Goddess of Play. These are definitely people you want to hang around!
The Horae (“Seasons”) also attend the Love Goddess, as did Hebe, Goddess of Youth and daughter of Hera. Paregoron, the Goddess of Soothing Words and Pelitho, Goddess of Persuasion, were Aphrodite’s daughters by either Poseidon or Hermes. Genetylliss, the Daimona (female spirit) of Procreation and Childbirth was associated with Aphrodite. This was probably another name for the Eileithyia, Goddess of Childbirth.
The Tale of Pygmalion and Galatea
The following is a very charming tale of Aphrodite told by Ovid. Pygmalion was a man who refused to marry. He was extremely picky, and he always found something wrong with every woman he met. He was a sculptor and spent all his time working on his art. He carved a n ivory statue of his perfect woman. She looked so realistic that you would almost swear she was alive. He fell in love with her.
He dressed her in embroidered dresses, put jeweled rings on her fingers and necklaces around her neck, and gave her presents that a woman would like, sea shells and polished stones, beautiful flowers, and amber beads. He even got her a small bird for a pet and hung it in a cage nearby and cared for it himself. He would often kiss her on the mouth and caress her face with his hand.
The festival of Aphrodite arrived, and everyone gathered to celebrate, and to ask a boon of the Goddess. Pygmalion came to the altar timidly. He was afraid to ask for what he really wanted, for the ivory maiden to come alive. So instead he asked for a girl like the statue. Aphrodite heard his prayer, and She knew what was in his heart. The fire on Her altar blazed and leaped up three times, a sign of her favor.
Excited, Pygmalion quickly returned home. He went to the statue and kissed her. The cold ivory lips warmed, and the hard skin softened. The maiden opened her eyes. Aphrodite had given her life. The Goddess blessed the marriage, and soon the two had a son together as well, and they praised Aphrodite all the days of their lives.
In Ovid’s version of the story, the ivory maiden was nameless, but she is latter given the name Galatea.
Aphrodite and Modern Pagans
Aphrodite is one of the most immediate Gods. That is because everyone feels Her power. Even those who abstain from sex still have urges. I believe that cultivating a relationship with Her can be extremely rewarding.
I used to have somewhat extreme body issues, and Aphrodite helped me past that. One thing I did was to hang a pretty mirror over my altar, so any time I did ritual I was looking at myself, which I hated to do back then. Seeing my image reflected back at me while I was doing ritual reinforced the belief that as a child of the Gods, I am sacred, and made it more than a mere idea. It took a few months, but it sunk into my psyche, and boosted my self-confidence. I suggest anyone who feels less then beautiful try this, and see how it affects their attitude.
As Pagans, we believe that sex is sacred, not a dirty secret like many monotheist religions teach. But the programming many of us undergo in childhood can be extremely difficult to undo. Working with and worshiping Aphrodite gave me the confidence to flaunt my sexuality and to not feel ashamed for it.
Aphrodite knows that no matter how many lovers you take, you must have time for yourself. Every once in while She would retreat, and the Three Graces, Her main attendants, would bathe Her with seawater and exotic oils from faraway lands. Aphrodite teaches us to take time for ourselves, to retreat and pamper ourselves. Take an evening to have a date with yourself. Beginning with a prayer to Aphrodite would be appropriate. Then devote an entire night to your own sensual fulfillment. Be completely self-indulgent. Play soft music and light some candles. Take a long soak in a tub with sweet-smelling bath oils and rose petals scattered on the surface of the water. Drink a glass or two of wine. Enjoy some fragrant lotions, exotic soaps, and soft towels. After the bath, put on something sexy but comfortable, a loose babydoll nightie, or something sheer. Feel everything, delight in your senses. Concentrate on the feel of the silk sliding across your skin. Run your fingers lightly across your arms, barely touching, a soft breeze almost not there, and you may be surprised at the shiver that runs up your back. Get to know your body. If it feels appropriate and you want to, you can masturbate. But don’t feel that you have to. This is a sensual night, and it need not be sexual unless you want it to be. Just be with yourself, and in your body. Forget about the cares of the day. Refuse to think about work or whatever is causing stress in your life. Focus on your body. You can paint your fingernails or toenails, put on make-up, style your hair, or just lay on the bed listening to music if that’s what you like. It’s your night, and you can do anything you want.
