Sex. Birds do it. Bees do it. Some claim it’s a biological imperative, or that it should only take place in certain contexts (between a woman and a man, or within the bounds of marriage, or if you are in luuuve). Others just want to get their rocks off—Wham! Bam! Thank you Ma’am! (Or, uh, Sir. Or both.)
Even Greek gods and Goddesses aren’t immune to physical passions. Duh. We all know about Zeus’ exploits with mortal women. As a god. As a swan. As a bull. Dude gets around. (And has a funny way of luring the ladies, but let’s not get into that. Keep it consensual, people!).
But today I want to talk about Aphrodite, the queen bee of love. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, the goddess is a bit of a trickster who compels the gods to mingle with mortals. To get even, Zeus gives her a taste of her own medicine, making her fall for the carefree, guitar-playing Anchises, a cattle herder in Troy. To make a long story short, there’s lust, and subterfuge, and an awkward day after.
So what’s so interesting about all this? Two things: One, in order to snag Anchises, Aphrodite has to hide her goddess-ness. Two: Sleeping with a goddess can get you into some real trouble.
When Anchises first meets Aphrodite, he thinks she’s a goddess. But Aphrodite, who has shrunk herself down to the size of a mortal, denies this and tells some cockamamie story about being a simple girl who was stolen by Hermes and brought to Anchises. This being ancient Greece, Anchises accepts this perfectly plausible explanation, and basically says he needs to have sex with her ASAP. (Though he does so in a very poetic way. Take note, fellas.)
Having left his cows in the pasture, he whisks Aphrodite to his home. Some steamy—yet questionable!—stuff ensues. I’ll share it with you:
οἳ δ᾽ ἐπεὶ οὖν λεχέων εὐποιήτων ἐπέβησαν,
κόσμον μέν οἱ πρῶτον ἀπὸ χροὸς εἷλε φαεινόν,
πόρπας τε γναμπτάς θ᾽ ἕλικας κάλυκάς τε καὶ ὅρμους.
λῦσε δέ οἱ ζώνην ἰδὲ εἵματα σιγαλόεντα
ἔκδυε καὶ κατέθηκεν ἐπὶ θρόνου ἀργυροήλου
Ἀγχίσης: ὃ δ᾽ ἔπειτα θεῶν ἰότητι καὶ αἴσῃ
ἀθανάτῃ παρέλεκτο θεᾷ βροτός, οὐ σάφα εἰδώς.
And when they went to his well-appointed bed, he took first from her body the shining jewelry—the curved broaches and the twisted flower-buds and her necklaces. And he loosened her girdle and stripped off her shining garments. And Anchises placed them upon the silver-studded chair. And then he, by the will of the gods and by immortal decree, laid beside the goddess as a mortal…he was not seeing clearly.
Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, 161-167 (Translation mine)
Damn, that’s hot! Also—Duhn! Duhn! Duhn!—Anchises mistakenly slept with a goddess. If he had seen clearly, the passage implies, he would have known better.
But Anchises knows ignorance is bliss and passes into a deep sleep. Dude sleeps all afternoon while the other herdsmen are working. Who knows what happened to his cows. Maybe they ran away. Maybe they didn’t. The poem doesn’t tell us much with regards to this. What we do know is that—Duhn! Duhn! Duhn!—Aphrodite’s mortal shape wears off and she becomes a giant goddess again. At this point, she wakes up Anchises and demands to know if he thinks she’s fat. Ok, well, not exactly. But sort of. She inquires if she looks like the same kind of person he is. Spoiler alert: She doesn’t.
And Anchises knows he’s in trouble.
Here’s the deal: Dudes who sleep with goddesses don’t fare well. Whereas the women who consort with gods give birth to heroes, the men who bed goddesses meet with misfortune. And Anchises totally knows this. This is what he says:
αὐτίκα σ᾽ ὡς τὰ πρῶτα, θεά, ἴδον ὀφθαλμοῖσιν,
ἔγνων ὡς θεὸς ἦσθα: σὺ δ᾽ οὐ νημερτὲς ἔειπες.
ἀλλά σε πρὸς Ζηνὸς γουνάζομαι αἰγιόχοιο,
μή με ζῶντ᾽ ἀμενηνὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποισιν ἐάσῃς
ναίειν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐλέαιρ᾽: ἐπεὶ οὐ βιοθάλμιος ἀνὴρ
γίγνεται, ὅς τε θεαῖς εὐνάζεται ἀθανάτῃσι.
Immediately, from the first moments that I saw you with my eyes, Goddess, I recognized that you were a god—but you did not speak truly! But I entreat you, in the name of aegis-bearing Zeus, may you not allow me to live feebly among men, but take pity on me, since a man does not become strong who makes love with the immortal goddesses.
Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, 185-190 (Translation mine)
Beyond Anchises anxiety, we also see here a distinct gendering of sexuality. In a note to this passage, Nicholas Richardson observes a handful of cases where the men who mate with immortal women meet with doom. Those who do so are stuck with impotence, or even death. Richardson observes that Odysseus fears he will lack, uh, vitality if he sleeps with Circe. And we have hints of that here, with the reference to physical strength and weakness. Impotence is bad enough, but there’s also the threat of death. Orion (who slept with Dawn) and Iasion (who bedded Demeter) are two examples of this latter consequence. As Richardson observes, “The idea that those who openly marry goddesses do not have a long or happy life is expressed by Calypso [in the Odyssey] in the complaint at the jealousy of the gods, who begrudge men such fortune” (243). In general, the gods get to sleep with whomever they want; the goddesses, however, spread woe when they hunker down with a human. The distinction is obviously cut along the line of gender.
We saw this portrayal of the murderous (and sexy!) woman earlier with regards to prostitutes, poisons and the patrons who love them. This depiction is further borne out by these tales of the goddesses and their relations with men. It is interesting to note that Anchises additionally is deceived in this story; he loses his agency to the temptation of a duplicitous woman. Like similar ancient portrayals, ladies will do nothing but lie to you and bring you trouble. Even the ones who are goddesses.
Women, they can’t get a break even when they’re superior beings!
Anyway, no wonder Anchises is concerned. Lucky for our cattle-herder, Aphrodite assures him that he won’t suffer because of their liaison. She promises to bear him a most-heroic child, and then leaves. Sort of. She says he’ll be struck with lightning if he tells anyone who the mother of his child is. In other versions of this story, that is exactly what happens: he is struck by lightning, made lame, or even killed for his afternoon with a goddess (Richardson 243). But here everything works out fine.
The Homeric poems date to around 700 BCE, and thus are among the earlier examples of Greek literature that we have. It is interesting to see such constructions of gender and sexuality embedded in these early works. What’s more, it is interesting to see these negative connotations of female sexuality applied even to those who transcend human parameters—the goddesses themselves. Mortal women may not have gotten a fair shake from the Greeks, but neither did the goddesses. That goddesses specifically bring misfortune to men through the act of sexual intercourse, suggests a negative view of women’s sexuality, one that is tied to tragedy, deception, and the threat of impotence or death for the men who sleep with them.
“Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite”. Ed. Nicholas Richardson. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. 2010.
Photo by Novowyr.