What if we imagined these deities alive today?

I have a personal view that the polytheism of the Greeks gives us a useful language in which to look at experience. In this issue I explore the goddess of seduction.

Aphrodite on Goose, painted by Pistoxenos 460 BCE

Born of sea-foam, daughter of Zeus and Dione, she is the goddess of sensuality and seduction. Her companions, the Three Graces, keep her oiled, perfumed, luminous. On Greek vases she skims over the ocean on a scallop shell, or rides side-saddle on feathers: goose or swan. Preoccupied with her mirror or pet sparrows she sends her sons, Pan, Priapus and Eros, to carry out her commands. Her relations with men are as fluid as her diaphanous clothes: she is married to Hephaistos, god of the arts and technology, but falls for Anchises, a mortal; she has a penchant for young boys: Adonis, Hippolytus, Phaethon, but cannot resist the alpha-male Ares, god of war.

Such picaresque details make her seem vain and fickle, as evanescent and ephemeral as the sea bubbles which created her. We might imagine her now surviving in the gleam on Beyoncé’s oiled thigh; in ‘you’re worth it’ cosmetics; soft porn; the dazzle of free love and happy-ever-after couplings. Yet the literature reveals another more profound goddess: a motherless Aphrodite, born from the semen of the sky-god Ouranus as it fell into the ocean from Chronos’ sickle-slicing castration of his father. It was Chronos, her brother and god of time, who brought about her birth and this means that for the Greeks a divinity of desire was key to the evolution of all things from the very beginning.

If procreation was what was required, why not settle for those spirits of simple generation: Pan and Priapus? Why have a goddess of seduction? Consider her other associates and lovers: Poseidon, sea-god, source of teeming life but moon-moody and capable of vast destruction; Dionysus, god of wine, of boundary dissolution; of perception-altering, regret-inducing elation; Hermes, god of journeying, even from life to death and back, of communications, transitions. They are all deities of the fluid, the unquantifiable, the in-between, the emergent.

Aphrodite is queen of the in-between. She holds sway over the places where things can go either way: the unexpected can irrupt and scupper the outcome or something new may emerge and this flux is initiated by anything from a tender touch to full-blown obsession. Aphrodite is goddess of the ecstasy of seduction. ‘Ecstasy’ comes from two Greek words: ‘ek’ meaning out of and ‘stasis’ meaning a state of being. Aphrodite is one who pulls you out of where you’re at.

We often invent words, in our rationalist way, for things we don’t understand as if we do. ‘Black hole’ is one such. We saw evidence of their existence in the universe before we knew what they were. Similarly ‘emergence’ now describes the process by which new things come into being that are more than the sum of their parts. But what makes this ‘more’ happen at all? We don’t know. Wikipedia, after many attempts to define emergence scientifically, declares (in despair): “Life is a major source of complexity…”  Aphrodite is the name the Greeks gave to this mysterious thing, this ‘Life’.

So don’t let’s diminish her with accusations of caprice, or of irrationality, a cardinal sin of our culture. It’s not her business to be one thing, to offer wholeness, resolution, completion. She is the deity of emergence which she effects through engendering love, desire, frustration – whatever it takes. It’s her task to make us care for this world, and how shall we care for it, if we are not in love with it?

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