You are here

Wile-loving Aphrodite in archaic poetry

Elsa Bouchard

In his account of the birth of Aphrodite Hesiod gives the goddess no less than four names, all of which are provided with an ad hoc etymology devised from the mythical context (Th. 195-200). I call these ‘etymologies’ and not simply wordplays because of the explicit metalinguistic vocabulary used in the passage (cf. Gambarara): the act of denomination (κικλήσκουσι) is explicitly mentioned, as well as cause-to-effect relationships between words (οὕνεκ', ὅτι). Although Hesiodic and ancient etymologies in general are often deprived of linguistic likeliness, they possess genuine literary appeal and constitute precious witnesses to the Greeks' own sense of their divinities' dunamis (cf. Somville). By contrast with prior studies (e.g. Burkert, Morgan), I look at Hesiod's account not in the hope of recovering the "true" meaning of the goddess' names from a religious-historical point of view, but rather in order to understand Hesiod's particular engagement in an intertextual game both with himself and with contemporary poetry (cf. Tsitsibakou-Vasalos).

As a primary aim, this paper seeks to confront earlier discussions of one of Aphrodite's epithets in Hesiod, namely φιλομμειδής, which is usually rendered ‘smile-loving’ in English translations of archaic hexametric poetry. (There is a textual hesitancy between φιλομμειδής and φιλομμηδής, but such a minor difference is negligible for ancient etymologists: cf. Peraki-Kyriakidou) An overwhelming majority of the scholars who have commented this passage (e.g. Heubeck, West, Boedeker, Washbourne, Risch, Hansen, Ferrante, Lingohr, Sale, Woodhead, and Arnould; Leclerc is an exception) have failed to point out that Hesiod does not limit himself to reinterpreting φιλομμειδής (‘smile-loving’) as φιλομμηδής (‘genital-loving’). Indeed, his aetiological account for this epithet (‘because she was born from μήδεα’, Th. 200) also suggests the secondary meaning ‘wile-loving’, since Aphrodite is indirectly born from Gaia’s and Kronos’ ploys (μήδεα, an exact homonym to the word meaning ‘genitals’, on which see Nagy). I argue that this way of etymologizing finds a close parallel in Hesiod’s less obvious etymology of the name Titans from τιταίνοντας (stretch) and τίσις (revenge) at Th. 207-10 (cf. Lauriola, Duban, Duhoux). In both cases, the etymology of the name points backwards to the theogonic story and simultaneously announces events told later in the poem: indeed the name φιλομμειδής with its triple meaning (genital-, smile-, wile-loving) is relevant to the impending theme of female cunning, supremely exemplified in the passages on Pandora, Aphrodite's human doublet (cf. Marquardt, Mazur); while the mention of revenge (τίσις) as a component of the name of the Titans is evidently an allusion to Zeus’ later overthrowing of Cronos and the other Titans.

It seems that the commentators’ inexplicable blindness to the double pun in Hesiod’s etymology of φιλομμειδής can only be the result of an a priori reluctance to consider cunning as part of Aphrodite’s main powers. But in fact the goddess is regularly associated both with cunnning and sexuality in Hesiod and in archaic poetry in general (cf. Detienne & Vernant). A secondary aim of this paper will thus be to illustrate two kinds of association between ruse and erôs with poetic examples that provide a mythical background for an interpretation of Aphrodite as ‘wile-loving’. Although recent studies (e.g. Pirenne-Delforge, Pironti, Rosenzweig) on Aphrodite’s representations in Greek myth and cult say practically nothing on this topic, hexametric and lyric poetry regularly describes her with epithets related to ruse (e.g. δολόπλοκος: Sappho fr. 1, Theognis 2.1386, Simon. fragm. 36, lyr. ades. fr. 31 Page) and abounds in episodes casting the goddess or her equivalent as either 1) using ruse to permit the fulfillment of one’s erotic longing or 2) cunningly using someone else's erotic desire as a means to achieve various aims, most often a gain of timè in the context of a competition for power. By combining these two interrelated aspects – wile as a servant of erôs and vice versa – it is possible to get a fairly complete picture of Aphrodite's strategic position in archaic imagination.

Session/Panel Title

Poetics, Politics, and Religion in Greek Lyric and Epinician

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy