Monday, December 18

The Symbols of Aphrodite

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Also, the symbols of Aphrodite indicate objects that were considered sacred to her, and most commonly used in her cult and the associated ritual ceremonies, and thus give a good indication about common items available and used in ancient Greece. Such objects are normally depicted in visual representations of Aphrodite or referenced in literary works, so understanding them will help you identify the depiction of the goddess at a glance (and this will make you appear a lot smarter in your friends’ eyes, for sure, but it will also help you find your way with ease when studying the Greek mythology, because you’ll figure out more complicated references).

The main category of Aphrodite symbols is the one of sea objects, because of her birth myth, out of the foam of the sea (you can read more about that in How was Aphrodite born?). She is often associated with shells, especially scallop shells, as the one that protected her and helped her get safely to shore after her birth. (This symbol is enhanced by the fact that shells were, and still are, commonly used for a wide variety of jewelry and decorative pieces, so the association with the goddess of love is even more obvious).

Giant clam symbol of Aphrodite

For the same reason, she is often depicted in association with dolphins, pearls, clams, shellfish, aquamarine, jade, sapphire and copper. The gems and copper made it on the list because of their color – shades of blue and green, in particular light ones, were Aphrodite’s colors because they matched the sea.

Since we’re talking about colors, red, as the color of passion and love, was obviously associated with Aphrodite, though it’s not used as often in visual art, because of the tendency to present the goddess in pale, soft colors. The red rose is one of the most powerful symbols of Aphrodite, so much that it remained a strong love symbol to this day. The legend says that Aphrodite created the red rose, either from her tears, or, alternatively, when she injured herself in some thorny bushes, and her drops of blood became red flowers.

Myrtle was Aphrodite’s plant because it’s evergreen, and, as the story goes, when she touched the land for the first time the sandy beaches turned into lush green gardens at her every step. It was also said that Adonis, one of Aphrodite’s lovers, was born from a myrtle plant. Also related to the relationship with Adonis, there were the anemones, believed to have sprung out of his blood when he died. A fragment found in Cyprus, one of the main centers of worship for Aphrodite’s cult, describes her as being covered by spring flowers, especially hyacinth, narcissus and lily.

Among the fruits, the symbols of Aphrodite were apples and pomegranates. Apples, because of the beauty contest that started the Trojan war, where she, as the winner, was awarded the golden apple. The pomegranate was a symbol of fertility for females (some of the earliest Greek statues of women show them holding a pomegranate). Aphrodite was credited as being the first to have planted the pomegranate plant on the island of Cyprus.

Dolphin symbol of Aphrodite

The Syrian goddess Ashtarte was considered by the ancient Greeks as another version of their Aphrodite. Ashtarte was born from a dove egg, and thus, by association, doves, sparrows, swans and geese became the symbols of Aphrodite as well. White doves were driving her flying chariot, and she’s shown sometimes riding a goose.

Most naturally, Aphrodite is presented with a mirror in her hand, to admire her beauty (it is asserted that she held a mirror in her hand in many of her statues, but it fell off in time), or sometimes with a scepter (she was a beauty queen after all). Finally, one object that’s famous in literature, though rarely shown in visual arts, is Aphrodite’s girdle, said to have made her even more attractive to men that she already was.

I guess you’re wondering by now if there’s anything that wasn’t a symbol of Aphrodite, and the answer is yes: pigs. The sensitive goddess could not stand them, so sacrificing pigs in her honor was banned.  

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