Aphrodite, goddess of fertility and sensual pleasure, was born from the foam of the sea at Petra tou Romiou. In Cyprus she was passionately worshipped.
The earliest inhabitants settled along the shores of the island. They were farmers and hunters who worshiped an earth goddess, often depicted as a woman with upraised arms, naked with marked sexual features or as a female with her hands over her breasts, and sometimes as a seated goddess holding a child upon her knees.
Figurines and statuettes found in tombs, sanctuaries and private houses, show the development of the fertility goddess through the ages. Of note is a statuette from Lempa of the goddess of fertility in the shape of a cross. She was joined by a nude goddess, Kipris (dea Cypria) closely tied to the Egyptian Hathor, the Assyro-Babylonian Ishtar, and the Syro-Palestinian Astarte.
Mycaenean settlers in Cyprus
Mycaenean or Archaean (Greek) traders from the west introduced their culture and their beloved goddess, Aphrodite. During this prosperous period the great kingdoms of Salamis, Curium, Amathus and Palaepaphos were established. Kipris, now pronouncedly worshipped in the southwest, soon became assimilated by Aphrodite. Sacred gardens at her shrines inspired notorious orgies and festivals to ensure health and fertility. She became the protectress of royal dynasties, agriculture and sailors. From her name comes the term “aphrodisiac”.
The Sanctuary of Palaepaphos
A great sanctuary to Aphrodite was built in Palaepaphos, not far from her birthplace. Aphrodite was not represented in human form here, but as a conical stone idol (like the sacred pillars of Canaanite peoples), which was anointed with oil during festivities. Rulers of the Kinyras dynasty served as kings and high priests until the Ptolemaic era. After catastrophic earthquakes a new city and temple were built further west – Nea Paphos.
As the Achaean Greek settlements became more powerful, resentful Paphians migrated east to settle in Amathus taking Aphrodite with them. A magnificent sanctuary was built on the acropolis. Alexander Hislop in “The Two Babylons” mentions a colossal stone vase from this temple, decorated with fertility symbols, which was taken to the Louvre in 1865. In 22CE the Roman Senate established the right of asylum for Aphrodite’s principal sanctuaries in Paphos and Amathus.
Phoenician religion in Cyprus
Phoenician traders from the east settled mainly in Kition (SE). The Phoenician Astarte absorbed the Cyprian fertility goddess. Cypriot deities now had Phoenician names. Shrines to Aphrodite-Astarte and Melkart-Baal were built in Palaepaphos.
Arsinoe Ptolemy Philadelphus
Cyprus came under the control of the Ptolemies of Egypt who, like the Pharoahs, deified themselves. Arsinoe, wife of Ptolemy Philadelphus became identified with Aphrodite and was worshipped as Arsinoe-Kipris in NW Cyprus until 2 CE.
The Island of Venus
The domination of Cyprus by the Ptolemies came to an end with Cleopatra’s death, and the island came under the jurisdiction of the Roman Senate. Roman coins of the period are engraved with a representation of the sanctuary of Aphrodite in Palaepaphos. Known to the Romans as Venus, her cult on the island drew pilgrims from all over the Roman Empire.
They would gather at Yeroskipou (Greek: Hieros-Kipos, Sacred Garden) for the spring festivities dedicated to Venus. Accompanied by music, a procession of men and women with garlands on their heads led by the royal couple, made its way to her temple to perform mystic rites featuring sacrifices of virginity and religious prostitution. In return for offering the goddess a coin, worshippers were given a phallus (fertility) and a lump of salt.
By the 4th century CE, however, basilicas were erected on many temple sites. Ancient votive customs and festivities, thinly camouflaged and “christianised”, continued to be celebrated however. Many popular customs at Easter, as well as the Festival of Kataklysmos held fifty days later, have their roots in those ancient festival rites to Aphrodite. There they remain firm at the core of Cypriot life down to this day.