First of the Red-Hot Lovers: Aphrodite
Aphrodite, as noted earlier (see Tales of the Titanic), actually predated Zeus and the other Olympians. She rose from the sea foam created when Cronus—the father of the Olympians—threw Uranus's severed genitals into the sea.
What a Life!
Aphrodite was caught working just once. Athena spotted her working at a loom and complained that this was her domain. Greatly apologetic, Aphrodite immediately abandoned her work and never took it up again.
The goddess of love, lust, and mating never had to do a bit of work. Indeed, she had no other responsibility but to make love—and that she did with abandon.
Aphrodite, who possessed a magic girdle that made its wearer an object of desire for everyone who saw her, was always happy to help young lovers. She took particular delight in causing her fellow Olympians to fall in love with mortals. (Zeus paid her back in kind by making her fall in love with the mortal Anchises—and conceive the hero Aeneas.)
Like the other gods and goddesses, however, Aphrodite also harshly punished those who refused to honor her properly (in her case, this meant celibates or others who withstood the pleasures of love). Hippolytus (see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus) was just one of the mortals whom Aphrodite punished for denying himself erotic joys.
A Fine Romance?
Hera, reconciled with her son Hephaestus, arranged for him to marry the goddess of love. Zeus, Aphrodite's adoptive father, agreed. Unsurprisingly, the marriage of the enchantingly beautiful, sensual, and insatiable Aphrodite and the powerful, but gruff, ugly, and lame Hephaestus was not a happy one. Aphrodite could not confine her love to just one other. The goddess did not remain faithful to Hephaestus—not by a long shot. She had countless affairs with both gods and mortals.
The most long-standing and significant of all of Aphrodite's lovers was Ares. But one night, the lovers tarried too long together. As Helius hitched up his golden chariot of the sun, he saw the lovers in Ares' palace in Thrace.
What a Life!
Aphrodite had three children by Ares. Their sons, Phobus (Panic) and Deimus (Fear), became Ares' constant companions, driving his chariot on the battlefield. Their daughter Harmonia (Harmony) fell in love with the mortal Cadmus, who served her father for eight years to atone for killing a dragon sacred to Ares. After a wedding attended by all the Olympians, Cadmus became the founding king of Thebes, in central Greece.
When Helius told Hephaestus what he had seen, the smith god forged an unbreakable bronze net and secretly attached it to the posts and sides of his bed. Then he bid Aphrodite adieu, saying he was going to relax on Lemnos for a while.
As soon as he had gone, Aphrodite sent for Ares. When the morning came, Hephaestus walked in—“Surprise! Hi, honey, I'm home!”—and found the two ensnared in the net. The cuckolded god quickly gathered all the other gods at his bedside to witness the shame of the naked, helpless couple and to heap ridicule upon them.
Hephaestus then demanded the return of the marriage gifts he had given to Zeus. But the ruler of the gods refused, calling the adultery a marital dispute and ridiculing Hephaestus as a fool for making it a public spectacle. (Hermes and Apollo snickered that they would gladly make such a public spectacle if it meant lying with Aphrodite.)
With his first glance at the naked goddess, Poseidon fell in love. So the sea god suggested that Ares should pay for the marriage gifts. Poseidon gladly offered to serve as guarantor: If Ares defaulted on the payment, Poseidon would pay the price and take Aphrodite as his wife. Ares did ultimately default on the debt, but Hephaestus—still smitten with his wife—did not really want a divorce at all, so he never brought it up again.
Our word hermaphrodite—meaning a person born with both male and female reproductive organs—is derived from the offspring of Hermes and Aphrodite.
Poseidon, however, was not the only god to envy Ares' position. Hermes too fell in love with naked Aphrodite. When Aphrodite spurned his advances, Hermes sought the help of Zeus. The king of gods dispatched an eagle to steal one of Aphrodite's sandals. To retrieve it, the goddess was forced to submit to Hermes. This union produced a double-sexed child: Hermaphroditus.
Aphrodite also slept with the youngest of gods, Dionysus. But Hera, who disapproved of Aphrodite's free ways, deformed their child Priapus. She made the boy incredibly ugly and endowed him with gargantuan genitals—an ironic comment on his mother's behavior.
Like Hera, Aphrodite was vain regarding her own beauty. So when Cinyras, the king of Cyprus, boasted that his daughter Smyrna was more beautiful than Aphrodite, this braggadocio could not go unpunished. The goddess made Smyrna fall in love with her own father. One night, she climbed into his bed, where Cinyras—oblivious with drink—impregnated her.
When Cinyras discovered what he had done, he chased his daughter out of the palace at swordpoint. Aphrodite transformed Smyrna into a myrrh tree just as Cinyras overtook her and split her in half. The infant Adonis emerged from the cleft. Repentant Aphrodite loved the infant, whom she hid in a chest and gave to Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, for safekeeping.
Not unlike Pandora, Persephone grew curious about the contents of the chest. When she peeked inside and saw the stunningly beautiful baby, Persephone, too, became enamored. She reared Adonis in the palace of Hades. When Aphrodite finally showed up to claim the child, Persephone, infatuated with the boy, refused to give him up.
Zeus put the dispute to the Muse Calliope to decide. Calliope ruled that Adonis should spend four months of each year with Persephone, four months with Aphrodite, and four months on his own.
Aphrodite was not pleased with this ruling, so she used her magic girdle to bewitch Adonis. The beautiful boy soon gave the goddess not only his own four months, but the four months he was slated to spend with Persephone as well.
Persephone was not pleased either. She went to Ares and aroused his jealousy of this lovely mortal. Ares then changed himself into a wild boar and gored the boy—who was hunting on Mount Lebanon—to death. The blood of Adonis yielded beautiful anemones. But the soul traveled to the Underworld, Persephone's realm, and stayed with her forever.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.