Aphrodite’s name is often on the lips of characters in the extant Greek tragedies, as the object of their prayers and particularly as the cause of their evils. The two main names for the goddess in poetry, Aphrodite (Ἀφροδίτη) and Cypris (Κύπρις), are found over 100 times in our surviving tragedies, indicating the prominence of the goddess in this literary tradition. More intriguing, however, is that the very nature of Aphrodite-Cypris seems to depend to some extent on the gender of the mortals who invoke her.
In the voices of women in Tragedy, the goddess is most often associated with destructive potential of love, whereas for men she can be a purely benign deity. Closer examination of how the goddess of love is invoked in Tragedy and beyond reveals interesting insights into the many and varied ways Aphrodite could be conceptualised as a goddess. This, in turn, can further our understanding of how gender and genre can impact the portrayal of this mighty goddess in the Greek poetic traditions.
The clearest example of Aphrodite’s devastating force in Tragedy can be found in Euripides’ play Hippolytus, in which the goddess exacts revenge on Theseus’ son Hippolytus for disregarding her cult by making his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. Aphrodite is present throughout the play, even appearing as an onstage character to deliver the prologue in which she identifies herself as ‘Cypris’ and reveals her destructive intentions for Phaedra and Hippolytus. From then on, this vengeful deity ripples through the drama on the lips of various characters who gradually realise and acknowledge her violent supremacy.
The female chorus first recognise the goddess’ destructive power after Phaedra reveals her horrific secret, when they describe her love as ‘a misfortune sent from Cypris’ (Hipp. 372). The women later narrate two other stories in which Cypris caused violence from forbidden desire, citing Heracles’ lust for Iole which caused the destruction of her city, and Zeus’ lust for Semele which caused her demise (545–64). Just before her death, Phaedra herself acknowledges that it is Cypris who has destroyed her (725). Finally, after Theseus erroneously punishes Hippolytus for Phaedra’s death and his own downfall has been announced, the chorus resume the theme of Cypris’ dominion over all people, culminating in Theseus’ closing words ‘Cypris, how acutely I will remember your vicious deeds’ (1268–81, 1461).
Hippolytus is the most extreme example of the negative connotations attached to Aphrodite in Tragedy, but similar effects can be found elsewhere in the tradition, particularly when referring to the goddess’ impact on women. For instance, in various Euripidean plays, both Aphrodite and Cypris are named by women as the cause of the Trojan war, via the goddess’ encouragement of Paris’ forbidden love for Helen.
Similarly, the chorus-women of Sophocles’ Trachiniae present the goddess as supremely powerful, masterminding the violent contest between Heracles and Achelous for Deianira’s hand in marriage, as well as Heracles’ own destruction as a result of his unfaithful desire for Iole and Deianira’s ensuing sexual jealousy (497–530, 860–1). Further, Creusa in Euripides’ Ion describes Apollo, who violently sexual assaulted her, as “doing a favour to Cypris”, while Hecuba accuses Helen of unfaithful desire for Paris by saying that her mind “was turned to Cypris” when she saw him (Ion. 896, Tro. 988).
The name ‘Cypris’ even becomes something of a euphemism in Tragedy for forceful or forbidden desire. She is referenced in this way by both women and men, but most often in the context of her detrimental impact on women in particular, as the cause of either their own licentious behaviour or that of their husbands.
Even when women do perceive Aphrodite in a more positive light, she is usually referenced in the mixed context of love’s ‘bitter-sweet’ nature. For instance, the chorus of Euripides’ Medea assert that Cypris can bring happiness in moderation, but this is tempered by the constant threat that she might instead inflict love in excess or unfaithful desire on the chorus-women (627–44). This same sentiment is echoed in Euripides’ Hippolytus, where the chorus highlight the cognitive dissonance inherent in the ‘bitter-sweet’ forces of Eros and Aphrodite, who can simultaneously bring sweet pleasure and stir up violent strife as they wish (525–9). The chorus-women of Iphigenia at Aulis are even more precise: according to them, Eros has two arrows, one bringing happy love and the other bringing chaotic strife (543–57). The women can only pray that Aphrodite endows them with love in moderation rather than excessive desire.
For male characters in Tragedy, however, Aphrodite-Cypris is a much more benign and agreeable deity. In Euripides’ Alcestis, Heracles – at this point unaware of the death of the queen Alcestis – tries to lighten the sombre mood in the royal house by urging everyone to forget their sorrows and have fun, exhorting a house servant to “honour Cypris, the greatest sweet pleasure for mortals, for she is a kindly goddess” (790–1). Similarly, both the male messenger in Euripides’ Bacchae and the chorus-men of Euripides’ Children of Heracles describe Cypris-Aphrodite as a ‘delight’ or ‘pleasure’ for mortals (E. Bacch. 773, Her. 894). For the Colonian elders in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Aphrodite is simply a benign deity who has blessed their beloved homeland (693). These examples paint a picture of a goddess who can be invoked by male characters as a purely positive force, but whose dangerous potential is always recognised by the women of Greek tragedy.
