07 Apr Homeric Hymns: 5) To Aphrodite
The Hymn to Aphrodite is the fifth in a collection of thirty-three anonymous ancient Greek hymns celebrating individual gods, mostly dating to the seventh century B.C., shortly after the works of Homer and Hesiod had first been written down, and they are therefore among the oldest monuments of Ancient Greek literature. In antiquity they were uncritically attributed to Homer, the earliest reference to them coming from Thucydides (see Bk III. 104). Although it is now clear they were not written by Homer, they were composed in the old epic style, i.e. in dactylic hexameters, and in a dialect closely resembling that of Homer. Most of them are very short, if not fragmentary, but four of them, i.e. hymns 2-5, are more lengthy: (2) to Demeter 495 lines; (3) to Apollo 546 lines; (4) to Hermes 580 lines; and (5) to Aphrodite 293 lines.
Each of these four longer narratives tell a story about a critical event in the life of the deity that led to a change in his or her power. The “Hymn to Aphrodite,” the goddess of love, celebrates a reduction in her power over sexuality. Aphrodite had been exercising her power over all the gods, including Zeus, by making them mate with mortals, and then father or give birth to mortal children. In order to put a stop to this intermingling of the human and the divine, and to re-establish his own control, Zeus arranges for his daughter to fall in love with a mortal man, in this case, the Trojan hero Anchises. By having sex with a mortal man, Aphrodite is reduced to the same shameful position as the other gods she had previously manipulated. Once she is on their level, she loses her power to make them mate with humans.
This poem is particularly entertaining, and delightful to read. It features not only the engaging account of how Aphrodite and Anchises fell for each other, but also the stories of how Ganymede’s father was reconciled to the loss of his son, and the pathos of how Tithonus’ strength and good looks withered in his old age. The Romans, too, would have found this hymn a fascinating source of the origin of Aeneas, widely believed to be the founder of their race.
The text for this translation is taken from “Homeric Hymns”, edited by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, Harvard University Press, published by William Heinemann, London (1914), and is available on the ‘Perseus’ website, sponsored by the Classics Department of Tufts University.
Ll. 1-32. Aphrodite exerts her powers over all gods, mortals and animals, but Athene, Artemis, and Hestia are immune to her powers.
Tell me, (O) Muse, of the works of golden Aphrodite the Cyprian, who stirs up sweet longing in gods, and subdues the tribes of mortal men, and the birds that fly in the air, and all beasts, both those that the land, and those that the sea, nourishes in their multitudes; and the works of fair-wreathed Cytherea (i.e. Aphrodite) are a matter of concern to (them) all.
Yet, (there are) three minds (that) she cannot sway or deceive; first (is) bright-eyed Athene, daughter of aegis-bearing Zeus; for the works of golden Aphrodite bring her no pleasure, but wars do delight her, as does the work of Ares, both combats and battles, and preparing his splendid crafts. She was the first to teach the craftsmen of this earth (how) to make cars and chariots inlaid with bronze. And she taught splendid works to tender maidens in their houses and she put (the knowledge of these skills) in the mind of each (one). Nor can the laughter-loving Aphrodite subdue in marriage the noisy (i.e. because she was always shouting instructions to her hounds) Artemis of the golden shafts. For archery delights her, as does the killing of wild beasts in the mountains, and the lyre, and dancing, and the piercing cries, and the shady groves, and the city of upright men. Nor do the works of Aphrodite delight the revered maiden Hestia, whom Cronus, crooked of counsel, begat (as) his first (child) and, by the design of aegis-bearing Zeus, the youngest too, that queenly (lady), whom (both) Poseidon and Apollo sought to wed; and she swore a great oath, which she delivered (while) touching the head of father Zeus the aegis-bearer, that she, the most divine of goddesses, would be a maiden all her days. So, father Zeus gave her a fine gift of honour instead of marriage, and she sat down in the centre of the house and took the choicest part (i.e. Hestia was the guardian of the hearth). She is honoured in all the temples of the gods, and among all mortals she has been made chief of the goddesses.
Ll. 33-74. While Aphrodite’s power moves even Zeus to be attracted to mortal women, despite his marriage to Hera, Zeus in turn makes Aphrodite fall in love with the mortal Anchises; Aphrodite travels to his home near Mount Ida.
