Venus emerging from the sea famously captured the imagination of painters Botticelli and Titian, but I wondered how popular this theme was in classical antiquity and before. When the ancients thought of Aphrodite, did they think of shells, dolphins and sea foam surrounding her? To what extent were these attributes fixed or of primary importance? Mythology abounds with sea creatures and divinities emerging from or residing in the sea. The Cretan bull is an example for the former, while the Nereids, who lead a mermaid-like existence (but look fully human), for the latter. Was Aphrodite something of a sea nymph herself?
Well, this sherd of pottery above, with the inscription 'Aphrodite' on it, did emerge from the sea, so to speak. It was found in Naukratis, in the Nile Delta, an ancient hub of maritime trade in a place where sea and river meet, where sea nymphs and fresh water nymphs can bump into each other. As for Aphrodite's sea nymph credentials, Hesiod calls her "the foam-born goddess" (Theogony, l. 196). Kronos cuts off the genitals of his father, Ouranos, and when they fall into the sea-foam, a maiden is created. But before that, out of the drops of blood (which fall onto Earth, not the sea), a whole range of creatures are born: the Erinyes, the Giants (Gigantes) and a type of nymphs called the Meliai (ash-tree nymphs or honey nymphs; for more information on nymphs, visit the Nymph Catalogue on Theoi). Aphrodite, however, is not a tree spirit or river spirit: she is a goddess born out of the flesh of Ouranos (as opposed to mere drops of blood) and the wide blue sea, an element of quite a different order.
Here, she is reclining on a scallop shell complete with winged companions and dolphin on a "late" (from my point of view), Imperial Roman depiction. Not a great work of art (see right leg, for example), but it has all the features I'm interested in. Her companions, Love (Erōs) and Desire (Himeros) follow Hesiod's version of events. In Homeric Hymn VI to Aphrodite, once the goddess is born, the Seasons or Hours (Horai) welcome her and deck her with jewels (a crown of gold, copper earrings, and gold necklaces; no mention of anklets or bracelets). They also "wrap[...] ambrosial garments around her" (probably the cloak/shawl in the picture). However, neither Hesiod nor the poet of Hymn VI says anything about a shell. So where does the shell come from?
In Hymn VI, "Zephyros [the west wind] swept her with his moist breath over the waves of the roaring sea in soft foam". So Aphrodite is being transported by the wind to Cyprus, the island she is associated with and even named after (Kypriā, of Cyprus, one of her epithets). Zephyros is present in the picture (the swelling of the ambrosial garment, a makeshift sail, bears witness to it). But no shell, just "over the waves" (according to Hesiod, the name 'Aphrodite' comes from the word "foam", aphros). And yet, we can see the shell everywhere:
What the shell symbolises becomes abundantly clear in the representation above. In the rather gruesome nuptials of Ouranos and the sea-foam, the sea is the female element, with the shell standing for the vulva, the female counterpart of the severed members of the sky-god. The beautiful maiden inside the shell is the goddess of sexuality. The shell-vulva association inspired a modern painter too:
Apart from coming out of a shell, Aphrodite is often represented as 'rising' from the sea, also referred to as 'Venus Anadyomene' (Aphroditē Anadyomenē). In this case, she seems to be in the act of holding or wringing her hair, probably right after emerging from the waves, making herself ready for the shore. The theme was immortalised by the painter Apelles (first half of the fourth century BC, court painter to Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great), of which only descriptions survive. (The mural painting above is reputed to be based on Apelles' work; however, it is not of the anadyomene type.) Other rising Aphrodites:
These representations also connect Aphrodite with the sea, although I have failed to find any literary reference to the shell. However, the shell, being a fertility/sexual symbol, relates Aphrodite to other goddesses who are born out of a floating egg (e.g. Syrian Ashtarte). The presence of dolphins (they do get mentioned, The Anacreontea, Fragment 57, quoted on Theoi), Poseidon and sea monsters conjure up the primordial ocean, the source of life. More practically, Aphrodite was a protectress of sea voyages in her cult as Aphroditē Euploia ('fair voyage').
Because Aphrodite rises up from the sea, she has been identified as a dawn goddess. Certainly the Botticelli painting captures the idea of spring and youth, the dawn of life with the fresh wafts of wind and the clear blue sea. There is something of a dawn goddess about his Venus. It is quite possible that this was one aspect of Aphrodite (one of her cult epithets is 'postponer of old age').
Aphrodite has many guises, and some of her aspects have nothing to do with the sea. Famously, Homer knows nothing about the sea birth (presenting Aphrodite as the daughter of Zeus and Dione, a Titan goddess, Iliad 5.370-417), although he does associate her with Paphos on Cyprus, where Aphrodite had a sanctuary (Odyssey 8.362-363), the oldest remains of which date back to the 12thC BC. The same passage in the Odyssey describes how the goddess is bathed and anointed by the Graces, which is another popular theme: Aphrodite bathing and/or crouching, sometimes also wringing her hair:
The element of water is still present. 'Bridal' Aphrodite (Aphroditē Nymphia) was worshipped in ancient times, and Nonnus speaks of Aphrodite's bridal bath: "Paphos, garlanded harbour of the soft-haired Erotes (Loves), landing place of Aphrodite when she came up out of the waves, where is the bridebath of the seaborn goddess" (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 13. 435 ff; trans. Rouse; Greek epic C5th A.D.; quoted on Theoi). As young brides prepared for their weddings at Athens, Aphrodite presided over the wedding ritual, including the bridal bath, in her guise as Aphroditē Pandēmos (Rosenzweig, Rachel; Worshipping Aphrodite: Art and Cult in Classical Athens, University of Michigan Press, 2004, p. 22). Bathing as a sacred rite may have been practised in the Aphrodite sanctuary in Paphos (or Palaiapaphos, as it was called later, when the city of Paphos was moved to the west in the 3rdC BC): "Cultic activities included ritual bathing and anointing with oils, the burning of incense, oracular pronouncements, orgiastic/nude pilgrimages between the two sites [the Aphrodite sanctuary at Palaiapaphos and the sanctuary at nearby Rantidi possibly dedicated to her consort Adonis/Apollo], and sexual interaction of men and women as sympathetic magic to encourage human fertility and that in nature" (Young, Philip H.; "The Cypriot Aphrodite Cult: Paphos, Rantidi, and Saint Barnabas", Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 64, No. 1, January 2005, p. 44). (The idea that naked processions took place here is based on a late, 5thC AD text, the Acts of Barnabas.)
Aphrodite is also associated with different animals: the swan, the goose and the goat.
The last image retains the connection with the sea (although in a rather fantastical juxtaposition of the goddess's attributes), but the others show Aphrodite in a completely different setting. Animals may refer to her characteristics in a symbolic language perhaps more readily grasped by worshippers than the shell imagery. Still, as it is extermely hot here, I prefer to think of her as the goddess carried on the sea-foam and swept by the moist breath of Zephyros. I would really like to swap places with her.
Have studied A219 Exploring the Classical World and A275 Reading Classical Greek at the Open University. Currently studying for a Psychology degree.
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