Myths of Greece and Rome, by Jane Harrison, , at sacred-texts.com
In marked contrast to Athena stands the next of our local Korês translated to Olympus, Aphrodite. Aphrodite is manifestly in Olympus an outsider. She belongs, as her titles tell, to the southern and eastern islands of the Greek archipelago: she is Cythereia, she of Cythêra; and Cypria, she of Cyprus, where at Paphos she had her great sanctuary. Living in islands her way was ever on the sea. As the Hymn in her honour says:
When, in the Lay of Demodocus, Aphrodite is released from the disgraceful bonds in which she and Ares were imprisoned, she rose up
Aphrodite, we see, is constantly attended by the Horæ, the seasons, and she, like Hera, is herself a seasonal goddess. She is not, in our sense, virginal, but a korê, a maiden, she assuredly is in her eternal youth and radiance. Perhaps the best title for her is Nymphê, Bride. The ancients, in their wisdom, saw that virginity was not a virtue to be lost once for all, but a grace to be perennially renewed. Aphrodite is a bride of the old order, she is never wife, she can never tolerate permanent patriarchal wedlock. Her will is always turned toward love rather than marriage. When she is admitted to the patriarchal Olympus, an attempt, foolish and futile, is made to fit her out with a husband, the craftsman, Hephaistos. The figure of Hephaistos in Homer is always contemptible, but it serves to show that the Achaians had reached in their conquest the volcanic island of Lemnos, whose craftsman god they affiliated. As bride of Hephaistos, Aphrodite is also called Charis, Grace. She is the Charis of physical charm and beauty incarnate. But in the cold, austere North, where Artemis loved to dwell, she is never really at home. She has about her too much of the physical joy of life ever to find an abiding home far from the sunshine.
Another note of her late affiliation as an Olympian barely tolerated, always glad to escape, is that in the Iliad she is a departmental goddess, her sphere is that of one human passion. In the Homeric Hymn she is of far wider import. The poet tells how, when she was seeking the shepherd Anchises, "To many fountained Ida she came, mother of wild beasts, and made straight for the steading through the mountain, while behind her came fawning the beasts, grey wolves and lions fiery-eyed and bears and swift pards, insatiate pursuers of the roe-deer. Glad was she at the sight of them and sent desire into their breasts, and they went coupling two by two in the shadowy dells." She is here the impulse of life to all
things on the wide earth, a veritable Lady-of-the-Wild-Things. Yes, and she is Lady, too, of the upper air as well as of sea and land. On a vase-painting in the British Museum, a design of marvellous beauty, we see her seated sedately on a great swan sailing through the upper air.
We are very near here to the august image of Venus Genetrix, fashioned by the Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius. His words are stiff and majestic as became a Roman, but his thoughts are all Greek:
Thee, goddess, the winds fly from, thee the clouds
And thine approach; for thee the dædal earth
Sends up sweet flowers, the ocean levels smile,
And heaven shines with floods of light appeased.
Thou, since alone thou rulest all the world,
Nor without thee can any living thing
Win to the shores of light and joy and love,
Goddess, bid thou throughout the seas and land
The works of furious war quieted cease."
In this image, Venus Genetrix, we have all the old radiance of Aphrodite, but sobered, somehow, grave with the hauntings of earlier goddesses.
We have examined the figures of three of the local Pelasgian Korai, or Maidens, who became goddesses in Olympus; Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. It may help to their better understanding if we look for a moment at a myth in which they all appear together. There is, perhaps, no Greek story more familiar, more widely popular, than the Judgment of Paris.
The story, as usually understood, is vulgar enough. It tells of a kallisteion, a beauty contest. At the wedding of Peleus the gods and goddesses are assembled, and Eris, goddess of Strife, throws among them a golden apple inscribed: "Let the fair one take it." The three august goddesses, Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, snatch at the apple in hot rivalry, and straightway betake themselves to Paris, Priam's son, the young shepherd-prince for judgment.
I had been collecting instances of the Judgment of Paris in the museums of Europe for many weeks when a singular fact struck me. In, at least, three-fourths of the vases on which the "Judgment" was depicted, there was no judge, no Paris. Moreover, in no single instance did the golden apple appear. Clearly in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., to which these vases belong, the apple was unknown, and the figure of Paris non-essential. The ordinary way of representing the myth was to depict the three goddesses walking in solemn procession behind Hermes. Moreover, the three rivals are, in the earlier vases, barely differentiated; indeed, on one vase they have dispassionately attired themselves in one huge cloak! Only in one instance can we find any hint of preparation for a beauty contest. This instance is on a vase in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, and, though late in style, is so charming that it may be briefly described. The young Phrygian shepherd occupies the centre, and round him are grouped the goddesses engaged in
their toilette for the judgment. Hera is putting her veil in order before a mirror, and looks well content with her own image. Aphrodite stretches out her white arm, and upon it a love-god is fastening a bracelet. Athena, attended by a large, serious dog, clean-hearted goddess as she is tucks her gown about her and is about to have a good wash! Our hearts go out to Onone when she cries:
What does this all mean, this absence of Paris, this adoption by the vase-painter of the simple processional form, the undifferentiated goddesses, led by Hermes? It means that, originally, the story was not a beauty contest at all--a contest vulgar in itself, and doubly vulgar when complicated by bribery. The vase-painter knows that the goddesses are not three rival beauties, but three gift-givers in rivalry; he takes an art type lying ready to hand, Hermes leading the three Graces or Charities, the Gift-Givers. The Judgment of Paris is not a decision between others, but a choice for himself. And the choice that was set before Paris was a choice that might come to be made by any and every young man and maiden. Early mythology scarcely differentiates between the goddesses as gift-givers and the gifts they bring. These gifts, dominion, wisdom, love, are what the Greeks called the sêmeia, the tokens of the goddesses who bring them, and Hermes had led the goddesses long since in varying forms before the eyes of each and all of mankind. They might be conceived of as undifferentiated, as were givers of blessing in general, but it needed only a little reflection to see that Charis might be at war with Charis, Grace with Grace, and that if one be chosen the others must needs be rejected.