Of these (three), she cannot sway or ensnare their hearts; but of (all) the others there is no one among the blessed gods or among mortal men who can, in any way, escape Aphrodite. Even the heart of Zeus, who delights in thunder, was led astray (by her), even though he is the greatest (of the gods) and has been allotted the highest of honours. She even beguiles his wise heart, whenever she pleases, and readily mates him with mortal women, unbeknown to Hera, his sister and his wife, (and) by far the greatest in beauty among the immortal goddesses. Cronos, crooked of counsel, and her mother Rhea begat her, the noblest (of goddesses); and Zeus, the fount of imperishable counsel, made (her) his tender (and) dutiful wife. But Zeus also cast sweet desire upon her own (i.e. Aphrodite’s) heart to mate with a mortal man, so that very soon not even she should be shut out of a mortal’s bed, and that some day laughter-loving Aphrodite might gloat and say amidst all the gods, (while) smiling sweetly, that she had mated gods with mortal women and that they had borne mortal sons to these immortal (gods), and that she had mated goddesses with mortal men.
And so he cast in her heart sweet desire for Anchises, who was, at that time, tending his cattle on the steep hills of Ida with its many fountains, (a man) similar in stature to the immortal (gods). Now, when she saw him, laughter-loving Aphrodite fell in love (with him), and violent desire seized hold of her heart. And going to Paphos in Cyprus, she entered her sweet-smelling temple; and there (is) her precinct and her fragrant altar. And, when she had gone in there, she closed the the shining doors; and there the Graces bathed and anointed her with heavenly oil, such as appertains to the gods who are eternal, (an oil) divinely sweet, which was made especially fragrant for her. And laughter-loving Aphrodite, when she had dressed her body well in all her fine clothes, and adorned (it) with gold, left sweet-smelling Cyprus and went hastily to Troy, making her way swiftly high among the clouds. So, she came to Ida, with its many fountains, the mother of wild creatures, and she went straight to her abode on the mountain; and after her came grey wolves, wagging their tails, and bright-eyed lions, bears and nimble leopards, ravenous for deer. And the heart in her chest was delighted to see (them), and she cast desire in their breasts; so they all mated together in pairs in their shadowy dens.
Ll. 75-106. When Aphrodite finds Anchises, she presents herself to him in all her splendour. Although her identity is still unknown to him, he is overcome by love and admiration, and, believing her to be a goddess, he asks her to forward his interests and those of his family.
She, herself, came to her well-built shelter; and she found him within the stables, where he had been left (all) alone from the others, the hero Anchises, (he) who was graced with beauty by the gods. All the (others) were following their cattle over the grassy pastures, but he had been left (all) alone from the others, and was wandering up and down, making shrill (sounds) from his cithara. Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus, stood before him, looking, in her height and appearance (just) like an unmarried maiden, so that he should not be afraid of her when he beheld (her) with his eyes. Now, when Anchises saw (her), he thought hard and marvelled at her height and beauty, and her shining garments. For she was clad in a beautiful robe, embroidered with gold, (which shone) more brightly than the light of a fire; and it shimmered like the moon over her tender breasts, a marvel to behold; and she was wearing curved armlets and gleaming earrings in the shape of flower-buds, and around her soft throat there were the most beautiful necklaces.
Love took hold of Anchises, and he addressed these words straight to her: “Hail, queen, whichever one of the immortals you are that comes to this house, (whether you are) Artemis, or Leto (i.e. the mother of Apollo and Artemis), or golden Aphrodite, or high-born Themis (i.e. the goddess of law and order), or bright-eyed Athene, or perhaps you have come here (as) one of the Graces, who are companions to all of the gods, and are called immortals, or (you are) one of the Nymphs, who haunt these beautiful woods, or (one) of the Nymphs who inhabit these lovely mountains, and the springs of the rivers and the grassy meadows. And I shall make you an altar at a vantage point at a place that can be seen all around, and I shall offer good sacrifices to you at all seasons. And may you have a kind heart, and grant that I should be an eminent man among the Trojans, and henceforth make my offspring successful, and, as for myself, may I live long (and) happily, and may I see the sunlight, and come to the threshold of old age (as) a man blessed among his people.”
Ll. 107-142. Aphrodite says that she is a mortal, and that she has been told by Hermes that she is to marry Anchises, whom she then asks to tell her parents and to prepare the wedding feast.
Then, Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus, answered him: “Anchises, most glorious of earth-born men, let me tell you I am no god; why do you liken me to the immortals? Nay, (I am) but a mortal, and the mother (that) bore me (was) a woman. The renowned Otreus is my father, if, perchance, you have heard (of him), (he) who rules all of well-fortified Phrygia. But I understand your language (as) clearly (as) my own. For a Trojan nurse-maid reared me in our palace; and she took (me) from my mother, and was totally (responsible for) bringing (me) up (when I was) a little child. So, (that is) how I know your tongue (so) well. And now the Slayer of Argus (i.e. Hermes) has snatched me away from the troop of noisy Artemis of the golden shaft. For (there were) many (of us), young brides and much courted maidens, playing (together), and an immense crowd encircled (us). From them the Slayer of Argus, with his golden wand, carried me off; and he bore (me) over the many tilled fields of mortal men and much vacant and uncultivated (land), across which ravenous wild beasts roam, (while dwelling) in their shadowy dens; and I thought I should never (again) touch the life-giving earth with my feet; and he said that I should be summoned in marriage (as) the wedded bride of Anchises, and that I should bear you splendid children. But, when he had explained and advised (me), then (he,) the strong Slayer of Argus, went back again among the tribe of the immortals; but I have come to you (now), and unflinching necessity is upon me. But I beseech you by Zeus and (by) your goodly parents – for no base (folk) could beget such (a son as you) – to take me, unmarried and untried in love (as I am) and show (me) to your father, and to your discreetly aware mother, and to your brothers, who have come from the same stock as you. I shall not be an unseemly daughter to them, but a worthy (one). And do send a messenger swiftly to my father and my very anxious mother; they will send you gold in plenty and woven raiment; and you should accept these many splendid (things as) dowry-gifts. So do these (things) and prepare a lovely wedding-feast, to be prized by men and by the immortal gods.”