After a night like that, who could feel ugly? Who could believe that the body is a dirty thing? This is one of the most rejuvenating things I have ever done. Go ahead. Delight in Aphrodite’s gifts! Enjoy your body!
Temple Prostitutes and Sacred Sex
The practice of temple prostitution goes all the way back to Sumer, the first city in the history of the world, and was practiced by all Middle Eastern cultures of the time. In Babylon it was the custom for all women to give themselves as a sacred prostitute in the temple of Ishtar at least once in her lifetime. The Phoenicians required women to sacrifice their virginity at the temple before marriage, a type of sexual first-fruits offering. Both sacred and profane prostitution was common in Egypt, as it was among the Hebrews, although Ezekiel (23:27) says it was taken from the Egyptians. Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. in Sacred Sexuality: the Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions, has this to say about the Babylonian practice:
In Babylon, sacred prostitutes were classified into [several] types. The ishtaritu was a temple prostitute who exclusively served the Goddess Ishtar and was virgin, having intercourse only with the Divine. The qadishtu was a sacred prostitute who pursued her calling at the temple, serving countless men in her lifetime. The name prostitute ill fits her religious status and profession.
Paris related her bemusement that many modern scholars of Greek culture are affronted and offended that the civilized Greeks practiced sacred prostitution. She relates how, if they speak of it at all, they insist on “ the ‘Oriental’ nature of these cults, as if to imply that they are not ‘truly’ Greek. A strange point of view; it is generally recognized that just this admixture of influences from many cultures and religions gave Greek culture its specificity, richness and power.
Athens, despite having a large number of brothels and hetairae, did not have temple prostitutes. The only cities in classical Greece to still have them were Korinth, Paphos and Amathus, in Kypress. Korinth was famous as a center of Aphroditic worship and pilgrimage. They not only had temple prostitutes, but according to Strabo, had over a thousand, both men and women. These sacred whores were a path to Aphrodite, the Goddess incarnate. She was believed to inhabit the bodies of Her priestesses, the temple prostitutes. Sex with Her servants was sex with the Goddess Herself. This quote from Pindar demonstrates this belief:
Guest-loving girls [courtesans and prostitutes]! Servants of Peitho (Persuasion) in wealthy Korinthos! Ye that burn the golden tears of fresh frankincense, full often soaring upward in your souls unto Aphrodite. (italics mine)
Feuerstein elaborates on this principle, and the effect it had on the participants. There was a reason the that temple prostitution endured, in various in various forms, for over a millennia.
It was inevitably a transformative ritual that profoundly affected both the priestess, acting on the Goddess’s behalf, and her visitor. … The priestess will have welcomed the stranger as an ambassador or incarnation of the male deity,
the Goddess’s heavenly spouse. If he left as a mere fornicator, she would have failed in her calling.
In a world where sex was not only not a sin, but sacred, the temple prostitute is a doorway to the Divine. Through her, men and even women could encounter Aphrodite. I leave you with these stirring words of Nancy Qualls-Corbett, a feminist scholar imagining an encounter between a priestess of Venus and a man who has come to the temple to worship the Goddess through Her priestess.
Behold the priestess of the mighty Venus, the goddess of love. She is the sacred prostitute.
She is a mystery, concealed by veils. We see her only dimly. Yet in the flickering light we discern her shapely feminine outline. A breeze lifts her veils to reveal her long black tresses. Silver bracelets adorn her arms and ankles; miniature crescents hang from her lobes and lapis lazuli beads encircle her neck. Her perfume with its musklike aroma creates an aura which stimulates and enriches physical desire.
As the sacred prostitute moves through the open temple doors she begins to dance to the music of the flute, tambourine and cymbals. Her gestures, her facial expressions and the movements of her supple body all speak of the welcoming of passion. … She is full of love, and as she dances her passion grows. In her ecstasy she forgets all restraint and gives herself to deity and to the stranger … The sacred prostitute leads the stranger to the couch prepared with white linens and aromatic myrtle leaves. … The gentle touch of her embrace sparks a fiery response – he feels the quickening of his body. He is keenly aware of the passion within this votary of the goddess of love and fertility, and is fulfilled.
