Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Oh, Aphrodite!

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.

The Masters from the Renaissance may have fooled with their myths, giving Pegasus to Perseus when they don't belong together, and re-interpreting other stories as needed for artistic convenience, but they were influential. Our ideas of these major mythological figures are, like it or not, informed by these pieces of artwork. What I didn't expect to find in my search through the commons was art dating back to antiquity. I'm not sure why it didn't occur to me until I saw it, honestly, but what better reference than art from the culture which spawned the myths? (image: Birth of Venus, by Botticelli from wiki commons.)

There are images of Aphrodite on pottery-- of course, that kind of art is usually fairly stylized, and the red and black Attic style (dated to about 410 BCE) especially seems kind of unhelpful. In that medium, Aphrodite is bound either to have red or black hair, regardless. Still, it's worth noting that her hair was colored black. It seems like if she was a blond, the artist would have gone with the natural red tone of the clay instead. But I'm no art historian, and that's just my personal conjecture. It isn't proof enough to give her dark hair in my book, that's for sure. (Image © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons)

So I kept looking. And man, why did I not even think of frescoes?! There are a couple of good ones in the wiki commons where I can clearly identify Aphrodite in the picture. Both of them show her with dark hair, not blonde. 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. :)


  1. I think of her with darker hair. This is probably due to my Art History and Classic Mythology courses, so I don't know it this is the general interpretation. I would try to be as historically accurate as possible (while of course keeping your amazing story intact). I tend to get annoyed by works who completely ignore the historical facts and interpretations. I'm sure whatever you do it will be wonderful!

  2. For some reason Aphrodite, in my head, looks like one of those big-haired Texan women. You know the ones who pile their blond hair a foot above their heads, and plaster on red lipstick and blue eyeshadow? Then they squeeze into their acid-wash jeans and Lynard Skinner baby-tees and trot down the street in their four inch Candies?

  3. Brunette/Auburn hair .... ;)

    And very sensual.

  4. Describe her as you see her. Describe what you want to read. Don't worry about what you think the readers will want.

  5. I envision red hair on Aphrodite. But I wouldn't mind a different description :)

  6. I think of her as a redhead - but that might just be me.

  7. Kelly, that's kind of how I feel too. I usually try to find a happy medium place somewhere in the middle that acknowledges both somehow with stuff like this. If I don't use something particular to the history/mythology I usually at least reference it for the people who know it SHOULD be there.

    Monica: That's AWESOME! A very vivid image, too. That's really fascinating!

    Kosmos: That goes without saying, at least for me. If any goddess is going to be sensual, it is definitely going to be Aphrodite :)

    J.L. I'm already taking enough liberties, the least I can do is give my readers a familiar image. But I'm not really stressed out about it, so much as fascinated by the shift from dark hair to light hair, and now (according to my Art History buff cousin), back toward dark again.

    Aubrie and Faithlessone: It's really interesting so many people think of her as a red head! I hadn't expected that, honestly, but I'm excited about it!

    Thanks for weighing in everyone! Hope the comments keep coming! :)

  8. Very interesting point, Amalia!

    Achilles was also described as having blond hair, as was Alcibiades centuries later. I suspect blond was more common in Greece back then than it is today.

    Botticelli's Birth of Venus is the most powerful painting I've ever seen in real life. It totally blew me away. Pictures don't begin to do it justice.

  9. Gary, I kind of think it wasn't, and that's why children of divine parentage were named as blond so far back. An outward sign of their immortal blood, perhaps. It would make them that much more special if it weren't common--and I don't think there's anything common about Achilles. That said, I have done almost zero research into this and I'm just going by what makes sense to me.

    As for Alcibiades, I could see blonds being a bit more common by that time, but it seems odd that a recessive gene like that would show up in a prominent Athenian, when they were so serious about preserving citizenship. If you're only marrying other Athenian citizens, things would get pretty homogeneous pretty quickly. Or was Alcibiades before that?