The significance of this gendered divide in Tragedy is made particularly prominent when women’s references to Aphrodite in other archaic and Classical poetic traditions are taken into consideration. In Sappho’s poetry, the goddess is often invoked not just as a goddess, but as Sappho’s accomplice and confidante in various situations involving love-tangles or family matters. The most famous instance is Fragment 1, composed as a prayer to the goddess, in which Sappho entreats Aphrodite to come to her side and help her win a girl’s heart. Sappho imagines the goddess reassuring her that the girl in question will soon turn her head and fall in love, even closing her prayer by entreating the goddess to be her ‘ally’ (σύμμαχος), evoking an image of poet and goddess standing side-by-side in battle together. This close-knit bond between Sappho and Aphrodite is a far cry from anything found in the relationship between women and the goddess in Tragedy, depicting Aphrodite as a benign collaborator rather than a deity whose powers are a double-edged sword.
Aristophanes’ Comedies provide another interesting parallel for the representation of the goddess in Tragedy. In Lysistrata, the eponymous heroine asks the goddess to help the Athenian women succeed in their plan to withhold sex from their husbands and thereby force them to give up the war (551–4). As in Sappho’s poetry, the goddess is invoked in prayer as a benign goddess and co-conspirator to Lysistrata’s plan, whose role will be to make the women look as desirable as possible in order to tempt their husbands.
However, Aphrodite is most often invoked in Old Comedy when women swear by her name in the course of their conversations. Unlike the solemn oaths sworn in cultic prayers, these comic oaths appear throughout Comedy, adding extra dramatic and emotional emphasis to the statements which they accompany. They also create linguistic distinctions between male and female speech, as women more commonly swear by goddesses than men. This in turn can add comic value, as happens in Assemblywomen, when a woman attempting to disguise herself as a man in order to participate in politics accidentally reveals her gender when she swears by Aphrodite (189–92). Far from the violent and powerful goddess in the eyes of women in Tragedy, Aphrodite in Old Comedy is reduced mainly to a piece of syntax, used flippantly by the women who invoke her as a means of adding emotional colour to their language.
Why, then, do women find the goddess of love a female-friendly deity elsewhere in Greek poetry but a potentially terrifying force of destructive desire specifically in Tragedy? The answer may lie at least partially in the function of Tragedy as a poetic tradition. These were plays designed to create emotional impact and explore impossible, thought-provoking moral dilemmas from the safety of the world of myth rather than reality. The concept of ‘love-gone-wrong’, therefore, was a powerful means to examine a universal aspect of human nature, and especially the tensions between individual desires and civic or moral obligations. As many of the extant tragedies featured female protagonists supported by female choruses reacting to the situations in front of them, it was all the more likely that women were the characters to voice what may in fact have been a universal appreciation of the dangerous potential of love.
And yet, this explanation cannot account fully for the eminently more positive reception given to Aphrodite by men in Tragedy. Any sociological extrapolations from the literary evidence are necessarily tentative, but it might also be possible to find a connection here between the literary realm and historical reality. Men in fifth-century Athens were able to indulge in extra-marital affairs or divorce their wives with relative freedom; for women, however, the stability of a husband and a home was necessary for their own safety and financial security, while adultery came with the threat of a heavy punishment in Athenian law. Aphrodite and her associated pleasures could be perceived by men as little more than a welcome distraction from civic responsibilities, while for women, any infidelity was as dangerous as it was desirable. The goddess, then, may have represented very different aspects of ‘love’ according to the gender of those who prayed to her, in both Tragedy and reality.
Imogen Stead is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford working on the choral voice of Greek tragedy, with a particular interest in exploring how gender can influence the way characters speak in Athenian drama. Her earlier piece on female speech in Attic tragedy and comedy can be read here.
For a good introduction to the history and cult of Aphrodite, see Bettany Hughes’ Venus and Aphrodite (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2019). For more detail on addresses to Aphrodite in Sappho’s poetry see Renate Schlesier’s chapter “Loving, but not loved: the New Kypris song in the context of Sappho’s poetry,” in A. Bierl & A. Lardinois (edd.), The Newest Sappho: P. Sapph. Obbink and P. GC inv. 105, Frs. 1-4 (Brill, Leiden, 2016, and open source here). For a good introduction to how women’s speech is represented in Comedy, see Andreas Willi, The Languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of Linguistic Variation in Classical Attic Greek (Oxford UP, 2007). Sarah Pomeroy’s Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (Schocken, New York, 1975) gives an excellent overview of the position of women in Classical Athens.