The trouble with writing about mythical figures, is that so often people already have an idea of what they should look like, and when you try to describe them as a writer, you risk putting off your readers by clashing with their already defined mental images. To offset this, I tend to avoid overt description of the major players outside of what is commonly accepted. For example, we don't really have a cultural concept of what Adam and Eve look like (outside perhaps, of a standard white-washing), so I keep my descriptions of them very limited-- to allow my readers to fit their own Adam and Eve into the blanks (and really, Adam and Eve, to my mind, ought to look like everyone at once, and no one at the same time). In regard to Thor, I try to keep to the standard descriptions: Huge, neatly-bearded, muscular, I even hedge my bets by giving him red-gold hair, instead of a true red or a real blond so the Marvel fans won't argue (mythologically speaking, it really should be red, but Marvel's Thor has skewed the cultural impression).
I spent the evening recently trying to find a good reference and source of description for Aphrodite. I hadn't had to do much with her before now, because she's only a tertiary player in my other books, and I hadn't realized she was going to make an appearance in HELEN at all until she literally sat down next to her in the book. And then I started researching. What did Aphrodite look like to the people of Mycenaean Greece? Helen already has blond hair, and it seems to me that this is a key element of her beauty-- that the reason she is so beautiful, is because her coloring is so unusual. If I give Aphrodite blond hair also, does this diminish Helen's uniqueness? Would the Greeks really envision their goddess as a blond, when they were probably dark haired for the most part? Maybe more importantly: How have other people already illustrated Aphrodite? What is our cultural opinion of her coloring?
I googled her. After talking to a few Classics-oriented people on twitter, and realizing that I could not for the life of me remember any lines in the Iliad which described Aphrodite's hair color, it seemed the best recourse. But the wiki entry didn't give me anything about her hair-color, and the other less reputable (yeah, I just said that) sources seemed to ignore physical description as well. At that point, I turned to the wiki-commons for the masterworks.
(image: Birth of Venus, by Botticelli from wiki commons.)
(Image © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)
One image is from a wall in Pompeii, dated to roughly 79 AD. Aphrodite is the smudged woman in the background, dressed in white. (I'm not posting it here because I feel like I'm going overboard with the pictures here.) This image seems to also be from Pompeii, but wiki information dates it to about 25 BCE. I can't explain the difference in the dates here, as I said I am no art historian, and so I can only give the the information that wiki has given me-- dubious though that may be. Aphrodite, of course is the woman in the blue dress, and I might argue that her hair is almost an auburn color. Certainly, it is a rich shade of brown at the least.
The trouble is, while these older images may be more valid as representations of Aphrodite, giving her dark hair goes against the more recent cultural memory, so to speak. So I'm still left with a choice to make-- do I risk alienating my readers by choosing to give her a darker hair color which might clash with the idea they have of Aphrodite in their mind's eye? Or do I follow the historical images, and hope that my readers absorb it as information they didn't know, or at the very least ignore me if they find it personally problematic? When it comes down to it, is our image of Aphrodite informed MOST by the current perceptions of what is beautiful?
My followers, what about you? When you envision Aphrodite, what color is her hair?
It's almost enough to make me wish she wasn't going to appear in the book. :)