Sea Foam and Sanity – The Names Aphrodite and Venus

What is allure without a little mystery? Our beloved Goddess Aphrodite, called Venus by the Romans, queen of love, desire, truth and beauty, still confounds scholars who try to pin down Her exact origins, and even the origin of Her name.

The Birth of Venus – Alexandre Cabanel

The Roman name Venus is not too obscure, it comes directly from the Latin noun venus meaning ‘love’, especially sexual love or desire.  It’s also related to the Latin verb venerari, ‘ to love or revere’ – familiar to us as the root of the English word ‘venerate’. Though even here we are not completely without controversy, Cicero is quoted as saying,

“Venus was so named by our countrymen as the Goddess who comes (venire) to all things, Her name is not derived from the word venustas (beauty), but rather venustas from it” [1]

And the Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth [2] tells us that actually the word Venus translates as ‘charm’, and ‘cannot be separated from the terms venia  (gracefulness) and venenum, which can mean poison, charm, potion or possibly even aphrodisiac…

The older, Sanskrit root of Venus, vanas means desire and is thought to stem from the Proto-Indo-European root wen, to strive for, to desire or to love.  But of course Proto-Indo-European is a language reverse-engineered from known languages and is itself educated guesswork.  

So far, so fairly clear.  However, when we turn to the Greek name Aphrodite, things are far less straightforward, and no definite etymology is agreed upon, though theories abound.  The problem is that there is no theory that both gives a linguistic explanation and also accounts for Her close connections to the Goddesses of the Near East – Inanna, Astarte and Ishtar [3]

These Goddesses, or possibly a single Goddess, known in ancient times as Inanna in Sumeria, Ishtar in Babylon, and Astarte in Syria, were fierce warrior Goddesses of love, war, death, destruction and also of the life giving powers of sex. It is believed that in Bronze Age Cyprus, an amalgamation of these goddesses joined with a sensuous local nature goddess, first forming Aphrodite as we know Her. [1] She was later adopted by the Aegean Greeks as the thriving trading hub of Cyprus mediated cultural exchange between the East and the Hellenic world.

Mythology also locates Aphrodite’s birth place firmly in Cyprus.  The patriarchal myth tells of the son of the sky god Ouranos slicing off his father’s phallus while he was copulating with the earth goddess Gaia, and throwing Orananos’ genitals into the sea.  Hesiod tells us that “white foam came from the immortal member and in it the maiden was nourished” [4].  This white foam can be seen as sea-foam or possibly divine semen, perhaps both, since there are many examples in mythology of earthly features being formed from the fluids of a mythical being. But regardless, from the foam gathered around it sprang forth Aphrodite, who emerged from the sea to walk upon the island of Cyprus.

Aphrodite – Linzarcher

Hesiod therefore considers the name ‘Aphrodite’ to be derived from the Greek aphros  meaning sea-foam (and sometimes meaning semen), and the name to mean ‘risen from the foam’.  This is an attractive idea, but sadly most modern scholars dismiss this as folk etymology.

Another contemporary scholar suggests that Her name in Greek was originally an epithet that meant ‘one associated with mindlessness’, which referred to Her ability to make Gods and mortals alike lose their minds while in the throes of Her influence.  He argues that this ability is an essential trait of her divine nature, as evidenced by many stories from literature, and that this origin was obscured later by the connection that Hesiod and others made with ‘foam’. [3]

The name Aphrodite as originally an Greek epithet does make some sense, for why would a Cypriot nature Goddess with Near Eastern grandmothers have an Indo-European name?  Some argue that Aphrodite is actually a derivation of the Phoenician name Ashteroth, which was later Hellenised as Astarte [1]  though at least one linguistic scholar strongly disputes that this derivation is possible [5].

Some look for a purely Phoenician origin, arguing that Aphrodite therefore translates as ‘She of the Villages’ [3, 5], perhaps originally as an epithet of Astarte. But although linguistically this apparently works, it seems to have little to connect it with Aphrodite’s role and known traits.  Although possibly some parallel might be made with the Greek epithet Aphrodite Pandemos ‘of the people’.  However, we should also take into account that She was far better known by the name Aphrodite in the Aegean than ever She was in Cyprus, where She was often called simply ‘The Queen’ or ’The Goddess’ [6] so again, perhaps Aphrodite was a name born of the Hellenic world.

Venus Pandemos – Charles Gleyre

Interestingly, Campbell notes that the “Planet Venus was associated with the Goddess whether She was called Aphrodite, Isis, Ishtar or Inanna” [7]. And it seems that the Roman tribespeople had worshipped a local fertility deity named Venus long before they met the Greek Aphrodite and proceeded to combine and amalgamate them, as was their habit with new deities they encountered. [1]

So where does Aphrodite-Venus come from?  Is she Greek or Cypriot, Phoenician or Roman?  Is she Risen from the Foam?  She of the Villages?  Associated with Mindlessness?  Perhaps the answer to all of these questions is, yes.

References

1.            Hughes, B., Venus & Aphrodite ; History of a Goddess. 2019, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

2.            Price, S.R. and E. Kearns, The Oxford dictionary of classical myth and religion. 2003: Oxford University Press Oxford.

3.            Jendza, C. The Etymology and Origins of Aphrodite. Available from: https://classicalstudies.org/annual-meeting/148/abstract/etymology-and-origins-aphrodite.

4.            Hansen, W.F., Foam-born Aphrodite and the mythology of transformation. American journal of philology, 2000. 121(1): p. 1-19.

5.            West, M.L., The name of Aphrodite. Glotta, 2000. 76(1./2. H): p. 134-138.

6.            Budin, S., A reconsideration of the Aphrodite-Ashtart syncretism. Numen, 2004. 51(2): p. 95-145.

7.            Campbell, J., Goddesses: Mysteries of the feminine divine. 2020: Joseph Campbell Foundation.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Sheila Matthews says:

    Fascinating, so intriguing! Love your work ☺X

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Mary Tidbury says:

    Fascinating that Venus the planet is associated with this whole ‘lineage’ of goddesses ! 💕

    Liked by 1 person

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