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Aphrodite in The Iliad

Instructor: Brooke Sheridan

Brooke has an MA/MFA English literature and creative writing. She teaches college composition and world literature.

This lesson examines the significance of the role of Aphrodite in Homer's 'The Iliad' and her impact on individual characters, as well as on the narrative from a broader perspective.

Who is Aphrodite?

Some legends say Aphrodite, also known as Venus, was born out of seafoam. Homer, however, presents Aphrodite as the daughter of Zeus and Dione.
birth of venus

Aphrodite is the Greek name for the goddess of love, beauty, and procreation. (You may also know her by her Roman name, Venus.) Although some stories have Aphrodite born out of seafoam, Homer describes her as the daughter of Zeus and Dione. And just as Aphrodite is often used as a point of comparison for female beauty, Homer, too, has his characters describing women's beauty as it exists in relation to Aphrodite's.

What Does Aphrodite Do?

In the world of The Iliad, Aphrodite is arguably the ''cause'' of the Trojan War, getting Paris to decree her the most beautiful immortal (beating out Hera and Athena) in exchange for the love of Helen, the most beautiful human. Other than the violation of Helen's free will, this may seem like a harmless deal - except Helen is already married to the Spartan king Menelaus. Needless to say, when Helen takes off with Paris, it causes problems.

Aphrodite's first major appearance in The Iliad is in Book 3. Her fancies are whimsical, as the immortals tend to be, and she takes an interest in the human goings-on of the Trojan War. This is lucky for Paris, since it is Aphrodite who swoops in and rescues him from Menelaus just as the killing blow was about to fall. Aphrodite scoops up Paris, shielding him ''under a cloud of darkness,'' and safely deposits him back in his own bedchamber. Aphrodite, being a goddess, can be understood to have both the strength to pluck Paris from the ground as well as the ability to transport him safely from the battlefield - not to mention hiding him under that shroud of darkness, or obscuring mist.

Once she drops off Paris, Aphrodite visits Helen, attempting first to disguise herself as an old woman. She tries to persuade Helen to go to Paris. Helen sees through Aphrodite's disguise, however, and is pretty annoyed that Aphrodite would try to trick her. Helen suggests that Aphrodite go tend to Paris herself, since she, Helen, is quite done with that bit of bad business. She recognizes her role in the Trojan War, and wishes to cause no more bloodshed.

At this, Aphrodite's patience runs out. She flares up and promises Helen that a goddess' favor can turn to hate in the blink of an eye. Helen, understandably shook up, decides it's probably in her own best interest to do what the goddess says, and follows Aphrodite to Paris.

So while Aphrodite has rescued Paris from certain death and reunited him with Helen (with varying degrees of willingness), Paris is also considered the loser in the battle with Menelaus. He must now relinquish Helen and her dowry, and the matter of the war between the Trojans and Achaeans appears to be settled.

Aphrodite to the Rescue ... Sort Of

But of course the battle still rages in Book 5, and this time it is Aphrodite's own son Aeneas whom she attempts to rescue. However, the Achaean warrior Diomedes receives advice from the Achaean-supporter Athena that Aphrodite is a weak target among the immortals, and after a long chase, he manages to pierce Aphrodite's wrist with his spear. This wound causes the ichor, or ethereal substance the immortals have running in their veins instead of blood, to flow. Aphrodite drops Aeneas, who falls into the arms of Apollo and is protected. As Aphrodite flees to Mount Olympus, Diomedes shouts after her to leave matters of war alone, and to, essentially, keep within her wheelhouse of matters of love, beauty, and procreation.

Safely on Olympus, Aphrodite's mom, Dione, tends to her daughter's wound, though not before telling her that the immortals up on Olympus need to learn to put up with some of the annoyances the humans cause them. She also suggests that Diomedes will get his - ''no man who attacks the gods will live long,'' she says.

Athena and Hera pick on Aphrodite and her soft spot for the Trojans a little, and then Zeus tells his daughter pretty much the same thing that Diomedes did: ''It has not been given you to be a warrior,'' he says, and asks her to leave the fighting to the gods and goddesses of war.

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