If Helen of Sparta was referred to as “the face that launched a thousand ships,” it was Aphrodite in The Iliad who was the true catalyst for the war.
The Trojan War story began long before Paris ever heard of Helen of Sparta and coveted her beauty.
It begins with a sea nymph, Thetis, who was being courted by both Zeus and Poseidon. Thetis, who was uninterested in marriage, is resistant to the idea.
Fortunately for the nymph, there is a prophecy that her son will be “greater than his father.” Zeus and Poseidon, recalling that they had banded together to overcome and kill their father, Cronos, settle upon a plan.
Thetis is forbidden from marrying an immortal and is instead promised to the mortal king Peleus. Proteus, a sea-god, instructed Peleus to capture the nymph, ambushing her on the seashore. The mortal does as told and holds on to her as she takes several forms, trying to shapeshift to escape.
Finally, she gives up and agrees to the marriage. The marriage is celebrated on Mt. Pelion, with all the gods and goddesses arriving to join in the festivities, save for one: Eris, the goddess of discord.
Irritated, Eris disrupts the proceedings by throwing an apple, marked “to the fairest.” The gift immediately causes a fight between Hera, Aphrodite, and goddess Athena, claiming the title.
They demand that Zeus decide which among them is the fairest, but Zeus wisely refrains, refusing to choose between his wife and his two daughters. Instead, he seeks a mortal man to offer the judgment.
Paris was a prince of Troy whose life was also directed by a prophecy. Just before he was born, his mother, Queen Hecuba, is told by the seer Aesacus that he will be Troy’s downfall. She and King Priam pass the task of disposing of the infant to a shepherd, who, taking pity on him, raises him as his own. Although the rough shepherd raises him, his noble birth shows through.
He owns a magnificent prize bull that he pits against other bulls in contests. Ares responded to the challenge by transforming himself into a bull and easily beating Paris’ animal. Paris immediately gives up the prize to Ares, acknowledging his win. This act leads Zeus to name him a just judge and settle the dispute between the goddesses.
Even Paris was unable to decide easily between the three goddesses. They each did their best to charm him, even disrobing to give him a better view. Finally, when Paris could not decide between the three, they each offered him a bribe.
Hera offered him power over several large kingdoms while Athena offered him wisdom and strength in battle. Aphrodite offered to give him the “most beautiful woman in the world” as his wife. She failed to mention that the woman in question, Helen of Sparta, was married to the mighty King Melenaus.
None of this mattered to Paris, who was determined to claim his prize. He went to Sparta and either seduces or abducts Helen, depending upon the interpretation of the text. Aphrodite, presumably, helps Paris achieve his goal. By the time there is an Aphrodite appearance in the Iliad, the war has been raging for almost nine years.
The Iliad covers only the final phase of the war as it follows a few of the main characters through their adventures.
What Is the Role of Aphrodite in The Iliad?
Despite her offhand attitude toward marriage, Aphrodite is committed to helping and protecting Paris, and therefore the Trojans, in the war that ensues from her meddling.
In Aphrodite’s appearance in the Iliad Book 3, the war has raged on for a full nine years. To stop the misery and bloodshed on both sides, the Achaeans and the Trojans agree that the dispute will be settled in hand-to-hand combat between Paris and Helen’s rightful husband, Menelaus. Paris, being not genuinely suited to war, was wounded in the fight. Aphrodite covered him in a mist and spirited him away to his bed-chamber.
What is the role of Aphrodite in the Iliad? She acts as both a champion of the Trojans and of Paris himself, though she was not truly well suited to war rigors.
When the battle goes poorly, Aphrodite saves Paris, swooping in to cover him with a mist and spiriting him away from the battlefield, back to his bed-chamber.
Paris was wounded and miserable, knowing that technically he had lost the fight. Aphrodite went to Helen in disguise, presenting herself as an old crone, and encouraged the woman to go to Paris and comfort him.
Helen who was fed up with both Aphrodite and the Trojan war refuses at first. Aphrodite drops her sweet act and tells Helen that the gods’ kindness can turn to “hard hate” if they are defied. Shaken, Helen agrees to go to Paris and followed Aphrodite to his rooms.
The agreement was that the loser of the fight would concede to the winner. Because Helen went to see Paris, the war continued. As the conflict kept on, Achilles continued to be significant in his absence. Aphrodite and Achilles were both key figures in the war, but they rarely interacted directly, instead of fighting from either side of the battlefield.
Aphrodite wasn’t done interfering in the Achaean’s efforts. In Book 5, the mortal Diomedes is injured by the Trojan fighter Pandarus.
Angry, Diomedes prays to Athena for revenge. Athena had taken the side of the Achaeans, and so she granted him superhuman strength and the ability to discern god from mortal on the battlefield. She warned him against challenging any of the gods but Aphrodite, who is not trained in battle and is more vulnerable than the others.
Diomedes got his revenge, killing Pandarus and slaughtering Trojans and destroying their ranks at an alarming rate. Additionally, he wounded the Trojan hero Aeneas, the son of Aphrodite.
