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History > General History > Chapter 2: Mythology

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submitted by Site Administrator on 27.06.2003

Chapter 2: Mythology

Many thanks to Peter Vanges and the Kytherian Association of Australia for their kind permission to reproduce this excerpt from Kythera, a History (1993), which is still available from the Association. For the contact information, please see the Associations section under "Culture".

In Theogonia, Hesiod gives us a graphic description of how Kythera came to be known as the birth place of Aphrodite. In the beginning there were Uranus and Gaea, the gods of Heaven and Earth. Uranus, fearing that he might be overthrown, developed the habit of confining every newborn offspring in the depths of the earth. In order to stop this senseless act, Gaea convinced her son Kronos to cut off Uranus' genitals and to throw them into the sea. These fell into the sea near Kythera, and from the foam that was created Aphrodite was born. In fact, as we will read later, the goddess known to us as Aphrodite originated in the East. Greek ingenuity and logic transformed these ideas and beliefs to create the brilliant and unsurpassed collection of ancient Greek mythology. Kythera is mentioned for the first time as the birth place of Aphrodite in Hesiod's Theogonia. Historical evidence suggests that the Phoenicians in their movement westwards from the Levant stopped in Cyprus before coming to Kythera, bringing with them the worship of this new goddess. Later they brought to Kythera the oldest and most revered statue of Astarte (Aphrodite). Both Cyprus and Kythera claim to be the birth place of Aphrodite. Old scripts depict Aphrodite as being born in the waters of Kythera and soon after being carried to Cyprus by the gentle sea breezes of the Mediterranean in a huge sea shell. Eventually Aphrodite became one of the most popular goddesses of ancient mythology. As time went by, there started to emerge a difference in the way people believed and worshipped Aphrodite. In Cyprus and Corinth she was accepted as the goddess of earthly erotic emotions and sexual desires, while in Kythera she was the goddess of spiritual love and divine human relationships.

In classical times, a magnificent temple was built at Kythera, a splendid statue was made in Aphrodite's honour, and priestesses served in the temple. According to legend, Helen of Troy was the head priestess for a period. Near the temple, Menelaos, the King of Sparta, maintained a beautiful palace and it was here - so the story goes - that Paris met and fell in love with the beautiful queen. This love affair caused the launching of "a thousand ships" which set sail for Troy and started the Trojan War. It was in Kythera that Menelaos and Helen spent a relaxing summer with Paris as their guest. Suddenly Menelaos had to return to Sparta for matters of state. As head priestess, Helen remained on Kythera. In this capacity, Helen was performing the customary offerings and bloodless sacrifices in the temple, naked. Upon finding this out, and by bribing one of the guards, Paris managed to observe the beautiful, naked Helen performing her rituals. It was there and then that his desire for Helen became uncontrollable. Soon after, Helen agreed to go with him and it was from Kythera that the two lovers embarked for Troy.

The following description of a ritual supposedly performed in the temple is given by Gerald De Neval. Two lovers, Polyphilos and Polia, arrived one day on the island to offer their sacrifice and to ask the goddess for her divine blessing. Upon arrival they were met by the priestesses dressed in their long, red, pure cotton, ceremonial gowns. After a short prayer the two lovers were led in a processional manner towards the temple. The first priestess with her hair falling loose on her shoulders and holding the book of ceremonies led the way. The second one who followed had in her hands a beautiful silk vestment. They were followed by the other four priestesses carrying a golden container, the book of sacrifices and the knife of the priesthood. Then followed the high priestess in her golden tiara and assisted by a servant holding a candelabrum. All were decorated with fresh flowers. The procession slowly walked towards the temple. There the high priestess knelt before the holy statue of Aphrodite. Reading from the book of prayers which was lit by a candle, she blessed the couple, anointing them with oil and asking them to enter the waters of the holy bath of Aphrodite. Bringing the candle closer she asked Polia in a dignified manner; "What is your prayer my daughter?" "I only ask for the grace of the great goddess for my beloved so that we can both be allowed in her kingdom and drink from her blessed waters, answered Polia.

The same question was directed at Polyphilos and he was subsequently instructed to submerge the candle slowly into the water. The two lovers asked to drink from a chalice the holy water that they had requested, and they slowly came out of the bath. The high priestess said a prayer requesting that the goddess be merciful to them both; the assistant processes walked ceremoniously around the altar holding a vase with fresh, clear sea water, and two doves in a cage decorated with roses and sea shells, placing everything on the altar at the conclusion of the procession. Prayers once again were offered while Polia was asked to approach the altar leave her offerings, and set alight the dry branches of myrtle; the chorus was chanting the final thanksgiving song to the goddess as every one was leaving the temple.

Although the authenticity of such a ceremony cannot be proven, it is a clear indication of the spiritual emphasis that was placed on the worship of Aphrodite of Kythera, and which is in complete contrast to that of Cyprus. Polyphilos may or may not have existed, and if he did he may never have visited Kythera. But in the story Polyphilos wanted to taste the true eros that can be felt rather than experienced, dreamed rather than lived. Polyphilos through this dream found what Aphrodite of Kythera was able to offer - true love and spiritual fulfilment. Centuries later when Watteau (1684-1721), the famous French painter was creating his masterpieces with titles like "Embarkation to Kythera" and "Return to Kythera", we witness once again the imagination of a powerful and creative mind at work using "Kythera" as the place on earth where one may find spiritual and romantic fulfilment. Watteau never visited Kythera. For him, like so many others, Kythera had a sacred, spiritual and special significance. One did not have to die in order to go to paradise - it existed on Kythera. One only had to free oneself mentally and spiritually to find it. Many did. Others have searched in vain, not being able to discover the true "Kythera" that Greek mythology associated with the worship of the goddess Aphrodite. As years went by, Kythera was struck by numerous disasters and the story-tellers started to change their tune. According to them, Kythera was completely deserted six times and a belief exists that it will again be destroyed for the seventh time. In later centuries, pirates such as Barbarossa wreaked havoc on the island and the meaning of the word Kythera changed dramatically. It was now a deserted, darkened place, battered by winds and waves, a place good enough for political prisoners only. It was many years later that the discovery of the holy icon of Myrtidiotissa and the devotion and belief of Kytherians once again resurrected the longing for a "Return to Kythera".

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