The modern Priestess
Of course, the modern priestess of Aphrodite need not follow the path of the sacred whore, if it is not in her nature. Many of Her modern priestess are in monogamous relationships and would not be open to practicing this path themselves. The path of the sacred whore is only one method of worshiping the Golden Goddess, and in the modern world is most likely a very rare one.
I believe sexual work to be a valid and important. Especially in today’s world, and our hypocritical Western culture, where sex is simultaneously considered a dirty and primitive impulse, and yet our airwaves, television programs, and magazine ads are over-saturated with a crass kind of sexuality used to market beer and other products.
There are already people called to walk the path of the Sacred Whore in the modern-day world. For safety and legal reasons, these priests and priestesses do not take money or goods in return, but offer themselves freely. Most do not do so with strangers. If they do, they might offer their services at (some) Pagan festivals, where they can be sure that their services are appreciated for sacrament it is. In all cases, safe sex practices are to be observed. AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are a sad fact of the age we live in, and not using condoms and latex would be disrespectful to our bodies.
If a worshiper or priestess does not find themselves called to that particular mode of worship, it does not mean that they must be excluded from the presence of the Goddess. Aphrodite does not ask us to deny who we are. Quite the contrary, She only asks for what we are willing and able to give.
Laurelei Dabrielle, a modern Priestess of Aphrodite, gives us practical tips for cultivating grace and charm, important qualities in a priestess of Aphrodite.
The Graces of the Greek pantheon bear names that mean Splendor, Mirth and Good Cheer. In order to cultivate a persona of grace, then, a Priestess of Aphrodite might look to these names as a roadmap of the qualities that she can develop.
I don’t know that any one quality is more important than another, but I do find it notable that the Graces embody two traits of personality and only one of physicality. Interpret this how you will, but it seems to me that a woman who isn’t traditionally “beautiful” has nothing to fear in terms of not living up to Aphrodite’s standards. “Beauty” is only part of the equation.
The way she interprets the term “splendor” is quite interesting, and perhaps appropriate. She says that splendor is not another word for beauty, but a quality or attribute of it. To paraphrase her words, beauty is a set of physical features arranged in a way that an individual or society find pleasing, and splendor is closer to an attitude, a aura of confidence and sensuality that draws others in. It is a captivating force, and it can be honed and developed like a skill.
Dabrielle also speaks of the art of pleasure, demonstrating in the process that sexual pleasure is not the only expression of the Goddess. Aphrodite, after all, revels in all the senses. Dabrielle uses the examples of pleasure gained from gourmet food and fine wine, visual arts, dance, music, and even home décor. She believes those who truly wish to honor Aphrodite must embrace all forms of pleasure, and gives advice about how to do so. Dabrielle also goes into detail about erecting a temple to Aphrodite and other aspects of the Goddess’s worship in her excellent book In Her Service: Reflections From a Priestess of Aphrodite. There are few guidebooks for the modern worshiper or aspiring priestess of Aphrodite, and few role models. Laurelei Dabrielle is a breath of fresh air. I can’t recommend this book enough. I strongly suggest that any who feel called to Her service obtain a copy of this book, which is only available at lulu.com, as far as I am aware.
 In Greek cosmology, The Progenthoi, “First Born Gods”, are the base elements that make up the universe. Nyx, “Night”, Aiether, Hermera, “Day”, and so on. Gaia and Ouranus are usually considered to be among these elemental, first Gods.
 Fernstein, Georg. Sacred Sexuality: the Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions. Inner Traditions. 1992. Rochester, Vermont. Pg 69.
 Paris, Ginette. Pagan Meditations: The Worlds of Aphrodite, Artemis and Hestia. Spring Publications. Woodstock, Connecticut. 1987. Pg 58-59.
 Strabo. Geography 8. 6. 20
 Pindar. Eulogies Fragment 122
 Fernstein, Georg. Sacred Sexuality: the Erotic Spirit in the World’s Great Religions. Inner Traditions. 1992. Rochester, Vermont. Pg 68
 Qualls-Corbett, Nancy. The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine. Toronto. Inner City Books. 1988. Pg 21-23.
 Laurelai Dabrielle. In Her Service: Reflections from a Priestess of Aphrodite. Magic Woods Publishing. Indiana. 2007. pg 77.