In the past several years a number of significant academic works on Aphrodite have emerged which shed a great deal of light on the ways she was and was not worshiped in the ancient world. Some of these revelations, such as the recent thesis that the idea of sacred prostitution in the ancient world has been greatly overstated and/or misunderstood, may shift or impact the ways in which some people today direct their Aphrodite devotions. As far as I’m concerned, there is a new Aphrodite for each era, and this means what she stands for and how people work with her in their own lives is going to change. For me, if there are relevant and useful transmutations of her impact in the modern world, then what would be the point of abandoning that current because it was not “authentically” done in the ancient world? The authentic Aphrodite is the one you know.
But what I do quite enjoy about digging into recent scholarship about the ancient Gods is that good scholarship into ancient minds and discourses can bring about such great and truly unusual insight. I know I am frequently inspired to make connections between different ideas and states in a way I might not have stumbled upon on my own.
One good example of how I have encountered this of late is a recent reconsideration of Aphrodite as a war goddess. Of course we know our lady had quite the thing for Ares and that early iconography had her fitted out in battle gear. But while in later literary depictions she was known to cause a fair share of trouble, such as that little incident with the golden apple and that Trojan war kerfuffle, in most of the Homerian texts, she is frequently told to get off the battlefield because war and battle really isn’t her strong suit. So what happened? Was she a war deity earlier imported from the Near East and then patterns of worship changed over time as she became more associated with romantic and sexual love? And what about Ares? Most interpretations of that relationship are again drawn from more literary rather than cultic interpretations that assume the nature of the attraction was situated in their opposite nature, and the tensions between love and war.
But while opposites do sometimes attract, there may be more to the story than this. Monica Cyrino in her Aphrodite from the Routledge series Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World (2010) suggests that Aphrodite’s association with war may have been as a result of her domain over mixis, or the passionate mingling of bodies. Mostly, this term referred to sex, but it can also refer to the coming together of bodies such as you might find in battle. Mixis or mingling, is derived from the term mignumi also meaning to mix, which can refer to either sex or war.
In Sparta, well known as a warrior focused culture, she was worshiped as Aphrodite Areia with reference to her consort Ares and also the general notion of bloodlust. In Greece and Crete there were surprisingly late joint cults of Aphrodite and Ares, which suggest that this aspect of her nature was not only present in her earliest forms, it was something that continued to be relevant in her worship in the ancient world. Yet the nature of this dimension is not clear and does seem somewhat at odds with her general domain, certain to modern eyes. And although she was portrayed bearing arms, was she a full blown warrior? Good question! But here is one possible interpretation: War for many ancient peoples was a very intimate act. It was often hand to hand combat, and the bodies of warriors were admired. It may well be that Aphrodite’s role in war was to inspire the wild, uncontrolled passion in the combatant that would propel them onto the battlefield to engage in mixis with another warrior. Here we see the potential eroticization of war and combat, once again treading that line between sex and death.
I’m not suggesting that Aphrodite didn’t get out there on the field to kick some ass, maybe she did. But I admit that in my own work, I have enjoyed thinking about the different potential contexts for mixis (sports and competition may be another place where this happens) and also considering the different ways in which passion can be experienced and focused, sometimes for good, and sometimes not so good. Heated love and heated conflict can sometimes come from the same space. If you are turning up the passion in one area in your life, might you have unintended impacts in another? Just something to think about.