There is no satisfactory account for the etymology of the name Aphrodite that provides a plausible linguistic explanation and accounts for her connections to goddesses of the Near East: Astarte, Ishtar, and Inanna. The various attempts to derive Aphrodite from Indo-European (Janda 2010; Mallory and Adams 1997) are necessarily committed to Indo-European speakers migrating from their homeland to Greece accompanied by a goddess named Aphrodite. This explanation is problematic for two reasons: 1) the name Aphrodite does not appear in Linear B texts as it should if the goddess was present in Greece at that time and 2) there is strong evidence that the goddess’s appearance in Greece was the result of a cultural adoption from the Near East. Attempts to reconcile these facts by treating Aphrodite’s name as a borrowing from Phoenician, meaning ‘she of the villages’ (West 2000), are equally dubious, as ‘she of the villages’ has little to do with the nature of Aphrodite, making the semantic connection tenuous at best.
I propose that Aphrodite’s name was originally an unattested epithet Ἀφραδίτη* that was subsequently altered to the canonical Ἀφροδίτη on analogy with the word ἀφρός ‘foam’, attested in Hesiod’s ἀφρογενής ‘foam-born’ (Theogony 196), which reflects a contemporary etymology drawn from a widely known story about Aphrodite’s birth from foam (Theogony 188-200; Homeric Hymn 6.5, Plato Cratylus 406c-d). Furthermore, I suggest that Ἀφραδίτη* originally meant ‘the one associated with mindlessness’ on the following analysis: 1) the PIE *-teh2 suffix signifying ‘one associated with’ (cf. ὁπλίτης ‘one associated with the ὅπλον [shield] = hoplite’), and 2) the Greek word ἀφραδία ‘mindlessness’, formed from the alpha-privative and the PIE root *gwhren- ‘think’. Lastly, I assert that the creation of the name Ἀφραδίτη* occurred at some point during the Dark Ages (Budin 2004), and since the name described a distinctly female goddess, it avoided the Greek-internal addition of the masculine –ς (cf. Latin nauta and Greek ναύτη-ς), and maintained its status as a feminine first declension noun.
The semantics of Aphrodite as ‘one associated with mindlessness’ accords with the earliest depictions of the goddess in Greek literature, where she is frequently described in terms of her ability to make gods and mortals lose their ‘minds’ (φρένες, derived from the same root *gwhren- ‘think’ that I propose occurs in Ἀφραδίτη*). In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, Aphrodite is so powerful that there are only three divinities (Athena, Artemis, and Hestia) whose φρένες she cannot control (HHAph 7, 33), and she can even deceive the φρένες of Zeus (HHAph 38). In a retaliatory usurpation of her power, Zeus causes Aphrodite to be struck in her φρένες with love for Anchises (HHAph 57). Later on in the poem, those associated with the love of Aphrodite feel deep emotions in their φρένες: for example, when Eos abducted Tithonus out of love, she lost the ability to think in her φρένες (HHAph 223). Elsewhere, at Iliad 3.442, Aphrodite’s presence causes love for Helen to envelop Paris’ φρένες. Aphrodite consistently generates ἀφραδία in those around her, and this seems to be an essential trait of her divine nature. It is reasonable that there would be an epithet associated with such a salient feature of Aphrodite, and Ἀφραδίτη* is a plausible candidate, as it literalizes the action she is so strongly associated with - the loss of control over one’s φρένες.
This argument provides an account for how Greek speakers, in a particular place and time, adopted a foreign divinity from the Near East and gave her an epithet based off of what they perceived to be salient features of her divine nature: Ἀφραδίτη* ‘the one associated with mindlessness’, and only later was this obscured by the connection that Hesiod and others made with ἀφρός ‘foam’. Still, this ‘mindless’ aspect of Aphrodite’s character permeates early Greek literature. This paper, then, makes a contribution to scholarship at the nexus of linguistics, religion, and archaic Greek literature.
What's in a Name?