29. Heavenly bodies: Aphrodite in Cyprus

This spring, my friend and fellow St. Andrews PhD, Briana King, and I traveled to Greece for fieldwork in our studies. With intersecting interests, Briana and I were able to plan a truly spectacular trip and gain new insights into our own research questions as well as each other’s work. Through careful budgeting and receiving funding through several pathways, we were fortunate to achieve quite a lot in two weeks. We began our fieldwork in Cyprus, to investigate the earliest sanctuary site of Aphrodite!

Mosaic from the House of Aion, Neopaphos

With a long history reaching back into the Neolithic period, Cyprus has seen waves of cultural and political change throughout its recorded history. Annexed in 295/4 BCE by the Ptolemy I Soter (the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty), it remained within their dynastic control for 250 years. Though Cyprus still retained semi-autonomous government with the Boule (council), Demos (popular assembly) and the Gerousia (council of ancient Boomers). This continued until it was annexed by Rome in 58 BCE during the dynastic struggles between Cleopatra VII and her siblings, and settled into Roman hands following the civil war with Octavian and Antony. Cyprus would fall into the hands of several other powers over the next two thousand years (the Arab caliphate, the French and Venetians and the Ottomans), until today where it currently remains divided by Greece and the occupied portion under Turkey.

Cyprus’ place-names have popped into my studies for years came from this island. Unsurprisingly, due to the proximity to Egypt (a straight line to Alexandria) and the political fortunes of Cyprus, there was several connection-points with the Egyptian gods which I hope to explore further in my research.

The goddess of many names: the sanctuary of Aphrodite

Starting in Cyprus was very important to Briana’s research: Paleopafos is the OG Aphrodite cult site where she was worshiped in the form of a black stone (below left). The Sanctuary of Aphrodite, barely visible on the archaeological site, requires some imagination to envisage what it could have been like. Set atop a higher elevation, the site would have commanded an impressive presence on the landscape and awarded visitors with a stunning view out to the sea.

A rose by any other name…

While Hesiod called Aphrodite ‘Cyprus-born’ around the 8th c. BCE, the goddess was not called that in Cypus until the 4th c. BCE. The significance of place-names for her identity can be seen in inscriptions where is called ‘the Golgian or Paphian’ from her sanctuaries at Golgoi and Pafos. A city’s prestige could be significantly enhanced by a notable sanctuary or cult site. You can see below some interesting details about the places or priorities associated with the goddess of Cyprus.

“Kyprogenes- Cyprus born goddess; Potnia Kyprou – the mistress of Cyprus
Akraia – the goddess of promontories; Pontia, Einalia – the marine goddess
Ourania – the heavenly goddess; Pandemos- goddess of all
Egcheios – the goddes with the spear;
Kourotrophos – the goddess patron of infants “

Dedications to Aphrodite include many interesting bird-faced, Picasso-esq clay and limestone figurines.

Figurines found across the island, and spread to other Mediterranean cities, show ongoing development in the iconography of the Great Goddess of Cyprus. Theories range about their uses, whether they are images of early forms of Aphrodite, her priestesses, companions for the dead or talismans for fertility or the afterlife.

She certainly glowed up though.

As Aphrodite’s form changes over time, you get gorgeous examples like the Aphrodite from Soloi (right) which has that sexy contrapposto!

For scholars and history nerds, these places are important and aren’t normally on a tourists’ itinerary. Cyprus is known for its beaches, boardwalks and boating which we briefly explored. Though this isn’t my topic of expertise, it was really cool to experience it with someone who has a passion for Aphrodite scholarship, like mine for Isis!

Downtown Nicosia

With Google taking on a merry-go-round of routes through the hills and ostrich farms, we eventually arrived at Nicosia to visit the archaeological museum. It had a substantial collection of beautiful things

With the archaeological site of Salamis inconveniently closed, we checked out a few other interesting locations in Cyprus! A brief walk along the promenade along the sunny boardwalk in Limassol.

Limassol

What surprised me about Paphos is that it was like a tiny hot British town plunked in the middle of the Mediterranean. Walking around, the signs were in English and I didn’t hear an ounce of Greek being spoken. The archaeological site was worth a wander, but if I was looking for Greek culture and a trip away from the UK, it was eerily like being back in Britain.

Neopaphos & the Tombs of the Kings

Some unexpected surprises along the way included the rental car with no working headlights and the incredible discovery of a late-night delivery of the best souvlaki and Greek salad of my life. With a lot of terrain covered over a weekend, there is still a lot left to explore there and worthy of a solid return trip.