Aphrodite who excites desire

Kantharos: Aphrodite and Himeros

I was familiar with some of the longer Homeric Hymns, which are available in the Text Library in translations by Gregory Nagy[1], but I had not previously paid much attention to the shorter Homeric Hymns.

Gregory Nagy, in “The Earliest Phases in the Reception of the Homeric Hymns,”[2] has explained that the setting for the Homeric Hymns were festivals; and that they started with a prooemium. He also points out that performances of these Hymns were choral, that is singing-and-dancing. However, he points out that the Hymns are in the same meter as rhapsodic performance, as in epic. He explains:

a humnos that begins with a divinity or divinities as its opening subject can then move on to stories of the human condition as its next subject. …

And what kinds of stories could be told in such rhapsodic performances? Closest to home, such stories could be about humans in the era of heroes, as we find them in some of the larger Homeric Hymns (as in the case of Anchises in the Homeric Hymn (5) to Aphrodite). Or they could be about heroes as we find them in epic poetry like the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. Such a subject is announced in the Homeric Hymn (32) to Selene (17–20). Or again, they could be about heroes in genealogical poetry. Such a subject is announced in the Homeric Hymn (31) to Helios (17–19).

So I became curious to look at examples of the short hymns to examine the wording more closely and to see if there were clues about the sort of stories that might have been associated with them, or at least formulaic phrases that occur in epic or in the longer hymns, and I chose to look this time at the Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite. I start with the shorter of the two.

Statuette of Aphrodite Leaning on a Pillar

Homeric Hymn (10) To Aphrodite

[1] I will sing of Cyprus-born Cytherea, who to mortals [brotoi]
gives kindly gifts: on her face exciting desire [himertón],
she is always smiling, and exciting desire [himertós] is the bloom [anthos] that plays over it.
Hail-and-take-pleasure [khaire][4], goddess, guardian of well-built Salamis
and of sea-set Cyprus: grant me a song exciting-desire [hīmeroessa].
But as for me, I will keep you in mind [memnēmai] along with the rest of the song [aoidē].

Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, revised by Gregory Nagy, further revised by Sarah Scott[3]

In verse 1, I noticed there is an immediate reference to the story of Aphrodite’s birth on Cyprus, and one of her epithets, Cytherea, “from the city Κύθηρα in Crete, or from the island Κύθηρα”[5] This epithet also occurs in the Homeric Hymn (5) to Aphrodite (verses 6, 175, 287); the story is told in Theogony 191–199 where the epithet also occurs. Another detail is pertinent:

Eros accompanied her and fair Desire [Himeros] followed her, when first she was born, and came into the host of the gods.

Hesiodic Theogony 201–202, adapted from Sourcebook[6]

In Homeric Hymn (5) to Aphrodite verse 2 describe her as one “who rouses the gods to desire [hímeros]” The noun hímeros is glossed in Autenrieth[7] and LSJ[8] as “urge, desire, passion”

To understand this type of desire or longing, I found this comment helpful when Gloria Ferrari quotes the Cratylus in Fowler’s translation:

“the same feeling which is called himeros when its object is present, is called pothos when it is absent.”[9]

The related words, himeróeis and himertós, both found in Hymn 10, are often translated as ‘lovely’ but there are other Greek words that can also be translated that way. With both adjectives there is also a sense of creating longing or desire, as from so I wondered about translating as “desirable.” Beekes[10] suggests it may derive from an IE root meaning ‘bond’ so the word “may originally have been a bond or spell”. If so, we might translate as “spellbinding” which could work for both the goddess’ beauty and for the song. However, there are words for spells in Greek, and this term is not related to those. Another translation could be “alluring;” that might work for Aphrodite’s appearance but perhaps less so for the song. In The Culture of Kitharôidia Timothy Power translates it as “that stirs desire”[11] and similarly in Pindar’s Homer Gregory Nagy chooses “full of desire”[12] so in the end I went with “exciting desire.”

Marble relief: birth of Aphrodite

Homeric Hymn (6) To Aphrodite

[1] I will sing of revered, gold-crowned [khrusostéphanos], beautiful Aphrodite,
who has-as-her-share the walled-cities of all sea-set Cyprus.
There the moist power of Zephyros blowing brought her over the billows of the much-roaring sea
[5] in soft foam, and there the Hours [Hōrai], with-golden-fillets [khrusámpukes],
welcomed her gladly. They clothed her with immortalizing [ambrotos] garments:
on her immortal [athanatos] head they placed a fine, well-wrought garland [stephanos]
a beautiful one of gold [khruseíē], and in her pierced earlobes flowers of mountain-copper and precious gold [khrusoîos],
[10] and over her tender neck and snow-white breasts,
they adorned [kosmeîn] her with golden [khruséoi] necklaces [hórmoi] just like those which
the Hours [Hōrai] themselves with-golden-fillets [khrusámpukes] are adorned [kosmeîn] whenever they go
to their father’s house to join the gods’ song-and-dance [khoros] that excites desire [himoróeis].