Ll. 143-176. Overcome with desire, Anchises takes Aphrodite to bed, not realising that she is a goddess. After their union has been consummated, Anchises falls asleep, but Aphrodite then shows herself to be fully divine.
So speaking, the goddess cast sweet desire into his heart. Then, love took hold of Anchises, and he opened his mouth and spoke these words: “If you are a mortal, and the mother (who) bore you (was) a woman, and the renowned Otreus is your father, and, if, as you say, you are come here by means of Hermes, the immortal guide, and you have been called to be my wife all my days, then no god or mortal man shall here restrain me, till I have lain with you in love right now; no, not even if the far-shooting Apollo himself should launch grievous shafts from his silver bow. Then, (O) woman like (one) of the goddesses, I should be willing to go down into the house of Hades, if I could first have climbed into your bed.”
So speaking, he took her hand; then, the laughter-loving Aphrodite turned and crept, with her lovely eyes cast down, towards the well-spread bed, which had been previously laid with soft coverings for the prince; and above (it) lay the skins of bears and loud-roaring lions, which he had slain in the lofty mountains. But then, when they had gone up on to the well-fitted bed, he first took from her body her bright jewelry, and her brooches, and her curved armlets, ornaments and necklaces. Then, Anchises loosened her girdle, and took off her bright garments and laid (them) on a silver-studded chair. Then, by the will and decree of the gods, he, a mortal, lay with an immortal goddess, not knowing just (what he was doing).
At the time when herdsmen drive their oxen and hardy sheep back to their fold from their flowery pastures, at that very time she poured a sweet (and) deep sleep upon Anchises, and she, herself, clothed her body in fine raiment. And, when that most divine of goddesses had wholly clad her body, she stood by the bed and her head touched the well-made roof-beam; and a divine beauty shone from her cheeks, such as belongs to the well-crowned Cytherea (i.e. Aphrodite), and she woke him from sleep, and opened her mouth and spoke these words (to him):
Ll. 177-217. When Anchises awakes, Aphrodite reveals her true status to him. She tells him not to be afraid, and that he will now become the father of her son, Aeneas. In order to encourage him, she recounts the story of his relative, Ganymede.
“Arise, son of Dardanus – why now do you pass the night in such heavy sleep? – and consider whether I seem to be the same to you as (I was) when you first cast your eyes on me.”
So she spoke: and (waking) from sleep, he complied with all haste. But, when he saw the neck and the lovely eyes of Aphrodite, he felt afraid and turned his eyes aside in another direction; and again he hid his comely face in his cloak, and, imploring her, he spoke these winged words: “As soon as I saw you with my eyes for the first time, I knew that you were divine; but you did not speak truthfully. Yet, I entreat you, by Zeus who bears the aegis, do not suffer me to lead a feeble life among men, but take pity on (me); for no man, who lies with an immortal goddess is hale and hearty after that.”
Then, Aphrodite, the daughter of Zeus, answered him (thus): “Anchises, most glorious of mortal men, take courage, and do not be so fearful in your heart! For you shall have nothing to fear from me, or from any other of the blessed (ones); for, assuredly, you are dear to the gods. And you will have a dear son, who shall reign among the Trojans, and children will spring continually from his children; and he shall have the name ‘Aeneas’, on account of the ‘awful’ grief, which has come upon me because I fell into bed with a mortal man; and, of (all) mortal men, (those who spring) from your race (are) always most like the gods in their beauty and stature.
