Ancient Sources on Aphrodite


Hesiod, Theogony

On the birth of Aphrodite (lines 175-205):
[175] “… And Heaven came, bringing on night and longing for love, and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her. Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle [180] with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father’s members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round [185] she bore the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, [190] they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass [195] grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, [200] and Philommedes because she sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honor she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods,— [205] the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.”

Hesiod. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Theogony. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1914. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0130:card=173>

Pliny the Elder, Natural History

On the Aphrodite of Knidos by Praxiteles (XXXVI.20-21):
20. “Superior to any other statue, not only to others made by Praxiteles himself, but throughout the world, is the Venus, which many people have sailed to Cnidus to see. He had made two statues and was offering them for sale at the same time. One was clothed, and for this reason was preferred by the people of Cos who had an option to buy, although Praxiteles offered it at the same price as the other—this way he thought the only decent and proper response. So the people of Cnidus bought the Venus when the Coans refused, and its reputation became greatly enhanced.”
21. “Subsequently King Nicomedes wanted to buy it from them, promising to cancel all the state’s debts, which were vast. The Cnidians, however, preferred to endure anything rather than sell the statue. Nor without just cause, for with it Praxiteles made Cnidus famous. The shrine that houses it is completely open so that the statue of the goddess can be seen from all sides, and it was made in this way, so it is believed, with the goddess’s approval. It is admirable from every angle. There is a story that a man who had fallen in love with the statue hid in the temple at night and embraced it intimately; a stain bears witness to his lust.”

Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXVI.20-21. <http://books.google.com/books?id=JvyF-8NXFbIC&lpg=PR39&dq=inauthor:”pliny” natural history&lr=&pg=PA346#v=onepage&q=&f=false>

For another translation, see also:
The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, 1855, Book XXXVI, Chapter 4. (5.). <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137:book=36:chapter=4>

[Note, the numbering of Book and Chapter notation in this edition that does not correspond with other editions. E.g. Bk. XXXVI, Ch. 20-21 in most editions equals Bk. XXXVI Ch. 4 in the Bostock edition. The advantage of the Bostock edition available through the Perseus Digital Library is that the entire text is online.]

“…superior to all the statues, not only of Praxiteles, but of any other artist that ever existed, is his Cnidian Venus; for the inspection of which, many persons before now have purposely undertaken a voyage to Cnidos. The artist made two statues of the goddess, and offered them both for sale: one of them was represented with drapery, and for this reason was preferred by the people of Cos, who had the choice; the second was offered them at the same price, but, on the grounds of propriety and modesty, they thought fit to choose the other. Upon this, the Cnidians purchased the rejected statue, and immensely superior has it always been held in general estimation. At a later period, King Nicomedes wished to purchase this statue of the Cnidians, and made them an offer to pay off the whole of their public debt, which was very large. They preferred, however, to submit to any extremity rather than part with it; and with good reason, for by this statue Praxiteles has perpetuated the glory of Cnidos. The little temple in which it, is placed is open on all sides, so that the beauties of the statue admit of being seen from every point of view; an arrangement which was favoured by the goddess herself, it is generally believed. Indeed, from whatever point it is viewed, its execution is equally worthy of admiration. A certain individual, it is said, became enamoured of this statue, and, concealing himself in the temple during the night, gratified his lustful passion upon it, traces of which are to be seen in a stain left upon the marble.”

On the polychromy of Classical sculpture (XXXV.130, 133):
Nicias, an Athenian … “who was an extremely careful painter of female portraits….It is this Nicias of whom Praxiteles used to say, when asked which of his own works in marble he placed highest, ‘The ones to which Nicias has set his hand’–so much value did he assign to his colouring of surfaces.”

Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXV.130, 133. <

[Completely irrelevant to Aphrodite, but just for fun, the famous story…]
On the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius (XXXV.65):
In a contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, Zeuxis produced so successful a representation of grapes that birds flew up to the stage-buildings where it was hung. Then Parrhasius produced such a successful trompe-l’oeil of a curtain that Zeuxis, puffed up with pride and judgement of the birds, asked that the curtain be drawn aside and the picture revealed. When he realized his mistake, with an unaffected modesty he conceded the prize, saying that whereas he had deceived birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History: A Selection. Penguin Books, Ltd., trans John F. Healy, 1991, XXXV.65. <http://books.google.com/books?id=JvyF-8NXFbIC&lpg=PR39&dq=inauthor:”pliny” natural history&lr=&pg=PA330#v=onepage&q=&f=false>

Pausanais, Description of Greece

On Praxiteles and Phryne’s relationship (Vol 3, Book X, Ch 14):
“The golden statue of Phryne here was made by Praxiteles, who was one of her lovers; but the statue was dedicated by Phryne.”

Pausanias. The Description of Greece, Volume 3. Trans. Thomas Taylor. London, 1824, p. 125. <http://books.google.com/books?id=wakAAAAAYAAJ&dq=inauthor:”Pausanias”&pg=PA125#v=onepage&q=&f=false>

Note: Quote appears in the last line of chapter 14 in this edition. Other editions place this text as the first line of chapter 15; c.f.:

Pausanias. Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1918, X.15.1. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0160%3Abook%3D10%3Achapter%3D15%3Asection%3D1>

