Aphrodite is today best-known as the ‘goddess of love,’ but among the ancient Greeks she was also important in maritime religion, trade and travel.
She was carried aboard ships, worshipped at harbour side sanctuaries, and believed to help to bring whatever one desired, whether land, love or good weather. Her cult travelled from port to port around the Mediterranean, where Aphrodite was merged with Roman Venus, and was eventually replaced by devotion to Mary and the saints.
Storms at sea could be caused by Poseidon, so the God of the Sea was potentially less helpful than Aphrodite, Hermes (god of luck and commerce), or the Dioscuri, Spartan sons of Zeus, who carried St Elmo’s fire. The Corinthian bard Arion was saved by a dolphin, while Dionysos the patron of performing artists was carried into Athens on a model boat every year for his festival (as were the Egyptian gods).
Several goddesses gave help at sea, either sea nymphs like Ino, the white goddess, or daughters of Ocean, those who, according to the poet Hesiod, ‘work with Apollo and the Rivers to make boys into men’. Ocean, the greatest river of all, bore Calypso (the hiding goddess) and Tyche, or Fortune. Hesiod also said Hecate gave fishermen a good catch, or took the fish away, and granted the greatest extremes of good and bad fortune.
However Aphrodite had the largest number of epithets related to the sea: Euploia (good sailing), Pontia (of the open sea), Limenia (of the harbour) and Pelagia (of the sea). On the eastern face of the Parthenon frieze, Aphrodite also sits right beside Poseidon.
Part of Aphrodite’s connection to the sea was her watery birth: she came straight out from the spermy sea foam, the aphros, stirred up by the severed genitals of Ouranos (Heaven) when they were thrown into the sea at the very beginning of creation, before the Olympic gods even existed, when Gaia helped her son Kronos to castrate his father.
Aphrodite came ashore near Paphos on Cyprus, after sailing in the foam past the island of Kythera off the southern Peloponnesus; thus in Hesiod’s poetic Theogony both islands became sacred to her, as did all those who sailed the seas. Aphrodite’s husband was Hephaestus, God of Crafts, but her lover was Ares, God of War. This mythical association was transferred to the heavens in the form of the Greek planets Ares and Aphrodite, our Mars and Venus, the two brightest planets.
Among sailors, who navigated by these stars, Aphrodite-Venus Euploia was specially honoured at the opening of the sailing season in the Mediterranean springtime. When she rose and the winter storms subsided, the grain was harvested, and Greeks took to the sea once again to trade, fish and travel over the summer months.
Dr Amelia R Brown is a lecturer in Greek History & Language at the School of History, Philosophy, Religion & Classics, University of Queensland.