“It is true that Zeus the counsellor carried off golden-haired Ganymede, on account of his beauty, to live among the immortals and to pour wine for the gods in the house of Zeus; (he was) a wonder to see, honoured by all the immortals as he draws the red nectar from the golden mixing-bowl. But inconsolable grief took hold of the heart of Tros (i.e. ancestral king of Troy and great-grandfather of Priam), and he had no idea at all whither that awful whirlwind had taken his beloved son. So, as he mourned him continually all the time, Zeus took pity on him, and gave him as recompense for his son some high-stepping horses, of the kind which bear the immortals. He gave him these to have (as) a gift; then, at the command of Zeus, his guide, the Slayer of Argus (i.e. Hermes), told (him) everything, how his son would be immortal and ageless like the gods. So when he (i.e. Tros) heard this message from Zeus, he lamented no longer, but rejoiced in his heart, and joyfully mounted his storm-footed steeds.
Ll. 218-246. Aphrodite goes on to tell Anchises of the fate of Tithonus, another relative of his, who, having received the gift of eternal life on his marriage to Eos, the Dawn, became totally incapable in his old age. Aphrodite tells Anchises she does not wish him to suffer from such immortality.
“So, again, golden-throned Eos (i.e. Dawn) carried off Tithonus, (a man) of your lineage (i.e. he was the son of Laomedon and the brother of Priam), and (one) like unto the immortals. And she set out to go to ask the cloud-wrapped son of Cronos (i.e. Zeus) that he should be immortal and live forever; and Zeus nodded to her and fulfilled her desire. (But) the queenly Eos (was) a child at heart, and did not think to ask for youth (for him) and that he should avoid a hurtful old-age. So, while much-loved youth kept its hold on him, he lived merrily with golden-throned Eos, the child of the morning, beside the stream of Ocean at the ends of the earth. But, when the first grey hairs began to flow down from his handsome head and his noble chin, then indeed did queenly Eos keep away from his bed, but yet she kept him in her palace and nourished him with food and ambrosia, and gave (him) fine clothes. But, when loathsome old-age pressed down fully upon (him), and he could not move or lift any of his limbs, then this seemed in her heart (to be) the best counsel: she laid (him) in a bed-chamber and closed its shining doors. And, in truth, his voice babbles on indistinctly, and he no longer has any strength at all, such as he once had in his subtle limbs.
“I would not want you to be deathless among the immortal (gods) and to live forever in such a fashion. But, if you could live on such as you now are in looks and stature, and be called my husband, this sorrow would not then enfold my heart (so) tightly. But now pitiless old-age will soon enshroud (you), the kind which overcomes (mortal) men, baneful, wearisome, and which the gods so detest.
Ll. 247-293. Aphrodite says that Aeneas will be reared by the Nymphs of Mount Ida, but that she will bring him to Anchises when he reaches the age of five. She then warns Anchises not to reveal that she is Aeneas’ true mother, and that he will be severely punished by Zeus if he does.
“But now, among the immortal gods, great shame shall be mine continually all my days on account of you. They used to fear my jibes and the stratagems by which I once mated all the immortal (gods) with mortal women. For my resolve overcame (them) all. But now my mouth shall no longer have the (power) among the immortals to designate (them), since I have erred so very greatly, (and) in a miserable (fashion and one) not to be made light of, and I have lost my mind, and, having lain with a mortal, I have placed a child beneath my girdle. As for him, when he first sees the light of the sun, the full-breasted mountain Nymphs (i.e. the Oreads), who dwell on this great sacred mountain (i.e. Mount Ida), will rear him. They are numbered neither among mortals, nor among immortals. Long indeed do they live, and they eat heavenly food, and plied the lovely dance with the immortals. And the Sileni (i.e. Satyrs) and the watchful Slayer of Argus (i.e. Hermes) joined with them in love-making in the depths of charming caverns. And at their birth, pine-trees or high-topped oaks sprang up on the fruitful earth, fair and flourishing on the lofty mountains. They stand tall, and men call them sanctuaries of the immortal (gods); and no mortal cuts them down with steel. But, when the fate of death is close at hand, first those lovely trees wither on the ground, and the bark shrivels all around (them), and their branches fall off, and their spirits (i.e. the spirits of both the Nymphs and the trees) leave the light of the sun together.
“They will keep my son (i.e. Aeneas) beside them and rear (him). As soon as lovely childhood comes to him, these goddesses will bring the child here and show (him) to you. As soon as you have seen him, you will rejoice that you have beheld your scion with your eyes, for he will be like a god; then you will take him to windy Ilium. But, if any mortal man should ask you what mother bore this dear son of yours beneath her girdle, remember to answer him as I command you. Say that he is your son by (one of) the flower-faced Nymphs, who dwell on this forest-clad mountain. But, if you should speak out and boast from your foolish heart that you were united in love-making with well-crowned Cytherea (i.e. Aphrodite), Zeus in his wrath will smite you with a smouldering thunderbolt. (Now) all is told to you: be you thoughtful in your heart, restrain yourself and do not mention my name, and have regard for the anger of the gods.”
When she had spoken thus, she soared up to windy heaven.
Hail, goddess of Cyprus, full of good buildings! Having started with you, I shall progress to another hymn.