On Phryne tricking Praxiteles to reveal his favorite work (Vol 1, Book XX, Ch 1-2):
“Leading from the Prytaneum is a road called Tripods. The place takes its name from the shrines, large enough to hold the tripods which stand upon them, of bronze, but containing very remarkable works of art, including a Satyr, of which Praxiteles is said to have been very proud. Phryne once asked of him the most beautiful of his works, and the story goes that lover-like he agreed to give it, but refused to say which he thought the most beautiful. So a slave of Phryne rushed in saying that a fire had broken out in the studio of Praxiteles, and the greater number of his works were lost, though not all were destroyed. Praxiteles at once started to rush through the door crying that his labour was all wasted if indeed the flames had caught his Satyr and his Love. But Phryne bade him stay and be of good courage, for he had suffered no grievous loss, but had been trapped into confessing which were the most beautiful of his works. So Phryne chose the statue of Love…”

Pausanias. Description of Greece, Volume 1. Trans. William Henry Samuel Jones. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1918, p. 97. <http://books.google.com/books?id=olRFAAAAYAAJ&dq=inauthor:”Pausanias”&pg=PA97#v=onepage&q=&f=false>

Amores, attributed to Lucian

On the rotunda temple to Aphrodite at Knidos and the statue of Aphrodite (13-16):
“13. When the plants had given us pleasure enough, we entered the temple. In the midst thereof sits the goddess–she’s a most beautiful statue of Parian marble–arrogantly smiling a little as a grin parts her lips. Draped by no garment, all her beauty is uncovered and revealed, except in so far as she unobtrusively uses one hand to hide her private parts. So great was the power of the craftsman’s art that the hard unyielding marble did justice to every limb. Charicles at any rate raised a mad distracted cry and exclaimed, “Happiest indeed of the gods was Ares, who suffered chains because of her!” And, as he spoke, he ran up and, stretching out his neck as far as he could, started to kiss the goddess with importunate lips. Callicratidas stood by in silence with amazement in his heart.

The temple had a door on both sides for the benefit of those also who wish to have a good view of the goddess from behind, so that no part of her be left unadmired. It’s easy therefore for people to enter by the other door and survey the beauty of her back.

14. And so we decided to see all of the goddess and went round to the back of the precinct. Then, when the door had been opened by the woman responsible for keeping the keys, we were filled with an immediate wonder for the beauty we beheld. The Athenian who had been so impassive an observer a minute before, upon inspecting those parts of the goddess which recommend a boy, suddenly raised a shout far more frenzied than that of Charicles. “Heracles!” he exclaimed, “what a well-proportioned back! What generous flanks she has! How satisfying an armful to embrace! How delicately moulded the flesh on the buttocks, neither too thin and close to the bone, nor yet revealing too great an expanse of fat! And as for those precious parts sealed in on either side by the hips, how inexpressibly sweetly they smile! How perfect the proportions of the thighs and the shins as they stretch down in a straight line to the feet! So that’s what Ganymede looks like as he pours out the nectar in heaven for Zeus and makes it taste sweeter. For I’d never have taken the cup from Hebe if she served me.” While Callicratidas was shouting this under the spell of the goddess, Charicles in the excess of his admiration stood almost petrified, though his emotions showed in the melting tears trickling from his eyes.

15. When we could admire no more, we noticed a mark on one thigh like a stain on a dress; the unsightliness of this was shown up by the brightness of the marble everywhere else. I therefore, hazarding a plausible guess about the truth of the matter, supposed that what we saw was a natural defect in the marble. For even such things as these are subject to accident and many potential masterpieces of beauty are thwarted by bad luck. And so, thinking the black mark to be a natural blemish, I found in this too cause to admire Praxiteles for having hidden what was unsightly in the marble in the parts less able to be examined closely. But the attendant woman who was standing near us told us a strange, incredible story. For she said that a young man of a not undistinguished family — though his deed has caused him to be left nameless — who often visited the precinct, was so ill-starred as to fall in love with the goddess. He would spend all day in the temple and at first gave the impression of pious awe. For in the morning he would leave his bed long before dawn to go to the temple and only return home reluctantly after sunset. All day long would he sit facing the goddess with his eyes fixed uninterruptedly upon her, whispering indistinctly and carrying on a lover’s complaints in secret conversation.

16. But when he wished to give himself some little comfort from his suffering, after first addressing the goddess, he would count out on the table four knuckle-bones of a Libyan gazelle and take a gamble on his expectations. If he made a successful throw and particularly if ever he was blessed with the throw named after the goddess herself, and no dice showed the same face, he would prostrate himself before the goddess, thinking he would gain his desire. But, if as usually happens he made an indifferent throw on to his table, and the dice revealed an unpropitious result, he would curse all Cnidus and show utter dejection as if at an irremediable disaster; but a minute later he would snatch up the dice and try to cure by another throw his earlier lack of success. But presently, as his passion grew more inflamed, every wall came to be inscribed with his messages and the bark of every tender tree told of fair Aphrodite. Praxiteles was honoured by him as much as Zeus and every beautiful treasure that his home guarded was offered to the goddess. In the end the violent tension of his desires turned to desperation and he found in audacity a procurer for his lusts. For, when the sun was now sinking to its setting, quietly and unnoticed by those present, he slipped in behind the door and, standing invisible in the inmost part of the chamber, he kept still, hardly even breathing. When the attendants closed the door from the outside in the normal way, this new Anchises was locked in. But why do I chatter on and tell you in every detail the reckless deed of that unmentionable night? These marks of his amorous embraces were seen after day came and the goddess had that blemish to prove what she’d suffered. The youth concerned is said, according to the popular story told, to have hurled himself over a cliff or down into the waves of the sea and to have vanished utterly.”

Lucian (attributed). Amores. trans. A.M. Harmon (Loeb edition). <http://www.well.com/user/aquarius/lucian-amores.htm>

Greek Anthology

On the goddess Aphrodite’s reaction to the Knidia by Praxiteles (VI.160):

“Where did Praxiteles see me naked?”

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