Coming to the aid of her son, Aphrodite challenged Diomedes impulsively. He struck out and managed to wound her, cutting her wrist and causing ichor (the god’s version of blood) to pour from her wound.
She was forced to abandon Aeneas and flee the battle, retreating to Olympus, where she is comforted and healed by her mother, Dione. Zeus warned her not to engage in combat again, telling her to stick to tending matters of love and the “beautiful secrets of marriage.”
Apollo went back to the battle in her stead. Full of his hubris and rage, and drunk on his success, Diomedes foolishly attacked god Apollo as well.
Apollo, irritated with the mortal’s impudence, brushed him aside and took Aeneas, whisking him off the field. To further anger Aeneas’ fellows, he left a replica of Aeneas’ body on the field. He returned with Aeneas and roused Ares to join the fight for the Trojans.
With Ares’ assistance, the Trojans began to get the advantage. Hector and Ares fought side by side, a sight with frightened Diomedes, the Lord of War. Odysseus and Hector moved to the forefront of the battle and the slaughter intensified on both sides until Hera and Athena appealed to Zeus to be permitted to interfere again.
Hera rallies the rest of the Achaean troops, while Athena jumped into Diomedes’ chariot to assist him against Ares. Although she had previously forbidden him to fight any of the gods but Aphrodite, she lifted the injunction and rode out against Ares. The collision between the two is seismic. Ares was wounded by Diomedes and fled the field, retreating to Mount Olympus to complain to Zeus of the human’s attack.
Zeus told him he entered the battle and that wounds are a part of the fighting. With Ares’ wounded, the gods and goddesses, for the most part, retreated from the battle, leaving the Humans to continue fighting their own battles.
What Drove Aphrodite Significant Actions in the Iliad?
Most of Aphrodite’s significant actions in The Iliad were driven by relationships and the use she made of the connections and nuances within them.
Ares’ contribution to the Trojan’s battling contributed heavily to the Greek’s losses. He arguably came to the aid of the Trojans because Aphrodite had been his lover. The story of Aphrodite and Ares’ pairing is referred to in the Odyssey, Book 8. Demodokos told the tale, relating how Aphrodite and Ares met and joined in the bed of her husband, Hephaestus, the smith to the gods.
Hephaestus had crafted the armor that Thetis gave to Achilles, his divine armor that made his presence on the field distinctive.
Thetis and Aphrodite had very different views toward marriage and loyalty. While Thetis had several times moved to protect the immortals, including Hephaestus, when other gods attacked them, Aphrodite seems impulsive, self-centered, and self-serving.
The lovers were observed by the sun-god Helios, who informed the cuckold Hephaestus. The smith devised a clever trap that would fasten the lovers together the next time they enjoyed a tryst. They fell into the trap, and Hephaestus went to Mt. Olympus to accuse them and demand that his courtship gifts be returned.
Finally, Poseidon, the god of the sea, took pity on the lovers and offered to pay the adulterer’s damages. Having observed the exchange, Apollo turned to Hermes, the messenger of the gods, and asked how he would have felt if he were caught in such a humiliating situation.
Hermes responded that he would “suffer thrice the number of bonds” to enjoy a chance to share Aphrodite’s bed and attentions. Aphrodite’s desirability far outweighs her disloyalty she showed to her husband.
Her behavior throughout The Iliad is tied to the relationships forged between gods and men. While she interfered most strongly on the Trojan’s side in the war, she also turned back to Hera and helped her seduce Zeus in Book 14. By gaining Zeus’s favor, Hera can join in the fighting on the Aechean’s side again.
In the end, Aphrodite remains loyal to the end to Paris and the Trojans. After being wounded, she doesn’t return to try to join in the battle again. She recognizes her weakness in fighting and heeds Zeus’ warning to leave war affairs to others who are better suited to such things. Instead, she tends to gentler pursuits.
When the death of Patroclus rouses Achilles’ rage, the gods intervene once again. Athena goes to Achilles’ aid. She went to Hector, disguised as his brother Deiphobus, and made him believe he had an ally in the fight against Achilles. He threw his spear, which bounced harmlessly off Achilles’ godly armor.
When Hector turned to his “brother” to get another spear, he found himself alone. When he realized that he was on his own, he charged Achilles with his sword. Unfortunately for Hector, Achilles’ knowledge of the stolen armor he wore gave him an advantage. Knowing the weak point in the armor, Achilles was able to stab him through the throat.
Achilles, still furious and grieving the death of Patroclus, refused to return the body to the Trojans for a proper burial. Andromache, Hector’s wife, saw the body being dragged through the dirt and fainted, letting the shawl that Aphrodite had given her fall to the floor.
Despite her lapse, Aphrodite continued to protect the body. Although Aphrodite doesn’t interfere directly or try to take Hector’s body, she did anoint his body with special oils and saved it from damage. Achilles dragged Hector’s body behind his chariot, defiling and abusing it. Aphrodite protected the body, even driving the dogs away that would have scavenged the corpse.
Aphrodite’s final reference in the Iliad comes in Book 24, when Cassandra, a girl, and therefore one of the mortals Aphrodite is the patron goddess of, is the first to see Priam as he carries his son’s body and returns to Troy to lay him to rest finally.