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Evolution of the Dragon, by G. Elliot Smith, [1919], at

p. 140



It may seem ungallant to discuss the birth of Aphrodite as part of the story of the evolution of the dragon. But the other chapters of this book, in which frequent references have been made to the early history of the Great Mother, have revealed how vital a part she played in the development of the dragon. The earliest real dragon was Tiamat, one of the forms assumed by the Great Mother; and an even earlier prototype was the lioness (Sekhet) manifestation of Hathor.

Thus it becomes necessary to enquire more fully (than has been done in the other chapters) into the circumstances of the Great Mother's birth and development, and to investigate certain aspects of her ontogeny to which only scant attention has been paid in the preceding pages.

Several reasons have led me to select Aphrodite from the vast legion of Great Mothers for special consideration. In spite of her high specialization in certain directions the Greek goddess of love retains in greater measure than any of her sisters some of the most primitive associations of her original parent. Like vestigial structures in biology, these traits afford invaluable evidence, not only of Aphrodite's own ancestry and early history, but also of that of the whole family of goddesses of which she is only a specialized type. For Aphrodite's connexion with shells is a survival of the circumstances which called into existence the first Great Mother and made her not only the Creator of mankind and the universe, but also the parent of all deities, as she was historically the first to be created by human inventiveness. In this lecture I propose to deal with the more general aspects of the evolution of all these daughters of the Great Mother:

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but I have used Aphrodite's name in the title because her shell-associations can be demonstrated more clearly and definitely than those of any of her sisters.

In the past a vast array of learning has been brought to bear upon the problems of Aphrodite's origin; but this effort has, for the most part, been characterized by a narrowness of vision and a lack of adequate appreciation of the more vital factors in her embryological history. In the search for the deep human motives that found specific expression in the great goddess of love, too little attention has been paid to primitive man's psychology, and his persistent striving for an elixir of life to avert the risk of death, to renew youth and secure a continuance of existence after death. On the other hand, the possibility of obtaining any real explanation has been dashed aside by most scholars, who have been content simply to juggle with certain stereotyped catch-phrases and baseless assumptions, simply because the traditions of classical scholarship have made these devices the pawns in a rather aimless game.

It is unnecessary to cite specific illustrations in support of this statement. Reference to any of the standard works on classical archæology, such as Roscher's "Lexikon," will testify to the truth of my accusation. In her "Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion" Miss Jane Harrison devotes a chapter (VI) to "The Making of a Goddess," and discusses "The Birth of Aphrodite". But she strictly observes the traditions of the classical method; and assumes that the meaning of the myth of Aphrodite's birth from the sea—the germs of which are at least fifty centuries old can be decided by the omission of any representation of the sea in the decoration of a pot made in the fifth century B.C.!

But apart from this general criticism, the lack of resourcefulness and open mindedness, certain more specific factors have deflected classical scholars from the true path. In the search for the ancestry of Aphrodite, they have concentrated their attention too exclusively upon the Mediterranean area and Western Asia, and so ignored the most ancient of the historic Great Mothers, the African Hathor, with whom (as Sir Arthur Evans 1 clearly demonstrated more than fifteen years ago) the Cypriote goddess has much closer affinities than with

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any of her Asiatic sisters. Yet no scholar, either on the Greek or Egyptian side, has seriously attempted to follow up this clue and really investigate the nature of the connexions between Aphrodite and Hathor, and the history of the development of their respective specializations of functions. 1

But some explanation must be given for my temerity in venturing to invade the intensively cultivated domains of Aphrodite "with a mind undebauched by classical learning". I have already explained how the study of Libations and Dragons brought me face to face with the problems of the Great Mother's attributes. At that stage of the enquiry two circumstances directed my attention specifically to Aphrodite. Mr. Wilfrid Jackson was collecting the data relating to the cultural uses of shells, which he has since incorporated in a book. 2 As the results of his search accumulated, the fact soon emerged that

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the original Great Mother was nothing more than a cowry-shell used as a life-giving amulet; and that Aphrodite's shell-associations were a survival of the earliest phase in the Great Mother's history. At this psychological moment Dr. Rendel Harris 1 claimed that Aphrodite was a personification of the mandrake. But the magical attributes of the mandrake, which he claimed to have been responsible for converting the amulet into a goddess, were identical with those which Jackson's investigations had previously led me to regard as the reasons for deriving Aphrodite from the cowry. The mandrake was clearly a surrogate of the shell or vice versa. 2 The problem to be solved was to decide which amulet was responsible for suggesting the process of life-giving. The goddess Aphrodite was closely related to Cyprus; the mandrake was a magical plant there; and the cowry is so intimately associated with the island as to be called Cypræa. So far as is known, however, the shell-amulet is vastly more ancient than the magical reputation of the plant. Moreover, we know why the cowry was regarded as feminine and accredited with life-giving attributes. There are no such reasons for assigning life-giving powers or the female sex to the mandrake. The claim that its magical properties are due to the fancied resemblance of its root to a human being is wholly untenable. 3 The roots of many plants are at least as manlike; and, even if this character was the exclusive property of the mandrake, how does it help to explain the remarkable repertory of quite arbitrary and fantastic properties and the female sex assigned to the plant? Sir James Frazer's claim 4 that "such beliefs and practices illustrate the primitive tendency to personify nature" is a gratuitous and quite irrelevant assumption, which offers no explanation whatsoever of the specific and arbitrary nature of the form assumed by the personification. But when we investigate the historical development of the peculiar

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attributes of the cowry-shell, and appreciate why and how they were acquired, any doubt as to the source from which the mandrake obtained its "magic" is removed; and with it the fallacy of Sir James Frazer's wholly unwarranted claims is also exposed.