  10. See, why would Aphrodite have to have only one color of hair? She's a goddess, right. I mean, not that it's in the myth or anything, but if she's the embodiment of love, why couldn't she appear to different people as they would expect the personification of love and desire to appear? This'd give you flexibility in your fiction, no?

    So for me, she'd either have flame-red hair, or jet-black, depending on the day. :)

    1. Depending on her viewer I'd think. I totally agree that Aphrodite as an Olympian goddess has the power to not only merely glimpse you and know what you like in a woman, and "be" that but that but she can do this before thousands of people at once. Who Aphrodite was (is) and what she looked like viewed and expressed by women sculpts a somewhat different woman than the one precieved in the minds of men. And just to mention it "goddess of beauty and love" is like a buzz term and can easily be thought of and considered to be euphemistic. Is she the goddess of say the beauty of flowers or the beauty of the sky? Does she rule over the love that a man has for his children, his dog, his car? More accurately I would think of our Lady as being a goddess ruling the energies of fashion and lust. In the three stages of femalehood there is the Virgin, lover / mother, and crone. Aphrodite's real responsibility is with the lover aspect so as to get the woman pregnant. Once the Virgin becomes mother she (the now not virgin) is Likely more subject to the rule and protections of Minerva / Diana or someone like that. Aphrodite will always play a part in a woman's life but not as a guide to motherhood because miss thang is forever the childishly permissive party girl, pinup girl, lingerie model, pole dancer etc. If you want to seduce a man girl, get Venus to hold your hand. If you need to know what to do with your ailing baby I'd recommend Diana or even Hera. That's enough for now.

  11. A totally valid point, Simon, and one I've considered. The Olympians are well known for appearing in different forms, taking on the appearance of people known to the person they're addressing, or as strangers, so there's absolutely a shape-shifting element that can be employed with someone like Aphrodite. It's possible that as the human ideal of beauty changed, Aphrodite appeared differently as well to maintain her allure.

    Applying human limits to the gods, while comforting, is often a mistake!

    Thanks Simon! Great comment!

  12. Hmmm. See, the way I picture her in modern times (like in Percy Jackson or other Greek-Gods-in-the-21st-century novels) is with blonde hair, but if I think of her in terms of the Ancient Greeks, I think dark hair. I just realized how weird that was that I had two different images of the same goddess! :D

  13. Hmmm...I've always pictured her as a strawberry blonde. Interesting post! :-)

  14. I stand by my previous assertion, which echoes Simon's. Don't stick with one color! Maybe start her as auburn and change it to blond later, much as the artwork changed.

  15. Maggie: That's really fascinating! And it makes a lot of sense. As the ideals of beauty change, Aphrodite ought to adapt! Thanks for sharing that!

    Shannon: Thanks!

    Valerie: I know. I don't think she doesn't change appearance over time-- but I was stumped for a moment as to how I wanted her to appear in Helen's time. You're absolutely right though, that it should change. If Aphrodite doesn't keep up with the standard ideals of beauty she's not going to get the action she deserves, and I don't think she'd let that happen. ha!

  16. I think I told you already, I picture her with brown hair. To be accurate, brown hair about the color of mine. Maybe a little bit more highlighted in gold. But not blond.

    I think that we often picture the gods/goddesses in relationship to how we identify their traits. Venus: Beautiful. Someone up above wrote sensual. Perhaps someone we want to identify with, in at least some ways? She was the love goddess, after all, and so, we suppose, beautiful. What is beautiful to one person is not, necessarily, to another--but what makes a person beautiful to you? Do you see yourself in them? That's sort of what I'm thinking. Like Minerva. (She's probably my fave, by the way.) Smart--totally a knockout, even if she doesn't really date, so to speak. I think I equate her the most to myself--because I like her the most!

