Cyprus and Aphrodite: The Original Love Island?

Daisy Knox

“The original ‘Love Island’ is open: What you need to know before visiting Cyprus”

EuroNews headline, 29th May 2021

Before the chaos of the pandemic, the Cyprus Tourism Organisation estimated that about 8,000 couples travelled to Cyprus every year to get married, more than half of whom had come from the UK. Cyprus’ popularity for romantic tourism is attributed not just to its stunning beaches and fantastic weather, but to its long association with Aphrodite. The goddess of love, so the myth goes, was born from the sea foam somewhere in the Aegean. Soon after her birth, she walked, via Cythera, to Cyprus and established her home near Paphos. This story is recounted on every tourism website and leaflet advertising the island; it is no surprise that, when Cyprus reopened to tourism after the pandemic lockdowns of 2020–1, it was branded “the original Love Island”. As tourists, we might be impressed by this handy marketing tagline, but as Classicists, Archaeologists or Historians, it poses some questions. What is the evidence for this link between Aphrodite and Cyprus? How far back can we trace it in the literary and archaeological record?

We may begin our quest for answers in Paphos itself, the favourite city for UK couples planning their Cypriot wedding. This is Aphrodite’s mythological home, and the site of her most famous sanctuary. Known nowadays as Sanctuary II at Palaipaphos, it was built around the late first century AD and venerated by the Romans for 300 years. Countless inscriptions, literary references and images on coins attest to Aphrodite’s worship here during the Roman period. Statue bases and thousands of votive offerings, including female figurines, mostly from the 8th to 5th centuries BC, confirm that ritual was already being practised on the site long before the Roman sanctuary was built. Indeed, archaeologists have uncovered another, much earlier ritual site at Palaipaphos.

Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Paphos, Cyprus.

Slightly overlapping with Sanctuary II to the south, Sanctuary I is an open-air space, bounded by a monumental wall which dates to the Late Bronze Age (c. 13th century BC). Many researchers consider Sanctuary I to be evidence that the worship of Aphrodite, or an equivalent goddess known as Cypris, has a much longer history on Cyprus. Of course, the fact that these sanctuaries are in the same place is not enough to presume that they represent ritual activity and worship for the same goddess, so researchers have looked to written sources and the Cypriot figurine record to corroborate the theory. Looking objectively at this evidence, a fascinating question arises: is it plausible to trace Aphrodite’s Cypriot connections back to the Bronze Age?

A plan of Sanctuaries I and II.

Some of the earliest literary works in the Classical canon provide the first clues. Homer depicts Aphrodite seeking sanctuary in her Paphian home in Odyssey 8, and refers to her as Cypris (the Cyprian goddess) in Iliad 5. Hesiod describes the story of her birth in the Theogony, calling her Cyprogenēs (born in Cyprus). In Homeric epic, these alternate names and descriptions are used with little further explanation; it can be presumed that the audience were well aware of Aphrodite’s connection with Cyprus.

The works of both Hesiod and Homer were probably written down during the 8th century BC but both represent the first known recorded versions of stories which were much older. These stories were handed down through generations of oral poets from as far back as the 13th century BC, when Mycenae, Pylos, Knossos and Troy, the places where the great heroes of the Trojan war lived and fought, were real, thriving Bronze Age settlements. If these elements of the epics can be traced back into prehistory, then why not Cypriot Aphrodite too?

Homer, Jean-Baptiste Auguste Leloir, 1841 (Musee du Louvre, Paris, France).

This is as far as written evidence can take this quest: Cyprus’ Bronze Age script (Cypro-Minoan) remains undeciphered and the Late Bronze Age Linear B tablets from Crete and mainland Greece make no mention of Aphrodite. Given that figurines featured so prominently amongst later votive offerings at Palaipaphos, perhaps their Bronze Age equivalents can provide further clues. For the Late Bronze Age, these figurines fall into two main contemporary groups: earring figurines and flathead figurines.

Flathead figurine from Cyprus, 1500 to 1200 BC (British Museum, London).
Earring figurine from Cyprus, 1500 to 1200 BC (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

In use between the 15th and 12th centuries BC, these handmade, clay figurines were either hollow or solid, with most measuring between 12 cm and 20 cm long, modelled naked with ostensibly female features. A few examples carry infants, but fewer than 300 figurines survive in total. Since their first discovery in the late 19th century, these figurines have been described as “images of the Cyprian Venus”. Nowadays, many Cypriot archaeologists interpret them as depictions of Cypris, the proto-Aphrodite of Cyprus, but does the evidence from the figurines themselves support this?