And when they had fully placed the adornment [kosmos] around her body,
[15] they brought her to the immortals [athanatoi], who welcomed her when they saw her,
giving her their hands, and each one of them prayed
to lead her home [oikos] to be his wedded wife,
as they marveled [thaumazein] at the beauty of violet-garlanded Cytherea.

Hail-and-take-pleasure [khaire], sweetly-gentle goddess, whose eyes go from side to side! I pray to you to grant that in the competition [agōn] that is at hand
[20] I may carry off the victory [nīkē]. Arrange my song.
As for me, I will keep you in mind [memnēmai] along with the rest of the song.

Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, revised by Gregory Nagy, further revised by Sarah Scott[13]

This beautiful hymn provides a brief narrative of the birth and reception by the gods of Aphrodite.

Aphrodite is initially welcomed by the Hours, and they decorate her with suitable garments, jewels, and ornaments. The references to gold are repeated: gold items are often associated with the immortal gods in epic but the number of repetitions builds up an image of her whole being as radiant.

The dance of the gods is described in verse 13 as himeróeis, but then the gods also want to marry Aphrodite, making her a model for a desirable bride.[14]

Pyxis painting Birth of Aphrodite

There was also a tradition that the narratives that followed the Homeric Hymns themselves formed part of a competition [agōn]. In his discussion in the article mentioned above, Nagy refers to the explicit reference in Homeric Hymn (6) to Aphrodite, verses 19–20: “I pray to you to grant that in the competition [agōn] that is at hand [20] I may carry off the victory [nīkē].”[15]. Here the victory would be in the song and performance itself, but perhaps the associated narrative would have featured a contest of some kind, whether in battle, or, perhaps in keeping with the presiding goddess Aphrodite, a contest associated with winning a bride.[16]

Some of the same wording and concepts are similar to those in the other short Hymn, 10, but it develops the theme of her appearance and how this could arouse desire. This theme is more fully expanded in Homeric Hymn (5) to Aphrodite which shares some of the wording and epithets (for example, Cypria, Cytherea), and has a longer narrative about the goddess and the hero Anchises, who will father a major epic hero, Aeneas. The Graces clothe her in Hymn 5, and Aphrodite adorns herself with gold (verses 63–65): we might imagine this to be the jewelry with which she was adorned by the Hours in Hymn 10 which is similar, when Anchises first sees her, and is mentioned again when he undresses her on the bed:

Wall painting Venus with jewelry

For she wore a robe that was more resplendent than the brightness of fire.
She had twisted brooches, and shiny earrings in the shape of flower buds [kálukes].
Around her tender throat were the most beautiful necklaces [hórmoi].
It [her robe] was a thing of beauty, golden [khrúseios], decorated with every sort of design. Like the moon
90 it glowed all around her tender breasts, a marvel to behold.
Seized with desire [éros], Anchises said…

he first took off the jewelry [kósmos] shining on the surface of her body
the curved clasps, twisted brooches, the shiny earrings in the shape of flower buds [kálukes] and the necklaces [hórmoi].
Then he undid her waistband and her resplendent garments.

Homeric Hymn (5) to Aphrodite 86–89, 162–164, adapted from translation by Gregory Nagy[17]

Related narratives

There are episodes within the existing Homeric epics which have echoes of the Hymns to Aphrodite, using similar formulaic phrases and vocabulary. The two examples that most stood out for me were Hera seducing Zeus in the Iliad, and an episode in the Odyssey when Athena incites Penelope to show herself to the suitors who then give her gifts.

In the first of these examples, Hera decides to seduce Zeus so he will fall asleep and the gods (particularly Poseidon) will be free to help the Achaeans without his noticing. To do this, she first bathes and anoints herself, then carefully dresses and adorns herself with jewelry:

Pendant earrings c 420–400 BCE

She put on the immortal [ambrósios] robe which Athena had worked for her with consummate art, and had set on it many embellishments; [180] she fastened it about her bosom with golden [khruseíē] clasps, and she girded herself with a girdle that had a hundred tassels: then she fastened her earrings [hérmata] three brilliant pendants [tríglēna moróenta] with much charm [kharis] radiating from them, through the pierced lobes [loboi] of her ears, [185] and threw a lovely new veil [krḗdemnon] over her head.

