Aphrodite: Goddess of Love

‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a history of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’ That is Helen’s plea as she stands upon the highest tower of Troy. She wishes to hear the story of her flight from Greece, of the war that ensued. In its recitation, she seeks punishment. For she and her lover, Paris, have brought this ancient city to its destruction. Ten thousand Greeks spill into the streets beneath her. They are a deluge of flame, and the embers rising from their savage work write new constellations into the night sky. 

But it is not the Muses, that company of sisters, that come to Helen. It is a lone goddess who appears upon the battlements. Her beauty is unforgiving, uncompromising. It’s a perfection that befits marble, not flesh. Indeed, when she wipes a tear from Helen’s rosy cheek, her touch is the cold kiss of stone.

It is flawless Aphrodite, goddess of love. And the story she comes to tell is her own.

            The scene Aphrodite first sets for Helen is upon Olympus. The bronze floored halls are playing host to a wedding. The deathless nereid Thetis is marrying the mortal king Peleus. It is a raucous affair: music echoes amid the rafters; ambrosia fills every platter, nectar every cup; and all the deathless gods have been invited. All except one: Eris, goddess of discord.  

It should come as little surprise, but there are few events to which Eris is invited, weddings not least of all. And yet you will often find her there. She lurks in the darkened brow of a scorned lover; she stalks the shadow of a disapproving parent; she leers from the depths of a jealous sibling’s wine-cup. 

And so, of course, Eris has crashed the wedding of Thetis and Peleus too. She hangs, giggling, from the rafters, waiting for the exact moment to strike her discordant note.


The guests cease to sing, to dance, to play the lyre and the flute. All eyes turn to the centre of the bronze hall and the golden apple that has landed in their midst.

It is Zeus, Father of Gods and Men, who picks it up. An evening of revelry and nectar has left him sodden and self-satisfied, and so he does not think of discretion; he reads aloud the words carved into the golden flesh: ‘For the fairest.’ 

Eris’s discord is quick work; the candidates do not put themselves forward. Rather the crowd parts about them like a breeze parting ears of corn. 

The candidates are royal Hera, Queen of the Gods; grey-eyed Athena, the maiden of wisdom and war…

‘And me,’ Aphrodite explains coolly to Helen. And though the flames below them continue to swell and engulf further districts of Troy, the goddess continues her tale unhurriedly.

Zeus is keen to resume the wedding festivities, but, even drunk, he recognises the danger should he cast the judgement– they are his wife and his daughters. And so he tries to think. He struggles to hold the problem in his mind. He fumbles with it this way and that. He mis-weaves his thoughts and un-winds his reckonings. And he comes less to a solution than an abrogation. There shall be a judgement, but it will be by another, a mortal, a child of Troy: Paris. He is a young man – his cheeks have never known the scrape of a razor – but he has had dealings with gods before and proven himself a shrewd arbitrator.

When they find him on the lower reaches of Mount Ida, he is daydreaming in the shadow of a cypress tree. There is little to say; the appearance of the three goddesses and the words carved into the apple are explanation enough.

But where is shrewd Paris to start? How is he to judge? 

You see, the goddesses agree on little, but they agree on this: while the medium of this contest is beneath them – deathless beauty as judged by a mortal is as a philosophical treatise debated by an ant – nonetheless, it is a contest. And none of them is prepared to lose.

Flawless Aphrodite makes the first move. She begins to shift, to bend, to warp her form like quicksilver. She stands before Paris now as a comely maid, a perfect facsimile of that girl from the nearby village who has filled his daydreams for weeks. Of course, Hera and Athena quickly follow suit, till shrewd Paris’s sweetheart parades before him in triplicate. 

Next, Aphrodite watches for the linger of the youth’s eye – the curve of a breast, the bloom of a cheek, the slant of a smile – and she begins to amplify those features, magnify them. Soon all three goddesses are making sport of Paris, endowing themselves with the extremes of his shallowest fancies. But it is always Aphrodite in the lead. It is always she who reads the young man best.

And so, Hera, Queen of the Gods, tries a change of tact.

‘Perhaps, you should judge us by another measure,’ says Hera, and as she speaks, she plucks a lily. Its stem begins to gild, to twist itself into a circlet. The petals elongate to form points. Before long, she holds a crown. ‘I am a patron of royalty. Offer me the apple, and I will make you king of the known world. Your dominion will be bound only by the wine dark sea.’

Not to be outdone, grey-eyed Athena snaps a branch from an olive tree. Its bark begins to bronze, to whittle itself into a blade. The knots swell to form a hilt. Before long, she holds a sword. ‘I am a patron of warfare. Offer me the apple, and I will make you a warrior without equal. Your name will be synonymous with glory for ever more.’

They all then look to Aphrodite in expectation. Almost lazily, she pulls a leaf from the cypress overhead. Its pulp begins to cinder, to burn itself into an image. The edges crumble to form a silhouette. Before long, she holds nothing – the leaf has burnt away completely.

‘I am the patron of desire. It is mine alone to stoke. Offer me the apple, shrewd Paris, and I will give you what you truly want: love. Not fancies and fantasies, but a love that blazes and burns. A love lit in the heart of the most desired woman in all the world.’

The first crunch as flawless Aphrodite sinks her teeth into the golden apple, her prize – it is enough to banish Athena and Hera. They leave scornful. They regard the contest a farce, a sham: Paris is not shrewd; he is a fool. Only a fool would be swayed by Aphrodite’s meagre offer. Only a fool would choose her love over the power they offered.

Aphrodite recalls their contempt, and her memory chills the air; even as the embers of Troy fall, Helen’s skin becomes gooseflesh. 

‘Athena and Hera would offer that boy war and kingship,’ Aphrodite continues, ‘As if I do not deal in war. As if I do not deal in kingship. Well, my fellow goddesses know better now, don’t they. And so do you.’ 

Aphrodite’s rebuke is sharpened by a glare of marble, and Helen shivers beneath it.

‘You are not worthy of the punishment you seek, Helen. You and shrewd Paris did not put Troy to the torch. Love did. And that is my power.’

Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast

Written by Andrew Hulse