    Mars--very temperamental--very buff, sort of short and round, but no fat on him at all. I often picture him bald. Definitely not a classical depiction! Of course, popular culture does play a part, too. Poseidon and Zeus--I favor the image of Triton from the Little Mermaid, and Zeus from Hercules.

    Not that it's necessarily how these things work--but it could be part of it.

  17. Honestly, I'd go with whatever description was placed in front of me. Like Simon said, I guess she's different for different people. I think perhaps I'd have more difficulty if her personality wasn't what I had in mind though.

    She's Aphrodite, she can rock any look you choose ;~)

    (Although, I confess, I see her with the red hair too. This is partly because red hair is so striking and partly because I miss the days when I had red hair - so when left to form my own view, I see all amazingly beautiful characters as having that colour hair. I know, I'm weird)

  18. Despite my love for Botticelli's painting, I picture her with auburn hair. If you were to change color I think it would require too much attention being paid to the hair. Consider selecting a color but using a non-specific term to describe it, so readers can visualize her in their own way. Instead of brunette say dark-haired, instead of auburn say russet, instead of blonde say fair, that sort of thing.

  19. Sarah: I find it very interesting that you went with the Latin names for the gods and goddesses as you discussed your impressions! But also, I totally do not see Ares that way AT ALL! haha. It just goes to show how differently we interpret! I think you're right about connecting ourselves to gods and goddesses--we have to have that element in order to make them something we can understand.

    Mia: I think you just proved Sarah's point :) And you're right about Aphrodite rocking any look!

    VR: To be honest, I don't really care for Botticelli's depiction of Aphrodite (I know, I can't believe I just said that either), but it is iconic which is why I included it. I think she is pretty ugly (pleasedon'tletthemasterssmiteme). When it comes down to it, I'm not sure Aphrodite is even appearing as "herself" in HELEN, but making sure that she appears in an identifiable way is still important. I find that I'm relying more on associations than physical descriptions!

  20. I didn't even realize! Although I used Zeus and Poseidon's names, rather than Jupiter and Neptune.

    Yeah, like I said--my idea of Mars(/Ares) is totally not the classical depiction. I don't know where it comes from, completely!

  21. I can't remember reading a physical description of her in THE ILIAD or THE AENEID. I've always thought of her as a blond, though. A lot of the Greeks in THE ILIAD have blond hair. I had to do that research, too, for my book. For example, it's outright stated that Achilles was blond. The Trojans, on the other hand, tended to have dark hair. Weird that. I guess the Trojans looked more Middle Eastern? Hmm...

    Aphrodite is a tough one. I'd almost make her seem racially ambiguous, like she encompasses all the different pictures of beauty. I.e. she'd have dark hair and dark eyes, super tan skin but caucasian features except the eyes, which would have an exotic slant. But I don't know. lol

  22. I've always thought of Aphrodite as having dark hair -- dark brown or black. I'm not sure where I got that image from. Wasn't the Aphrodite in Xena, Warrior Princess a blond? Nonetheless, I picture her as dark-haired.

  23. Sarah: that is so different. I wonder where it does come from!

    KM: I think it's because so many of the Greeks are heroes descended from the gods in the Iliad, while the Trojans are not. But, that's just a guess and I could be making things up :) I totally understand where you're coming from about Aphrodite being culturally neutral-- but if she's appearing to a people, I would think she would appear AS the ideal of beauty OF those people, maybe?

    Guinevere: I don't remember what she looked like in Xena! I should look that up. Thanks for commenting!

  24. What about Aeneas? You can't forget Aeneas!

  25. Ha! you're right. I forgot Aeneas :P

  26. Actually, Aphrodite puts stringed leaves in her hair.

  27. Aphrodite in fact has long, black, curly hair. I know because She has returned to our world and is in touch with me. Contact me if you wish to speak with Her!

  28. I envision her as a pale skined woman, with a voluminous body type, long wavy light brown hair with blond spectrums and light brown eyes (honey like).


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