Iliad 14.178–185, adapted from Sourcebook[18]

She then enlists Aphrodite’s help and for an extra charm obtains her girdle as well! It is described as a:

finely woven girdle [215] into which all her charms [thelktḗria] had been wrought—love [philótēs], desire [hímeros], and that sweet flattery which steals the judgment [noos] even of the most prudent.

Iliad 14.214–217, adapted from Sourcebook

The seduction is successful, of course, and Zeus exclaims: “Never yet have I been so overpowered by passion [éros] neither for goddess nor mortal woman as I am at this moment for yourself” (Iliad 14.315–316). Overall Hera does not affect the final outcome of the Trojan war, but does play a part in the immediate agōnes for the heroes on the battlefield.

In the Odyssey Athena puts into Penelope a notion to show herself to the suitors; and when Penelope is asleep:

Then the goddess gave her immortalizing [ámbrota] gifts so that all the Achaeans might admire her. She washed her face with the ambrosial [ambrósion] loveliness that Aphrodite wears when she goes with the Graces to the song-and-dance [khoros] that excites desire [himoróeis]

Odyssey 18.191–194, adapted from Sourcebook[19]

Although Athena is very close to both Penelope and Odysseus, and acts to engineer events, here her actions are unusual: she is one of the only three goddesses who have not succumbed to Aphrodite’s incitement for desire. And yet here she is acting upon Penelope in a way that Aphrodite herself might have been proud of.

After Penelope’s appearance the suitors are even more smitten than before, and each gives her a gift. These gifts themselves are again reminiscent of the clothing and adornments given to Aphrodite in Hymn 6, and worn by both Hera (Iliad) and Aphrodite (Hymn 5):

Collection of gold jewelry

Antinoos’ man returned with a large and lovely dress [peplos] most exquisitely pattern-woven [poikílos]. It had twelve beautifully made brooch pins of pure gold [khrúseiai] with which to fasten it. [295] Eurymakhos immediately brought her a magnificent necklace [hórmos] of gold [khrúseos] and amber beads that gleamed like sunlight. Eurydamas’ two men returned with some earrings fashioned into three radiant pendants [tríglēna moróenta] which glistened in beauty [kharis]; while King Peisandros, [300] son of Polyktor, gave her a necklace [ísthmion] of the rarest workmanship, and every one else brought her a beautiful present of some kind.

Odyssey 18.292–301, adapted from Sourcebook

Now Penelope has the apparel and adornments fit for a bride, i.e. to appear as Aphrodite herself[20], there then follows a true contest [agōn] in archery among the suitors which Odysseus will win, regaining his bride.

I am not suggesting that these narratives from Iliad and Odyssey themselves formed a continuation of the short Homeric Hymns to Aphrodite, but perhaps they suggest how such narratives might have incorporated brief story elements composed with similar themes and employing some of the same words and formulaic phrases. Or, of course, they could have been stories in which the invoked goddess might have had a totally different interest, given the wide spheres of influence that the Greek deities had!

Please join in the forum to share your observations on these and on any other passages where you find any other related themes or similar wording.

Selected vocabulary

Definitions summarized from those given in LSJ and Autenrieth.

ambrosios [ἀμβρόσιος] immortal, divine, ambrosial

ambrotos [ἄμβροτος] immortal, divine; also translated by Gregory Nagy as ‘immortalizing’

éros [ἔρος] or [ἔρως] love, desire, passion

hérmata [ἕρματα] pendants, earrings

himeróeis [ἱμερόεις] exciting desire, lovely, passionate

hímeros [ἵμερος] longing, passion, love

himertós [ἱμερτός] longed for, desired, lovely

hórmos necklace, chain, anything strung like a necklace

ísthmion [ἴσθμιον] necklace, anything belonging to the neck or throat

kálux [κάλυξ] (pl. kálukes [κάλυκες]) ornament, perhaps cup-shaped earrings; seed-vessel; cup or calyx of a flower, bud

khrúseos [χρύσεος] golden

philótēs [φιλότης] friendship, love, affection

stéphanos [στέφανος] circle, crown, wreath, garland

tríglēna moróenta [τρίγληνα μορόεντα] tríglēna three-eyed, with three drops moróenta wrought-with-much-pain; or mulberry-colored.


