By Carrie Eben, http://www.classicaleben.com
Mothers are many things, but they are not goddesses. Aphrodite was both.
During my apprenticeship journey with CiRCE, I observed this goddess-mother. At first, I was angry and harshly judged her actions, but I came to realize I had more in common with her than I originally realized. Don’t think I am referring to her beauty. If only. Uncomfortably, it was her less beautiful attributes that seemed familiar. Aphrodite’s parenting foibles seem scarily close to my own: she helicopters, she manipulates, she interferes.
In the Iliad, Aphrodite rescues and emasculates while men fight in a war caused by her unthinking promise.We find the Trojans waiting for imminent attack from the Greeks over a woman Aphrodite gave to the prince of Troy. Ego appeased, Aphrodite had offered Paris the most beautiful woman in the world when he appointed her the most beautiful of goddesses. This woman was of course, Helen, who was already married to the Greek prince, Menelaus. Like Aphrodite, I also find myself making promises I should not make to appease my ego. As a mother, sometimes I say yes to my children, not to serve them, but to appease my own worth. Furthermore, like a warrior-mother, I often swoop into the battle fray rescuing yet undermining: “ …and with her white robe, thrown in a fold in front, she shielded him” (Iliad, Book 4, 315). I cannot bear to see them fail—so I swoop. My need for achievement is not separated from their situation. Their achievement is my achievement. If I was truly helping them in the battle, I would stay away. I would watch from the tower wall biting my nails. I would patiently weave the story of their skirmish in fine silk. I would endure the agony of waiting. This would accomplish more than interfering—which tells them I do not think they can accomplish the task on their own. But no. I swoop.
The Odyssey portrays Aphrodite differently—snared in a literal web. After Odysseus escapes Kalypso’s Island and finds himself in the hospitable hands of Phaeacian king, Alcinous, the bard, Demodocus, tells her tale. This embarrassing story of a god and goddess intertwined naked in the act of adulterous lovemaking tickled the gods of Mount Olympus and surely Odysseus. While I have never found myself entangled in a golden web of infidelity or knotted in “artful bonds that had been forged by subtle Hephaistos” (Odyssey, Book 8, 297), I do learn from this story about the foolishness of wanting what I cannot have. Aphrodite was married off to Hephaistos by Hera. Even though Aphrodite was a goddess on Mount Olympus, she had no choice in this matter. Ultimately, she desires Ares and takes what she should not. This leaves her in a state of utter foolishness. When I compare myself to others and covet what is not mine, I am foolish. This might mean visiting Facebook and wishing my child would beautifully set the table unsolicited, play the piano like a virtuoso, or surprise me with a thoughtful gift at Christmas. If I allow this wishful thinking, I neglect noticing the gifts that ARE given to me. I disregard the gifts of the gods and look foolish in the process. This is the only appearance of Aphrodite in the Odyssey, and she merely appears foolish and ungrateful. However, in the final epic that follows, her decisions have further consequences.
In the Roman epic, the Aeneid, Venus (the Roman name for Aphrodite) interferes in her son Aeneus’ love life, destroys a soul, and complicates a journey. Aeneus is spared in the fall of Troy and leaves his home to fulfill his destiny—the founding of Rome. This almost does not occur due to Venus’ meddling. Dido, the beautiful ruler of Carthage, and Aeneus become very attached with the unsolicited help of Venus. Distracted, Aeneus spends longer than expected in Carthage, participating in many activities such as feasting, horseback riding, and exploring caves. Unfortunately for Dido, Aeneus remembers his duty to start a new country and tries to sneak off in the middle of the night. He leaves as Dido stabs herself and throws her body onto a flaming pyre in despair saying finally, “Let the cold Trojan/Far at sea, drink in this conflagration/And take with him the omen of my death” (Aeneid, Book 4, 917-919). How often do my good intentions wreak havoc on a situation? Venus is the poster mom for all over-functioning mothers. Viewing her example through the eyes of this epic gives me new vision for stepping aside. Allowing my children to direct the course before them and giving them space to make their own choices, whatever the consequences, produce more virtue than anything I can contrive. They got this. I can trust them. Step back, Venus.
The beautiful Aphrodite/Venus tries so hard. Bless her. She is divine, but not necessarily pious. She wants what she can’t have, she avoids pain, and she interferes to the detriment of others—just like a human. As a child of God and heir to His kingdom, I am similar. I have the imprint of the divine on my soul, but I also do not uphold piety consistently. As a woman and mother, I also follow similar loves as Aphrodite: I wish for what I cannot have, I wish for pain to not exist, I wish for my children to be always loved and accepted. I am Aphrodite, albeit an unmighty Aphrodite.
In the Greek and Roman epics, one finds Aphrodite’s love-nature evident: she loves to love, she rescues those whom she loves, she wants others to love. As a powerful goddess, Aphrodite sprinkles her universal longing and lust over those whom she deems worthy of interference. As a doting mother, she means well, but more likely than not, her interferences wreak havoc in the lives of others. However, observing the actions of Aphrodite also gives me insight to positive universals about motherhood that I should not neglect: mothers love, mothers protect, and mothers endure.
If I conclude that Aphrodite’s nature is to love, protect, and endure, then I might see the piety behind the impious actions. While Aphrodite’s and my actions may not prove to cultivate piety in the end, there is a spark of visceral truth that shines ever so small, yet bright in these situations: she loves. Her loves are often misdirected as are mine, but fortunately for me, I am unmighty. My savior, Jesus, is strong where I am weak (Matt 11:28) and can take my imperfect instinct with love and cultivate for His glory and good. He is the definition of pious. He does love truly all that is worth loving. I am lucky to be an unmighty Aphrodite if I give my loves to Him.