Hughes’ new book (released 14th November 2019) is not about Helen at all – but about Aphrodite. She sees them as reflections of one another: one in the deific world, the other… not far from there either.

Aphrodite was born fully grown from the sea – ‘foam-born’ literally. Her birth is rather a lurid story set on the coast of Cyprus; the result of Chronos’ genital mutilation of Ouranos. She is so connected with the island of Cyprus that she also bears the alternative name, Kypris. But it is hardly unchallenged and reliant on Hesiod’s revisionist Theogony.

There are all sorts of fertility deities which have turned up all over the south of the island, dating from around 4000 BC. But although these may have had some influence on Aphrodite’s development, the real driver is perhaps contact with the cult of Astarte in the Near East – the coast of Lebanon is less than one hundred miles away and one of the closest points of trading contact. Astarte was the Hellnised name for Ashtoreth / Ishtar. Sidon, Tyre and Byblos on the Phoenician coast were major centres of the worship of Astarte. In the Ugaritic cycle, it is clear that Ashtart and Athirat (Asherah) are separate deities but elsewhere the distinction is rather blurred.

And even Ishtar herself is some merged goddess. She is sometimes called Inanna-Ishtar but originally they were unrelated deities – one Sumerian, the other Semitic. After Sargon of Akkad, she became the central female deity and her cult survived in some remote outposts of the Near East as late as the 1700s AD.

It is no surprise that she should start off with a violent side. In Near Eastern belief Ishtar steals the ‘mes‘ (something not dissimilar to Pandora’s Box, full of both good and bad elements of civilisation) from Enki. So, it should also be no surprise that in Laconia, Aphrodite was worshipped as a war deity.

But what is interesting is how she is transformed – both by Classical Greece and later reworkings under Julius Caesar or Francis Dashwood. What we need to keep in mind is that, if Helen of Troy was a real individual, in her Bronze Age world she knew of plenty of deities – some familiar like Artemis, Zeus or Hermes; others less so: Qerasia, Marineus, Diwia – but almost certainly not this one!


Venus and Aphrodite (Hardback)
Venus and Aphrodite to be published in Nov 2019
Available now on pre-order
Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore (Paperback)
Also available and highly recommended
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Cychwyn arni
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