Wanting. Wanting so bad I can taste it. I want to run my finger down the back of her neck. I want that corner office, the one with the view of the bridge. I want to walk a little bit further tomorrow than I did today. I want to stop feeling so angry. I want to do the very best I can. I want to help people.
Aphrodite is desire. When people first come to her, they frequently come in a state of wanting, usually wanting love, touch, another, sometimes someone specific, sometimes just the opportunity for encounter. Aphrodite is she who inspires insane lust, the kind that keeps you up at night, making you not able to eat, or think. In fact, when the ancients prayed to her it was frequently so that she would lift them out of the fog of crazy mad love so that they could love well and clearly.
Yes, she is that kind of desire, but she is also desire itself. She is the primal flare that inspires you to reach for the divine, to BE the divine. In Plato’s Symposium, the speech of the priestess Diotima reflects on the idea of love (in this instance named as Eros, but as he is the attendant of Aphrodite and the tale is set partially on her birthday there may well be a nod to syncretism here) as being first the erotic experience of physical beauty which transforms into an experience and contemplation of the divine. She notes that the Vision of Beauty combined with virtue is the highest state humanity can achieve. The ultimate Beauty is Knowledge. Obviously, this is a very simplistic take on the philosophy here. There are multiple interpretations of Diotima’s speech, and so much more to be said.
By the time this gets to Ficino in the Renaissance, we see a cycle of Love outpouring from the Source back to the Source through human desire. Since humans are already of the source, our desire is what motivates us to get back to that state of divinity. Ficino, too, focuses on beauty as being the outward reflection of the divine, and the cultivation of beauty as being the instance of its manifestation. It is desire which draws us to beauty, and which makes us want to transform into beauty itself—to become Gods. The transformation is ultimately inspired by the wanting.
Overall, this is a recharacterization and redirection of the physical impulse to love. In the Platonic and later Renaissance framework, there is a suggestion that the act of physical love must be transcended to draw attention to “higher” concerns of the divine, but I personally think it’s useful to abandon that rather unhelpful judgment. It is that primal sense of wanting that we generally experience in the body that leads us to action. Aphrodite is not normally popularly associated with the realm of magick, but I find this is one of her mysteries. She is the spark of lust that comes before the idea, the desire that drives the idea into manifestation. She is the engine of transformation that makes us do magic.
“Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life?” Diotima, The Symposium, trans. Benjamin Jowett
And of course, we are well empowered to change the world when we are fully acknowledging and awake to the beautiful Gods within.
And if you want to praise the legacy of Diotima, please check out and support Pantheon Foundation’s Diotima Prize campaign for Pagans in seminary.
Yes, but be ever weary of the uncontrollable creature Eros – desire, the paradox that is both love and hate.
Diotima also tells us that Eros is the bastard of Wealth and Poverty; he stands between plenty and pennilessness (203b-e). To desire is to be in a constant state of lack, or as Sappho laments:
“Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me / bittersweet, impossible to fight off, uncontrollable creature” (fr. 130)
External to our own will, it forces itself upon us, Eros appears as our enemy. Eros is bitter, hateful thing. And yet…
And yet, our desire is sweet. Sweet longings and cravings, however, cannot help but draw our attention to the fact that we lack the object we desire. We are empty, devoid of that which we want. And once we acquire the object of our desire? Does desire remain when we possess it? How can we desire what is not gone? “Atthis, your care for me stirred hatred in you / and you flew to Andromeda” (fr. 131). Love and hate are joined in Eros.
Aphrodite I believe teaches us not desire, but pleasure (though, as you say, she certainly sparks desire). She teaches us to fill the void; to bridge the paradox of erotic desire. We can both long for and possess our desired in a single moment. Pleasure becomes an act of presence, pure and total presence. To this realization I commit myself.
All that said, let us help to free a student of desire by contributing to the Pantheon Foundation’s inaugural Diotima Prize!
(Aside to you, o’ Blue one, I acutely feel the desire for more as I approach the close of each post. I promise you though, my desire never gives into hate.)
Ah, Orion, clearly blessed by both Hermes and Aphrodite… you raise many good points of contemplation, and I am in full agreement with your assessment that pleasure and bliss is THE moment of divine presence.
This does bring up the fascinating issue of framing and sources. How do we use various Classical source materials in devotion and practice? For me, personally, Sappho provides possibly more insight into cultic activity. Yes, Aphrodite is crazy making: “Goddess please help me to clear my head because I am totally lust fogged”. I actually think that this sentiment reflects your interpretation and the experience of the cycle of desire, fulfillment, and desire again. Plato/Socrates is, for me, a different iteration, and the different readings of Aphrodite and Eros in this context become foundational for how she becomes imagined in the Renaissance and later through a Christian framework (and of course this issue is a factor in most translations and Classics interpretation that we get, too). It may be that Plato/Socrates/Diotima try to resolve the crushing experience of continual longing by making The Good as well as the Vision of Beauty the condition for the true experience of the Divine. The necessary virtue for communion is in the transcendent apprehension of the eidos. So ultimately….meh. Bring on the juicy pleasure.
Diotima’s speech is a really interesting touchstone, but for me ultimately unsatisfying. We need to be able to see all as beauty, even that which is most abhorrent to us, and to process that in an embodied way. I don’t think that Plato and his esoteric and artistic successors would have been at all on board with this program, which is a key feature of a Tantric approach. I recently read a fabulous book called Making Sense of Tantric Buddhism: History, Semiology, and Transgression in the Indian Traditions by Christian Wedemeyer, and one of his key arguments is that when we look to ancient texts to try to find the “original meaning” of a deity or practice, we commit an interpretative flaw that impacts how we consider practices as they have evolved in other contexts. So, how useful do we want Plato to be here?
Also, do you ever genuinely possess that which you desire, or do you just get a taste that leaves you longing? Mmmm, sexy cycles of thirsting and quenching.