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Alexandra Ermolaeff

The Birth of Cytherea (Aphrodite) in Hesiod's 'Theogony' (8th Century BCE)

In Western culture Kythera is connected to a literary archive of idealised representations of the feminine, exotic, beautiful and desirable. This connection finds its origin in ancient Greek mythology, where Kythera is the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of desire and beauty. Subsequently, Kythera via Aphrodite has provided a rich source for artists as diverse as the poet Charles Baudelaire and painter Jean-Antoine Wattaeu.

One of the earliest literary accounts of Kythera is found in Hesiod’s ‘Theogony’ (8th Century BCE). This document, along with the works of Homer, and Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, is a key source for Greek mythology. It presents the descent of the gods and goddesses starting with the creation of the god Chaos and the goddess Earth, from who descended all the individual gods, goddesses, demi-gods and heroes.

In the ‘Theogony’ Kythera is depicted as the ‘holy’ place of the goddess Aphrodite’s birth. She is one of the third generation of gods and goddesses born through the castration of Ouranos, when his genitals fall into the sea. The story of the birth of Aphrodite appears in verse ll, lines 176-206:

“And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept
away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden.

First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet.

Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes (9)because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, -- the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness.” (1)

In this verse of the ‘Theogony’ the island Kythera is not only mythologised as the place of Aphrodite’s divine birth but also as a name ascribed to her. She is firstly named ‘rich crowned Cytherea’ because she ‘grew amid the foam’ there and secondly named ‘Cytherea’ because ‘she reached Cythera’. Hesiod describes the goddess as awful, lovely, and shapely and as the immortal embodiment of the feminine, exotic, beautiful and desirable. Inspired by these descriptions of Aphrodite as ‘Cytherea’, the island Kythera became imbued with the characteristics of the goddess in the Western imagination. See the paintings 'Pilgrimage to Cythera' and 'The Embarkation for Cythera' by Jean-Antoine Watteau in the Myths & Legends section of this site, and the poem ‘A Journey To Cythera’ by Charles Baudelaire in the Songs & Poems section of this site.

(1) Hugh G. Evelyn-White, tr. [1914], The Theogony (1,041 lines) in Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #8,
http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/OMACL/Hesiod/theogony.html (accessed on 28.07.03)

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