The embodiment of sexuality and seduction, Aphrodite is the Ancient Greek goddess of love, pleasure, and the dirty things we do in our bedrooms. The mere fact that you know her name shows that Greek mythology is alive and kicking within Western culture.
In fact, Aphrodite and her extended family are the inspiration behind many words we use today. Her reign may be over, but her many, many children (she was rather prone to affairs) live on within our vocabulary. Her promiscuity has been a blessing for the English language.
Aphrodite was beautiful—an ancient equivalent of Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, or whoever else you find yourself drooling over when you should be working. She had no trouble getting men to “stand at attention,” so much so that her name itself came to represent substances that fuel sexual desire.
Stemming from the Greek aphrodisios meaning “pertaining to Aphrodite,” aphrodisiacs range from over-the-counter concoctions to cobra blood and baboon urine.
Not to be confused with an aphrodisiac, however, is the Aphrodita, a genus of sea worm named after the goddess because their slippery underside resembles female genitalia… provided you’re a sexually starved marine biologist.
We all have our daddy issues.
Aphrodite didn’t have a typical birth. She was born out of sea foam created when Cronus, the leader of the Titans, cut off his father Uranus’ genitals and threw them into the sea. Ouch. As exciting as that sounds, though, castration is not a recommended way to resolve your issues. Conversation before castration!
Aphrodite was adopted by none other than Zeus himself. To stop the gods from fighting over his daughter, Zeus arranged for her to marry Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, sculptors, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes.
While very talented, Hephaestus was also ugly and deformed, and Aphrodite, not a big fan of “inner beauty,” rebelled by having affairs with gods and mortals alike. Take that, daddy!
But her feisty attitude backfired. In an age before contraception, all that sleeping around meant tons of kids. But it wasn’t all bad news. Goddesses could probably afford to hire nannies, and her children lived on to inspire many of our modern words.
A story of serious sibling rivalry.
Aphrodite’s marriage to Hephaestus ended in drama after he caught her having an affair with Ares, the god of war. When he found out, Hephaestus cunningly waited for the two lovers to start the dirty deed and then trapped them, dragging their naked bodies to Mount Olympus (the Ancient Greek version of family court) to shame them in front of the other gods.
Instead of being outraged, though, the gods found the whole thing quite funny. Poor Hephaestus. And it gets worse: Ares was Hephaestus’s brother. Seriously, teaching children to share is only meant to go so far.
During her long affair with Ares, Aphrodite had four illegitimate sons—Eros, Anteros, Deimos, and Phobos—and one daughter, Harmonia.
Their son Phobos, Greek for “fear,” was the personification of fear and panic and was often depicted with a lion’s head. Just the sight of him could trigger ailurophobia, the irrational fear of cats, which is quite fitting because the word phobia itself comes from Phobos.
Another of Aphrodite’s sons, Eros (aka Cupid), was the hunky, winged god of love. Forbidden to date mortals by his mother, Eros did what any son forbidden from dating mortals would do: he dated a mortal. Her name was Psyche, and she was the deification of the human soul.
Eros withheld his name from Psyche and only saw her in the dark, forbidding her from seeing his face. It doesn’t sound terribly romantic for the god of love, but something must have worked, because the two eventually married and Psyche became immortal.
Psyche, whose name means “soul, spirit, animating force,” inspired the words psychiatry and psychology, while Eros inspired the terms erogenous and erotic. Any psychologist would have a field day interpreting Eros’ style of “romance,” although secret love with no faces involved is, I guess, sort of erotic.
Line up for Aphrodite.
Hermes, the messenger of the gods and the god of commerce, was another to seduce and impregnate Aphrodite (with a little help from Zeus himself, the ultimate wingman…with the exception of all the winged gods). Together, they had a son named Hermaphroditus.
At just 15, Hermaphroditus ran into Salmacis the nymph at her swimming hole. She was so overcome with lust that she ambushed him, kissing and touching him in what you could only describe today as child sex abuse. Salmacis desperately wished to the gods that their bodies would never separate, and she got her wish. Their bodies blended into one, creating a creature of both sexes—a hermaphrodite, now the biological term for animals with both male and female sex organs.
Also on the long list of Aphrodite’s affairs is Dionysus, the god of wine. Together they had a son, Priapus, the protector of livestock, fruit plants, fertility, and male genitalia. Who knows how many of us exist today because of a similar combination of love, lust, and wine.
Priapus was a very ugly child cursed by Hera, queen of the Gods, as punishment for Aphrodite’s promiscuity. Nevertheless, his comically oversized permanent erection shot him to fame as a figure in Roman erotic art and cemented his place in the modern dictionary.
Priapism, the medical term for when an erect penis doesn’t return to its flaccid state, can be a very serious issue. Blood stuck in the penis can become oxygen-deprived, damage penile tissue, or in extreme cases cause penile gangrene. And nobody wants a damaged penis, least of all members of the Temple of Priapus, a pagan, phallus-worshipping religion started in the 1980s by D.F.Cassidy, where the congregation is naked.
Aphrodite and Dionysus had another son, Hymen (or Hymenaeus), the god of marriage ceremonies. Who would have thought—the god of wine and god of love combine to equal a child and a marriage ceremony?
Yet while the hymen, the elastic membrane at the entrance to the vagina, does have historical connections to marriage, the term wasn’t derived from the god, but from the Greek humēn, meaning “membrane”. Nevertheless, the two hymens are connected through the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root syu-, meaning “to bind or sew.” Hymen (the membrane) stems from syu-men, while the god Hymen emerged from the idea that marriage “sewed” a couple together. How cute.
Let’s not forget Venus, the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite.
If you’re experiencing discharge, ulcers, and/or pain around your genitals, you should probably see a doctor. You may have something both etymologically and literally inspired by a “goddess of love”—a venereal disease. This admittedly outdated medical term was derived from the Latin word venereus (relating to sexual intercourse), which was ultimately derived from Venus.
Aphrodite was what we might today call strong and sexually liberated, yet without the modern miracle of contraception, this left her with a hell of a lot of kids. That’s lucky for us, though, because without Aphrodite and her extended family, we might be a whole lot of words short in the dictionary and without a hilarious, historically rooted name for a persisting, painful erection. And honestly, who could even imagine such a world?
More Words from the Gods
Aphrodite: Aphrodisiacs and Aphrodita, a genus of sea worm
Venus, Roman equivalent of Aphrodite: Venereal
Hephaestus: Hephaestin, the metabolism and homeostasis of iron
Eros: Erogenous and Erotic
Psyche: Psychiatry and Psychology
Dionysus: Dionysian or recklessly uninhibited
Bacchus, Roman equivalent of Dionysus: Bacchanal, a wild and drunken revelry
Priapus: Priapism, an erect penis that doesn’t return to its flaccid state.
Juno, Roman equivalent of Hera: June
Hymenaeus: Hymeneal or relating to marriage