Santorini: the Greek Aphrodite
Everyone knows the story of Aphrodite's birth; she arose from the sea, resplendent and glorious.
This ancient Greek goddess is best known for her role as a goddess of love and beauty. Her connection with the sea, beside her birth, is largely forgotten in the modern psyche. But in ancient times, Aphrodite played a very special role as a sea goddess. We do her a disservice when we try to minimize and contain her to merely one or two spheres of influence. She is in truth a multi-faceted and complex goddess and worth getting to know at a deeper level.
According to myth, Aphrodite was born when the genitals of Uranus (Heaven) were severed by Chronos and thrown into the sea, making her the daughter of both heaven (‘celestial/heavenly Aphrodite’) and the sea (‘foam-born’; ‘Aphrodite of the Sea’). Her energy is a tantalizing blend of both fire (falling star/comet) and water (sea). After all, her predecessor, Astarte, was said to have descended to earth as a fiery star, landing in a body of water (lake). I like to imagine Aphrodite too was a shooting star, birthed from the womb of the sea.
Aphrodite had a number of epithets (titles or functions) related to her sea-origins, including Aligena (‘sea born’), Anaduomene ‘(rising from the sea’), and Pelagia (‘of the sea’).
Aphrodite was said to rise from the sea-foam fully grown. I like to imagine that Aphrodite channeled her inner mermaid, spending her youth in the sea, having many adventures, before deciding to eventually join the gods of Mount Olympus. Given that Uranus was the grandfather of many of the Olympian gods (Zeus, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Athena), it is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture Aphrodite living in the sea for many years, until the eventual death of Chronos (father of the Olympian gods) and rise of the Olympians. In fact, there is even a myth that details a sea-god, Nerites, who was her very first love in the sea. When she left the sea for Mount Olympus, he refused to join her and was transformed into a shellfish for his betrayal.
When Aphrodite finally arose upon that clam shell (so artfully captured by Botticelli), she sailed upon said shell to Cyprus, making her a goddess of sailing.
Aphrodite has a large number of epithets related to sailing, including Euploia (‘good sailing’), Pontia (‘of the open sea’), Epipontia (‘on the sea’) and Limenia (‘of the harbor’). Poseidon was the god of the sea responsible for storms and was viewed as easily angered; in contrast, Aphrodite was a goddess of sailing, or ‘mastery over the sea’, making her a natural choice for those who desired good weather for sailing or a safe return voyage. As a result, her effigies were carried aboard ships, and worshipped at temples and sanctuaries in harbors.
Aphrodite even had an entire festival dedicated to her as a sailor! The Anagogia, or the Festival of Embarkation (dark of the moon in May) marks the day when Aphrodite sets sail for Libya and is followed nine days later by the Katagogia (her return via sea). As such, Aphrodite was honored as a protector of all those who travelled by sea.
Aphrodite alone of the Greek goddesses has the most sea-related epithets. And, as a Goddess of Desire, she was prayed to, to grant that which people desired the most. For those who risked their lives on the sea and desired a safe return, she was a natural choice as protectress.
Aphrodite is my matron goddess. I have been to Greece on three separate occasions, having visited many Islands in the Aegean and Ionian Sea. I feel especially connected to her when sailing about the Greek Islands, with the sky above and the sea below. “How Far I’ll Go” (Auli’I Cravalho; from the Moana soundtrack) is a quintessential song that summarises the call of the Ocean and my connection with both Aphrodite and sailing.
“See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me.
And no one knows, how far it goes.
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me,
one day I’ll know, if I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go.”
It makes sense that Aphrodite is a goddess of love, beauty and sailing. Is there a more beautiful sight than cerulean blue sky and sparkling turquoise sea? Is there a more divine experience than inky blackness rocking you while a million stars twinkle in the indigo heavens overhead? Even storms at sea are beautiful in their ferocity and power. Men have lamented their love (and fear of the sea) for centuries. It makes sense that a goddess of love and beauty may also be connected with the beauty and love of the sea.
It is hard for me to choose a Greek Island I love the most. The ruins of Knossos on Crete stoked my imagination, leading to me writing a novel based on the ancient Minoans. Rhodes, the medieval city is an incredible fusion of middle age history and island living. These islands (and many others) have spoken to me in different ways. But it is Santorini that epitomized both love and beauty for me. At some stage between climbing the caldera (active volcano), swimming in the ocean hot springs off the coast, hiking through the ruins, tasting the local wines made heady and delicious by the volcanic and oceanic terroir and doing the iconic hike from Fira to Oia, I fell in love with this beautiful island. It is an island or beauty and pleasure, epitomizing the energy of Aphrodite and a must-see destination for any lovers, hedonists and aesthetes.
 The Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus Vol. IV, 1930