Aphrodite: love, Cyprus and copper

On Valentine’s Day our thoughts turn to love, mainly of a sexual nature, and to beauty and pleasure. We have been bombarded with an array of pink paraphanalia, chocolates, roses and red love hearts, tempting us to buy and demonstrate the depth our feelings. What this has to do with St Valentine, a third century martyr and a pries, I do not know, but way before him this week in February was linked with the greatest of all goddesses, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, of erotic pleasure and beauty. And in turn, Aphrodite has long been associated with the island of Cyprus, with copper and a unique geological feature called an ophiolite.

According to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born of the sea, birthed from white foam that floated on the waves. She came forth fully formed and stepped onto land in Cyprus when all beneath her feet ‘blossomed and came into bloom.’ The foam, however, wasn’t just any old foam, but the products of the genetalia of her dismembered father (Uranus), chopped off by his son Chronus after the union of heaven and earth ended in tragedy. According to the myth, ‘Heaven came bringing on night and longing for love and he lay about Earth spreading himself full upon her.’ Their coupling was messy and chaotic, and by putting an end to it, Chronus (time) was seen to bring order to chaos. And Aphrodite, though born of this heavenly chaos, was also associated with a more complex approach to procreation, one that included joy, desire, pleasure and love. [1]

As her birthplace and main cult centre for her worship, Cyprus has been intimately linked to Aphrodite since at least the 12th century BC. However, archaeological evidence for her worship as goddess of pleasure, joy and life can be traced back to thousands of years earlier, when copper was first mined on the island. We have an abundance of evidence, [2] mainly associated with the chalcolithic cultures of Old Europe, to know something of the beliefs of these early Neolithic societies. Their primary deity was the creatrix, the birth giver whose creation was seen in the seasonal cycles of nature, in the miracle of birth and cyclic destruction, in the regeneration of life and in the abundance of nature from which all life originated and returned. Copper, as a gift of the Earth was considered to be of her body, a sacred part of creatrix, gifted to humans to work with. It was the smith, or metallurgist who knew how to extract the metal from the ore and create from it something useful, and he was thus considered to be a worker of sacred magic. On Cyprus, it was Aphrodite who became associated with the life affirming creatrix, and her husband Hephaestus, the smith who knew how to work with her gifts. And the reason for this – the presence of a copper bearing ophiolite.

But what is an ophiolite and how is it formed? About 80 million years ago, an ancient ocean named the Tethys Ocean began to close, forming the Mediterranean Sea and pushing up a piece of crust that came to be known as Cyprus. As the Tethys ocean disappeared and the dense ocean crust was pulled down at a destructive plate margin, something unusual occurred: a sliver of this oceanic lithosphere was pushed up and preserved in a terrane now called the Troodos Terrane. So the Troodos mountains are actually an ophiolite, or preserved piece of oceanic crust. Hydrothermal activity on the ocean floor typically result in the formation of sulphide deposits and in the case of the Troodos mountains, these sulphides were very rich in zinc, gold – and copper.

The cultic centres of Aphrodite at Paphos, Kition and Amathus are all linked originally to copper mining. Indeed we are told by Pliny the elder that it was king Kinyras who established her most famous sanctuary at Paphos also built the first copper mines and invented metallurgy, though both were clearly in existence way before him. [3]

Intriguingly Aphrodite was originally worshipped at Paphos in the shape of a sacred stone, or betyl. Today the sacred stone that stands in the sanctuary is a dark gabbro, a piece of the type of oceanic crust found in the Troodos ophiolite. This practice of worshipping sacred stones, either of meteoric or other geologically significant origin, is very ancient and prevalent over the Mediterranean and the Middle East. The stone would have been venerated and offered libations in the form of milk, honey, olive oil or wine, all products of Nature’s bounty. At Amathus, the second of her major sanctuaries, a slab carved with small round cavities was found in the oldest part, most probably used for libations of oil, honey, wine, salt, showing that this very ancient practice was still carried out at this date.

Throughout the Bronze Age as our relationship with nature started to change, we see a change in the way that Aphrodite was worshipped. The third great temple on the island was at Kition near Larnaca. This city was founded by the Phoenicians, the great merchants of the Bronze Age. They brought with them the worship of the love and fertility goddess Ishtar or Astarte, in turn descended from the much older Sumerian Inanna. All became blended into one, with shared characteristics but different names and the goddess started to change from a creatrix embodying the cyles of life with all its abundance, into the anthromorphic form of a beautiful (but flawed) woman. And with this split came a split in our relationship with love and pleasure with which the goddess was so firmly associated. One aspect of Aphrodite was said to be called Ourania, or heavenly, and the other Aphrodite, Pandemos, or common to all people.

As described earlier, in her original form, Aphrodite was associated with the creation of the universe, the product of the union between the mating of heaven and earth itself (Ourania). Later she became the unfaithful wife of Hephaestus, now depicted as wounded and vengeful, snared in a net by him whilst coupling with none other than Ares, the god of war (Pandemos).

Aphrodite and her myths clearly embody this split between higher and lower love, between love of the universal heart (agape) and love of the human heart. What is more surprising is that the island of Cyprus itself seems to embody this schism. Since 1972 the island has been divided between north and south, with checkpoints and barbed wire separating the two halves. The two ancient civilisations who gave so much to humanity, the Greeks and the Turks, are now energetically holding these aspects. Perhaps the origin of this schism stems back to the Trojan war, when the Greeks and the Trojans fought from the place of the lower self and ownership of a woman, Helen of Troy. Maybe we have focussed so long on our personal hearts and dramas (Pandemos), that we have forgotten our connection to the universal heart and heavenly love (Ourania). So, this ‘Valentine’s day’ is a great opportunity to re-integrate them both and really make it Aphrodite’s day, in her healed and whole aspect.  

[1]‘ Kypris, the Aphrodite of Cyprus’ by Jacqueline Karageorghis

[2] ‘The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe’ by Marija Gimbutas

‘[3] Kypris, the Aphrodite of Cyprus’ by Jacqueline Karageorghis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s