Aphrodite’s Myth

  Aphrodite’s Myth According to the myth, Aphrodite bathed in the waters of Paphos in Cyprus to renew her virginity after being caught cheating on her husband, Hephaestius, with Ares, the god of war. Her Greek name means ‘foam born’ and reflects this ‘rebirth’ following her lengthy tryst (she had three children with her lover). Aphrodite Anadyomene, literally ‘Aphrodite emerging from the sea’, is the signature piece of an exhibition of 3200 years of art from the island of Cyprus. The statue - its head, arms and lower legs missing - spent centuries on the seabed before being found off the coast of Paphos in 1956. This extended wash gave the marble a distinctive sheen and smooth, worn surface. Gently twisting to the left, the statue comes from the sculptural tradition that began Praxiteles’ famed Aphrodite of Cnidus – the first life sized statue showing the goddess completely naked and the ancestress of the modern female nude.

The exhibition focuses on the Hellenisation of the islands culture but points to the likely oriental origins of the Aphrodite cult. It seems that she originated as Ishtar, the goddess of sexuality of Mesopotamia, moving westwards through Syrian and Palestine, where she was known as Astarte before arriving in Cyprus where she acquired the attributes of the Greek goddess of love. The exhibition’s clearly stated aim is to show the Hellenisation of Cypriot culture from the cosmopolitanism of the Late Bronze Age (1650-1050 BCE) through the influence of early Greek Mycenaean settlers in the 11th century BCE until the island’s eventual full Hellenisation under Alexander the Great in the fourth century. If its objective is to tell the simple story of the ‘Greekification’ of the island – an ideological project with a contemporary (Olympic) audience in mind - it is clear from the exhibits themselves that such simplifications are far from accurate.

The second section of the exhibition shows the island’s culture after the arrival of the Phoenicians in the ninth century BCE. Several terracotta figurines point to the importance of Mesopotamian culture on the island at the time. The peaceful coexistence of the newer elements together with the earlier –imported again – Mycenaean culture, is shown by the fact that the worship of the Eastern goddess Astarte continued alongside local fertility cults. It is only during the Classical period that the Greek alphabet and Olympian deities appear, before finally becoming endemic after Alexander’s military expedition. Aphrodite’s Myth The Hellenistic Aphrodite is clearly a product of the Greek sculptural tradition and the island’s position as an important meeting point of Mediterranean cultures. It seems that the title of the exhibition, however rests on a simplification. If the project’s aim is to show 3200 years of Cypriot Hellenism, it fails. The exhibits are well laid out and labelled and show the fascinating hybrid culture of the island before the Classical period. Aphrodite, naked and Greek arrived later after a complex cultural history that shows the influence of the West (Greece) but also that of the East. The exhibition itself shows the beauty of this mixed history and so it is a shame that its title (‘3200 years of Cypriot Hellenism’) seems to have fallen completely for the goddess’s myth: can a bath really purify eight hundred years of fertile infidelity to Hellenism? Leonidas Liambey


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