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APHRODITE (a-fro-DYE-tee; Roman name Venus) was the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. She was also a protectress of sailors.

The poet Hesiod said that Aphrodite was born from sea-foam. Homer, on the other hand, said that she was the daughter of Zeus and Dione.

When the Trojan prince Paris was asked to judge which of three Olympian goddesses was the most beautiful, he chose Aphrodite over Hera and Athena. The latter two had hoped to bribe him with power and victory in battle, but Aphrodite offered the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

This was Helen of Sparta, who became infamous as Helen of Troy when Paris subsequently eloped with her. In the ensuing Trojan War, Hera and Athena were implacable enemies of Troy while Aphrodite was loyal to Paris and the Trojans.

IN HOMER

In his epic of the Trojan War, Homer tells how Aphrodite intervened in battle to save her son Aeneas, a Trojan ally. The Greek hero Diomedes, who had been on the verge of killing Aeneas, attacked the goddess herself, wounding her on the wrist with his spear and causing the ichor to flow. (Ichor is what immortals have in the place of blood.)

Aphrodite promptly dropped Aeneas, who was rescued by Apollo, another Olympian sponsor of the Trojans. In pain she sought out her brother Ares, the god of war who stood nearby admiring the carnage, and borrowed his chariot so that she might fly up to Olympus. There she goes crying to her mother Dione, who soothes her and cures her wound. Her father Zeus tells her to leave war to the likes of Ares and Athena, while devoting herself to the business of marriage.

Elsewhere in Homer's Iliad , Aphrodite saves Paris when he is about to be killed in single combat by Menelaus. The goddess wraps him in a mist and spirits him away, setting him down in his own bedroom in Troy. She then appears to Helen in the guise of an elderly handmaiden and tells her that Paris is waiting for her.

Helen recognizes the goddess in disguise and asks if she is being led once more to ruin. For Aphrodite had bewitched her into leaving her husband Menelaus to run off with Paris. She dares to suggest that Aphrodite go to Paris herself.

Suddenly furious, the goddess warns Helen not to go too far, lest she be abandoned to the hatred of Greeks and Trojans alike. "I'll hate you," says the mercurial goddess, "as much as I love you now."

Even though Zeus's queen Hera and Aphrodite are on different sides in the Trojan War, the goddess of love loans Hera her magical girdle in order to distract Zeus from the fray. This garment has the property of causing men (and gods) to fall hopelessly in love with whoever is wearing it.

Homer calls Aphrodite "the Cyprian", and many of her attributes may have come from Asia via Cyprus (and Cythera) in Mycenaean times. These almost certainly mixed with a preexisting Hellenic or Aegean goddess. The ancient Greeks themselves felt that Aphrodite was both Greek and foreign.

JASON

Aphrodite involved herself on other occasions in the affairs of mortal heroes. When Jason asked permission of the king of Colchis to remove the Golden Fleece from the grove in which it hung, the king was clearly unwilling. So the goddess Hera, who sponsored Jason's quest, asked her fellow-Olympian Aphrodite to intervene. The love goddess made the king's daughter Medea fall in love with Jason, and Medea proved instrumental in Jason's success.

AENEAS

Another time, Zeus punished Aphrodite for beguiling her fellow gods into inappropriate romances. He caused her to become infatuated with the mortal Anchises. That's how she came to be the mother of Aeneas. She protected this hero during the Trojan War and its aftermath, when Aeneas quested to Italy and became the mythological founder of a line of Roman emperors.

A minor Italic goddess named Venus became identified with Aphrodite, and that's how she got her Roman name. It is as Venus that she appears in the Aeneiad , the poet Virgil's epic of the founding of Rome.

And on still another occasion,

HEPHAESTUS

The love goddess was married to the homely craftsman-god Hephaestus. She was unfaithful to him with Ares, and Homer relates in the Odyssey  how Hephaestus had his revenge.

IN ART

Elsewhere in classical art she has no distinctive attributes other than her beauty. Flowers and vegetation motifs suggest her connection to fertility.

Aphrodite was associated with the dove. Another of her sacred birds was the goose, on which she is seen to ride in a vase painting from antiquity.

Hesiod's reference to Aphrodite's having been born from the sea inspired the Renaissance artist Botticelli's famous painting of the goddess on a giant scallop shell. Equally if not better known is the Venus de Milo, a statue which lost its arms in ancient times.

WAR GODDESS?

The ancient travel writer Pausanias describes a number of statues of Aphrodite dressed for battle, many of them in Sparta. Given the manner in which the militaristic Spartans raised their girls, it is not surprising that they conceived of a female goddess in military attire. She also would have donned armaments to defend cities, such as Corinth, who adopted her as their patroness. This is not to say that she was a war goddess, although some have seen her as such and find significance in her pairing with the war god Ares in mythology and worship.

The two most recent editions of "The Oxford Classical Dictionary" are at variance over this aspect of the goddess. The 1970 edition sees her as a goddess of war and traces this to her Oriental roots. It is true that she has resemblances to Astarte, who is a goddess of war as well as fertility.

The 1996 edition of "The Oxford Classical Dictionary", on the other hand, offers several counterarguments. It sees her being paired with Ares, for instance, not because they are similarly warlike but precisely because love and war are opposites.

In any case, Aphrodite's primary function was to preside over reproduction, since this was essential for the survival of the community.