If we ignore Sir James Frazer's naïve speculations we can make use of the compilations of evidence which he makes with such remarkable assiduity. But it is more profitable to turn to the study of the remarkable lectures which Dr. Rendel Harris has been delivering in this room 1 during the last few years. Our genial friend has been cultivating his garden on the slopes of Olympus, 2 and has been plucking the rich fruits of his ripe scholarship and nimble wit. At the same time, with rougher implements and cruder methods, I have been burrowing in the depths of the earth, trying to recover information concerning the habits and thoughts of mankind many centuries before Dionysus and Apollo, and Artemis and Aphrodite, were dreamt of.

In the course of these subterranean gropings no one was more surprised than I was to discover that I was getting entangled in the roots of the same plants whose golden fruit Dr. Rendel Harris was gathering from his Olympian heights. But the contrast in our respective points of view was perhaps responsible for the different appearance the growths assumed.

To drop the metaphor, while he was searching for the origins of the deities a few centuries before the Christian era began, I was finding their more or less larval forms flourishing more than twenty centuries before the commencement of his story. For the gods and goddesses of his narrative were only the thinly disguised representatives of much more ancient deities decked out in the sumptuous habiliments of Greek culture.

In his lecture on Aphrodite, Dr. Rendel Harris claimed that the goddess was a personification of the mandrake; and I think he made out a good prima facie case in support of his thesis. But other scholars have set forth equally valid reasons for associating Aphrodite with the argonaut, the octopus, the purpura, and a variety of other shells, both univalves and bivalves. 3

The goddess has also been regarded as a personification of water,

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the ocean, or its foam. 1 Then again she is closely linked with pigs, cows, lions, deer, goats, rams, dolphins, and a host of other creatures, not forgetting the dove, the swallow, the partridge, the sparling, the goose, and the swan. 2

The mandrake theory does not explain, or give adequate recognition to, any of these facts. Nor does Dr. Rendel Harris suggest why it is so dangerous an operation to dig up the mandrake which he identifies with the goddess, or why it is essential to secure the assistance of a dog 3 in the process. The explanation of this fantastic fable gives an important clue to Aphrodite's antecedents.


140:1 An elaboration of a lecture delivered at the John Rylands Library, on 14 November, 1917.

141:1 "Mycenæan Tree and Pillar Cult," p. 52. Compare also A. E. W. Budge, "The Gods of the Egyptians," Vol. I, p. 435.

142:1 With a strange disregard of Sir Arthur Evans's "Mycenæan Tree and Pillar Cult," Mr. H. R. Hall makes the following remarks in his "Ægean Archæology" (p. 150): "The origin of the goddess Aphrodite has long been taken for granted. It has been regarded as a settled fact that she was Semitic, and came to Greece from Phœnicia or Cyprus. But the new discoveries have thrown this, like other received ideas, into the melting-pot, for the Minoans undoubtedly worshipped an Aphrodite. We see her, naked and with her doves, on gold plaques from one of the Mycenæan shaft-graves (Schuchhardt, Schliemann, Figs. 180, 181), which must be as old as the First Late Minoan period (c. 1600-1500 B.C.), and not rising from the foam, but sailing over it—in a boat, naked, on the lost gold ring from Mochlos. It is evident now that she was not only a Canaanitish-Syrian goddess, but was common to all the people of the Levant. She is Aphrodite-Paphia in Cyprus, Ashtaroth-Astarte in Canaan, Atargatis in Syria, Derketo in Philistria, Hathor in Egypt; what the Minoans called her we do not know, unless she was Britomartis. She must take her place by the side of Rhea-Diktynna in the Minoan pantheon."

It is not without interest to note that on the Mochlos ring the goddess is sailing in a papyrus float of Egyptian type, like the moon-goddess in her crescent moon.

The association of this early representative of Aphrodite with doves is of special interest in view of Highnard's attempt ("Le Mythe de Venus," Annales du Musée Guimet, T. 1, 1880, p. 23) to derive the name of "la déesse à la colombe" from the Chaldean and Phœnician phrit or phrut meaning "a dove".

Mr. Hall might have extended his list of homologues to Mesopotamia, Iran, and India, to Europe and Further Asia, to America, and, in fact, every part of the world that harbours goddesses.

142:2 "Shells as Evidence of the Migration of Early Culture."

143:1 "The Ascent of Olympus."

143:2A striking confirmation of the fact that the mandrake is really a surrogate of the cowry is afforded by the practice in modern Greece of using the mandrake carried in a leather bag in the same way (and for the same magical purpose as a love philtre) as the Baganda of East Africa use the cowry (in a leather bag) at the present time.

143:3 Old Gerade was frank enough to admit that he "never could perceive shape of man or woman" (quoted by Rendel Harris, op. cit., p. 110).

143:4 "Jacob and the Mandrakes," Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. VIII, p. 22.

144:1 The John Rylands Library.

144:2 "The Ascent of Olympus."

144:3 See the memoirs by Tümpel, Jahn, Houssay, and Jackson, to which reference is made elsewhere in these pages.

145:1 The well-known circumstantial story told in Hesiod's theogony.

145:2 See the article "Aphrodite" in Roscher's "Lexikon".

145:3 Sir James Frazer's claim that the incident of the ass in a late Jewish story of Jacob and the mandrakes (op. cit., p. 20) "helps us to understand the function of the dog," is quite unsupported. The learned guardian of the Golden Bough does not explain how it helps us to understand.

Next: The Search for the Elixir of Life. Blood as Life.