Sunday, January 19, 2014

TFBT: Before and After the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite

“I loved her better than myself, but after obtaining possession the balance (swung the other way)”  paraphrase from  The Memoirs of Casanova,
 Chapter XIX

Quoting an eighteenth century adventurer might seem an odd start to a classical study.  But, when studying seduction, who would be a better reference.  It is clear in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite that the mighty goddess will say whatever it takes to consummate her Zeus given passion for the Trojan prince Anchises. Traditional scholarship assumes that Anchises is being honest in his interactions with the disguised goddess.  In this paper I propose that Anchises exaggerates and lies just as much as golden Aphrodite and for the same reason.  

I Loved Her Better Than Myself

After a long preamble and scene setting the action starts around line 81 with “She stood before him, the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite, looking like an unwed maiden in size of length and appearance.”  Clearly she didn’t want to scare off the royal shepherd, so she began her seduction of the Trojan by disguising her appearance. 

At 91”Seized with love, Anchises said to her: “Hail, my Lady, you who come here to this home, whichever of the blessed ones you are”  (Same sort of flattery that liar Odysseus uses on the fair-faced maiden Nausicaa.  Both men flatter the young woman out in the middle of nowhere by suggesting she is Artemis.  Odyssey 6:145)  Anchises then makes a lengthy guessing about which of the goddesses she is; sort of a descending scale of important goddesses in the Trojan Pantheon. “Artemis or Leto or golden Aphrodite or Themis of noble birth or bright-eyed Athena (95) Or perhaps you are one of the Kharites, you who have come here…Or you are one of those Nymphs who range over beautiful groves, (Dryads) or one of those Nymphs who inhabit this beautiful mountain, (Oreads) and the fountainheads of rivers (Oceanides and Naiads)  and grassy meadows. (Leimonides).  Then he pours on the flattery ( 100) “ For you, on some high peak, in a spot with a view going all round, I will set up an altar, and I will perform for you beautiful sacrifices”  Then speaking like some ancient city’s founding father flirting with eponymous nymph  he ask “Grant that I become a man who is distinguished among the Trojans. Make the genealogy that comes after me become a flourishing one. And make me (105) live a very long life and see the light of the sun, blessed in the midst of the people. “

At line 110, in order to keep up appearance the disguised deity says, “No, I am a mortal. The mother that bore me was a woman. My father is Otreus… The nursemaid who brought me up in the palace was a Trojan.11 Ever since I was a small child, 115 she brought me up, … That is why I know your language as well as my own...the Argos-killer [Hermes], abducted me, … He carried me over many fields of mortal humans …And he [Hermes] said that I, in your bed, … would be called your lawfully-wedded wife, and that I would give you splendid children."   Hmm, let see beautiful wealthy princess falls from Heaven as a gift to Anchises from the gods. She conveniently speaks his language, is lovely, alone and a great distance from father and brothers.  And that horn-dog Hermes delivers her with her virginity intact.  If Anchises believes this he's not thinking with his noos or thumos

Line 145 ; “If you are mortal, and if a woman was the mother who gave birth to you, and if Otreus is your father, … and if you are to be called my wife for all days to come…". Does he hesitate out of respect or for fear of the bolt that Iason got?  (See Calypso at Odyssey 5:116)  or out of wisdom like Diomedes (Iliad 6:122)  then it is impossible for any god or any mortal human (150) to hold me back, right here, from joining with you in making love right now, on the spot - not even if the one who shoots from afar, Apollo himself, takes aim from his silver bow and shoots his arrows that bring misery. Then, O Lady who looks like the gods, I would willingly, once I have been in your bed, go down into the palace of Hades below.”  What player hasn’t used the lie that they would die for their lady love.

After, the Balance Swung the Other Way          

At Line 172; “Now that her skin was again beautifully covered over, the resplendent goddess stood by the bed, and the well-built roof-beam - her head reached that high up”. Then she awakes her slumbering lover presumably to tell him about his son,  “I got myself a child beneath my waistband, having slept with a male mortal." However she gets interrupted when he complains (188) “…don’t let me become disabled  don’t let me live on like that among humans! Please, take pity! I know that no man is full of life, able,  if he sleeps with immortal goddesses".

Traditionally, it is assumed that Anchises worries about being "unmanned" by the experience.  Nowhere else in Ancient Greek literature is Anchises' concern shared by other heroes.  Maybe a close reading further along can shed light on his concern.  As a matter of fact the goddess says, "You should have no fear of that I would do any kind of bad thing to you,(195) or that any of the other blessed ones would. For you are philos indeed to the gods."  She continues by swearing to fulfill his original request (104)  “And you will have a philos son, who will be king among the Trojans. And following him will be generations after generations for all time to come. "  

Aphrodite goes on to explain what the results could be for sleeping with a goddess.  Obviously he could get the thunderbolt if he goes around bragging about bedding the daughter of Zeus.

 The other option is what happen to his cousin Tithonus  and great-uncle Ganymede ; "together with the immortal ones (with) the gods in the palace of Zeus… a wonder to behold, given his share of timē by all the immortals, "   Aside from the threat of a thunderbolt, the only un-manning mentioned is becoming no longer a man, but a god.  Aphrodite is preaching to the choir here.  This sort of thing happens a lot to Trojan princes, for example Alexander, that seducer of another daughter of Zeus.   The fame of the horse rearing Troy is based on the horses descended from a set sent by Zeus to King Tros to compensate for the loss of Ganymede.  And Tithonus' sons will come to Troy in its time of need.  So Anchises must know that the second option is the likely reward for a Trojan prince who sleeps with a goddess.  Unfortunately, things didn’t work out too well for cousin Tithonus.  When his lover Eos, Titaness of the Dawn, asked that he receive endless life, she forgot to ask for eternal youth, too.  As a consequence, to Tithonus   "hateful old age was pressing hard on him, with all its might, and he couldn’t move his limbs, much less lift them up,..and he has no strength at all, ". I suggest that this is the unmanning that Anchises fears.  He knows from family lore that he had a good chance that he "would be immortal and ageless, just like the gods." And he took his best shot at attaining it. But Aphrodite’s heartless response was “If you could only stay the way you are, in looks and constitution, staying alive as my lawfully-wedded husband… But now wretched old age will envelop you, “

Their son will be raised by some of the long-lived nymphs Anchises had listed earlier.  Aphrodite will bring the child, Aeneas, to Troy someday for his father to raise.  One last warning to be discrete and the goddess is gone.

In Summary

Before, in order to seduce Anchises, Aphrodite appears to him as a beautiful, rich virgin alone in the woods. In order to flatter the “maiden” he, just like Odysseus, compares her to a goddess.  In order to tempt Anchises she tells him she is far from her father and fated for her bed. Anchises hesitates only a moment then leads her to his bed, their mutual seduction complete.

Afterwards, Aphrodite stays long enough to tell the mortal they will have a son.  Anchises makes a backhanded request for endless life and eternal youth.  Aphrodite says not.


  1. Thank you for this analysis. Now I understand better the behavior of Anchises: it is the typical striving of a hero to be equal with the gods. I also see that the "bragging" of Anchises later is not exactly bragging; it is affirmation of his value and honor. Had he been discrete, he would implicitly agree and uphold Aphrodite's estimation of him as a lower being. So he has no honorable choice but to speak, and pay the price.

  2. Maya

    That is brilliant! I told everyone at Hour 25 about you observation and how smart you are.