1 Homeric Hymns, Text Library. Currently available: those to Demeter, Dionysus, Aphrodite, translated by Gregory Nagy.

2 Nagy, Gregory. 2011. “The earliest phases in the reception of the Homeric Hymns.” in Short Writings: III.  p315–316. Available online at the Center for Hellenic Studies. https://chs.harvard.edu/curated-article/gregory-nagy-the-earliest-phases-in-the-reception-of-the-homeric-hymns/

3 Greek and English texts: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Perseus http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0137%3Ahymn%3D10 or Scaife https://scaife.perseus.org/reader/urn:cts:greekLit:tlg0013.tlg010.perseus-grc2:1-6/

4 Gregory Nagy has formulated this for khaire which occurs in many of the Homeric Hymns: “Now, at this precise moment, with all this said, I greet you, god (or gods) presiding over the festive occasion, calling on you to show favor [kharis] in return for the beauty and the pleasure of this, my performance.” but in translation uses a more manageable “Hail-and-take-pleasure” and I have incorporated his translation of this and of the final line, which also occurs in many of the hymns: “But as for me, I will keep you in mind [memnēmai] along with the rest of the song.” in “The earliest phases in the reception of the Homeric Hymns.” p328.

5 Explanation from LSJ: Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940. Entry for Κυθέρεια, online at Perseus.

6 Hesiodic Theogony, Text Library. 1–115: Translated by Gregory Nagy, 116–1022: Translated by J. Banks, Adapted by Gregory Nagy.

7 Autenrieth: Georg Autenrieth. 1891. A Homeric Dictionary for Schools and Colleges. New York. Harper and Brothers.
Online on Perseus

8 LSJ: Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones. with the assistance of. Roderick McKenzie. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1940.
Online at Perseus

9 Quoted in Goria Ferrari. “The Tyranny of Eros in Thucydides’ History”, in Donum natalicium digitaliter confectum Gregorio Nagy septuagenario a discipulis collegis familiaribus oblatum. Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies:

10 Beekes, Robert. 2009. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden.

11 Footnote 3 to Part II Chapter 1. “Prelude/Anabolê” in
Power, Timothy. 2010. The Culture of Kitharôidia. Hellenic Studies Series 15. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies:  https://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Power.The_Culture_of_Kitharoidia.2010

12 “Note the prayer in Homeric Hymn 10.5 that the god who presides over the occasion of performance may grant an aoidē ‘song’ that is hīmeroessa ‘full of desire’.” Gregory Nagy. Chapter 12 “Authority and Authorship in the Lyric Tradition.” Footnote 96. in
Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Online at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

13 Greek and English text: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
Online at Perseus
Online at Scaife

14 Nagy explains in 5§36 that in the wedding songs of Sappho “there are many instances of implicit equations of the generic bride with the goddess Aphrodite.”
Nagy, Gregory. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA: 2013. Available online at the Center for Hellenic Studies.

16 A few example passages are given in “Marriage | Part 3: Courtship” on this site.

17 English text: Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Text Library. Translated by Gregory Nagy.
Greek text: The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
Online at Perseus
Online at Scaife

18 Sourcebook: Homeric Iliad, Text Library Samuel Butler’s translation, revised by Timothy Power, Gregory Nagy, Soo-Young Kim, and Kelly McCray.

19 Sourcebook: Homeric Odyssey.. Text Library. Samuel Butler’s translation, revised by Timothy Power, Gregory Nagy, Soo-Young Kim, and Kelly McCray.

20 As noted above, footnote 14.

Texts accessed June 2021.

Image credits

Aphrodite and Himeros, detail from a silver kantharos 420–410 BCE
Photo: Gorgonchica, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. via Wikimedia Commons

Statuette of Aphrodite Leaning on a Pillar. 250–200 BCE.
Public domain, Getty.

Ludovisi Throne, Birth of Aphrodite. Marble, ca. 470-460 BCE.
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Attributed to the Wedding Painter; Birth of Aphrodite. Attic red-figure pyxis. c 460–450 BCE.
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. via Wikimedia Commons

Venus. Medallion painting from the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus in Pompeii. 1st century BCE.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ear-rings. Attic, c 420–400 BCE.
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Ganymede jewelry c 330–300 BCE, Greek.
Public domain, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons, at the time of publication on this website.

Images accessed June 2021.


Sarah Scott has a degree in Language from the University of York, and has worked as an editor, technical author, and documentation manager. She is the Executive Producer for the HeroesX project, and one of the Executive Editors of the HeroesX Sourcebook. She is an active participant and member of the editorial team in Kosmos Society, with a particular interest in content development, document management, word studies, language learning, comparative linguistics, and digital humanities