You won’t have been in Cyprus long before you become aware of the island ‘s proud association with Aphrodite, whether it’s the dozens of hotels and restaurants named in her honour or everything from tea towels to T-shirts bearing her image. A brief primer is therefore worthwhile.
In the beginning there were only two beings – Ge, goddess of earth, and Uranus, god of the sky. Their children became known as the Titans. Cronus, their leader, on his mother’s orders cut off the genitals of his father, and threw them into the sea. From the resulting maelstrom of foam (“aphros”), the comely Aphrodite arose, and floated ashore on a scallop shell. She became the goddess of love – to be more specific, of beauty, pleasure and procreation – and created havoc with her power to bewitch both mortals and gods. The stories about her are copious. The most important in the Cypriot tradition involves Kinyras, king of Cyprus. He became Aphrodite’s adoring acolyte and favourite but was tricked into sleeping with his daughter, Myrrha, by a jealous Aphrodite. Kinyras almost killed Myrrha before the gods intervened, turning her into a fragrant myrrh tree. From the trunk of this tree Adonis, the ideal male, was born. Aphrodite soon fell in love with him, as did Persephone, queen of the Underworld. The pair fought over him until he is killed by a wild boar, and died in Aphrodite’s arms.
The cult of Aphrodite, practised at temple sites across the island, seems to have degenerated from a celebration of love and fertility to temple rites that included orgies and prostitution. Fifth-century BC Greek historian Herodotus describes how all women were expected to attend the temple and give themselves to any passing stranger. Attractive women, he comments wryly, could expect to complete their duty on the first night, while it might take ugly ones three or four years.
Aphrodite has, of course, been the subject of innumerable sculptures and paintings, from the demure Aphrodite of Cnidus and Botticelli’s golden-haired Birth of Venus to various soft-porn representations by Victorian artists. A number of seashells are associated with her too – scallops, because that was what she rode ashore on – and the suggestively shaped cowrie, which is named Cypraeidae in her honour.