Bronze Age figurines were not deposited as votive offerings at ritual sites like their 8th century BC counterparts, but were found in domestic settings and tombs. None was particularly large nor seems to have been set up in a such a way that would suggest they were the focus of any ritual practices. This does not preclude their identification as Aphrodite or as evidence of her worship but neither does it support it. Moreover, these figurines have many curious characteristics which hint that there is far more to them. Wear patterns, for instance, suggest that most were in use for a long time before their final disposal and some were valued enough to repair.

Ancient city kingdoms of Cyprus.

The Late Bronze Age figurines seem to have been made in small batches and distributed around the island, whereas earlier Bronze Age figurines were probably made and used locally. Furthermore, the two Late Bronze Age types have very different ears. Earring figurines have large, pierced ears and earrings which, coupled with their triangular figure, resemble Syrian depictions of the goddess Astarte. Flathead figurines, on the other hand, have small ears, identical to those on contemporary bull figurines. Along with their flattened heads and hair curls, these features may reference the Egyptian goddess Hathor. If they are both to be Cypris, then she had many, very different forms.

Statue of Hathor, 14th cent. BC (Luxor Museum, Egypt).

Bronze Age Cypriot figurines are a lot more than simple representations of a proto-Aphrodite, if they are this at all. Rather than categorically attesting to her early worship on the island, they allude to a complex and varied system of iconography and practice which is arguably even more interesting. Figurines, however, are perhaps entirely the wrong place to look for representations of the goddess. Roman coins depicting the sanctuary of Aphrodite show a large, solid triangle shape inside the temple complex; in Tacitus’ Histories 2, he describes the image of Venus at Paphos as a large black rock. Indeed, excavations close to Palaipaphos uncovered a huge, shiny, black piece of basalt, known as a baetyl, which was almost certainly the focus for cult practices in the Roman sanctuary.

The baetyl of Palaipaphos (Kouklia Archaeological Museum, Pafos, Cyprus).

Aphrodite’s worship at Roman Palaipaphos, therefore, did not centre around an anthropomorphic image but was aniconic. Just like the interpretation of figurines, the interpretation of ritual objects is complex. Without further investigation, we might not think to look for a cult object so different from the humanoid images of deities with which we are more familiar. This clue from the Roman context clearly suggests that Aphrodite’s prehistoric worship also centred around a deceptively ordinary, aniconic object. Whilst Aphrodite’s connection to Cyprus is fairly secure back to the 8th century BC, tracing it farther back into prehistory is more problematic and complex. As is often the case, it involves bringing together a range of tenuous but tantalising evidence to tell a plausible story. In this case, it may suggest that Aphrodite’s cult on Cyprus shared common elements with the deities of Syria and Egypt before becoming established in the Greek pantheon, but that Aphrodite and Cyprus were connected in some way at least back to the 13th Century BC. Not only does this long history prove that to the ancient world, as well as to the modern, Aphrodite was genuinely Cypris, the Cypriot goddess, but it also most certainly justifies Cyprus’ romantic reputation as the “original Love Island”.

Daisy Knox read Classics at Selwyn College, Cambridge, completing her BA in 2004 and MPhil the following year. She went on to complete a PhD in Bronze Age Cypriot Archaeology at the University of Manchester in 2012. She spent an enjoyable few years lecturing in Archaeology at the University of Manchester and University of East Anglia whilst taking part in archaeological fieldwork in the UK, Italy, Greece and Cyprus. In 2019, she decided that teaching was where her heart lay and she now teaches Classics to senior school and sixth form pupils at the Stephen Perse Foundation in Cambridge.

Further Reading

T. Insoll (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Prehistoric Figurines (Oxford UP, 2018). A comprehensive guide to the interpretation of prehistoric figurines across the world.

J. Karageorghis, Kypris: The Aphrodite of Cyprus (A.G. Leventis Foundation, 2005). A thorough examination of the history of Aphrodite on Cyprus, prepared in collaboration with the Cyprus Tourist Organisation.