Island of Aphrodite
The origins of the white goddess on Cyprus
She was born of the sea foam near Paphos. Aphrodite, the goddess of love, has long been associated with Cyprus.
In the ancient world, various locations claimed gods for their own patronage, a precursor to the idea of having a patron saint in Christian denominations. In that way the island of Delos was the birthplace of Apollo, Athens was supported by their eponymous goddess, and Rome was supposedly founded by Aeneas, the surviving hero of the Trojans (though the myth of Romulus and Remus formed a competing narrative).
The polytheistic worship was also not as clear-cut as the idea of twelve gods on Olympus. Religion was very much syncretic in various gods being transposed from one neighboring culture to the next—for example, after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the Egyptian goddess Isis became Hellenized.
Such was the case with Aphrodite. Early forms of polytheistic religion often centered around fertility goddesses. Thus Inanna, the queen of heaven, from Mesopotamia became Ishtar for the Babylonians and Assyrians, and Astarte, goddess of sexuality, for the Phoenicians. When the Phoenicians colonized Cyprus, they brought Astarte. And when the early Achaean Greeks arrived on Cyprus in the Bronze Age, they assimilated Astarte into their own religion as Aphrodite. Her persona became Venus for the Romans.
The cult of Aphrodite faded with the increasing power of Christianity in the Roman world, as Aphrodite’s worship was gradually replaced with the worship of the Virgin Mary.
Several sites on Cyprus are associated with Aphrodite. At Amathus (the ancient precursor to Limassol), a temple to Aphrodite was maintained. Here, a few reconstructed pillars can be found, an echo of a much larger structure.
Another cult site, at ancient Paphos, featured a black basalt stone that was worshipped as an abstract representation of Aphrodite.
On the Akamas peninsula near Paphos, one can also find “Aphrodite’s Baths.” Apocryphally, it was here that Aphrodite met her lover Adonis when he stopped for a drink while hunting.
Petra tou Romiou near Paphos (meaning the rock of the Romans) is also known as Aphrodite’s Rock. In such a beautiful seaside location, it’s possible to understand why it was thought Aphrodite was born here, of the sea foam, best dramatized by the famous Renaissance-era Botticelli painting.
An alternative myth about this rock suggests that Dighenis Akritas, a legendary Byzantine warrior who defended Cyprus from external invaders, tossed the rock into the sea after being rejected romantically by the Queen of Paphos, Regina, a character who was perhaps a reinterpretation of Aphrodite.
“This legend [of Regina] does not relate to any queen of Cyprus who reigned in the Middle Ages, but to the famous goddess of love, of whose worship a vivid memory lingers to this day in the hearts of the Cyprus people,” according to the historic L. & H. A. Mangoian travel guide, The Island of Cyprus.
This is the tenth post in The Cyprus Files, a limited-run newsletter series from The Usonian chronicling my Fulbright experiences in Cyprus. You can read all the posts in The Cyprus Files here. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss a (free) dispatch from the island of Aphrodite!