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Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Mythology

Foreword


The ancient Greeks held a deep appreciation for beauty, which permeated every aspect of their culture. From art and literature to philosophy and religion, beauty played a central role in shaping their worldview and values. The aim of this series is to provide insights into the historical and cultural context that shaped ancient Greek ideals of beauty. Examining the ancient Greek perspective on beauty helps to gain a deeper understanding of its influence on Western civilization and its enduring impact on contemporary culture.


This series of articles delves into the concept of beauty in classical Greece, exploring how it was defined, valued, and represented in various domains of ancient Greek life. Drawing on both primary sources and academic secondary sources, it aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the role of beauty in Greek society and culture. Moving beyond the realm of arts, the series explores how beauty was perceived and valued in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in the works of Plato and Aristotle. It also examines the role of beauty in ancient Greek social life and religion, including the worship of gods and goddesses associated with beauty, such as Aphrodite and Apollo.


This 101 series is divided into six articles, including:


6. Beauty as an Idea in Ancient Greece 101: Beauty and Mythology


Beauty and Mythology in Ancient Greece


In the rich tapestry of Ancient Greek mythology, a vibrant world unfurls, weaving together gods, goddesses, heroes, and grand narratives that mirror the values and beliefs of the Greeks. Amongst these intricately interwoven threads, the concept of beauty emerges as a profound and captivating motif, igniting the imagination of those immersed in these timeless myths. Beauty in Greek mythology transcends mere physical appearance, encompassing realms of spirituality, intellect, and metaphysics. It is a multifaceted notion that finds its manifestation in the revered gods and goddesses, who stand as paragons of perfection, embodying the intricate layers of this perceptual phenomenon. Within the divine beings, the ancient Greeks discovered a wellspring of inspiration and aspiration. This exploration ventures into the pivotal role of beauty within ancient Greek mythology, delving into the myths and poetic compositions that celebrate alluring characters or revolve around the profound understanding of aesthetic appeal. By drawing upon an array of literary sources, including the timeless works of Homer, Hesiod, and the lyric poets, these ancient tales are brought to life once more. Through the poetic interpretations found within these texts, invaluable insights are gained into how allure was perceived, cherished, and sometimes even feared within the vast cultural landscape of ancient Greece. By meticulously analysing these myths and incorporating the interpretations provided by renowned scholars of classical studies, this discourse aims to shed light on the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of beauty as it manifests in the realm of ancient Greek mythology.


The gods were revered as the epitome of beauty and perfection. They embodied a divine aesthetic that surpassed mortal standards. The concept of beauty in Greek mythology extended beyond mere physical appearance and encompassed qualities that were considered godlike. The term "godlike" was used to describe individuals who possessed a beauty so extraordinary that it was reminiscent of the gods themselves. It signified a divine radiance that emanated from within, incorporating not only physical features but also spiritual, intellectual, and metaphysical qualities. The gods' beauty was seen as an ideal to aspire to, and it served as a source of inspiration and admiration for the ancient Greeks. Their divine splendour was regarded as the pinnacle of aesthetic excellence, and to be called "godlike" was to be recognised as possessing a beauty that transcended the mortal realm. As a customary practice, the epithet "godlike" was primarily reserved for heroes and rulers, symbolising their exceptional qualities, features, and status (Homer, 1924, 4.85; Aeschylus, 1926, 633). It served as a testament to their extraordinary attributes and distinguished them from ordinary mortals. However, within the context of Homer's Odyssey, there exists an occurrence where Teireseias bestows the title of "godlike" upon Penelope, the faithful and resilient wife of Odysseus (Homer, 1919, 11.117). This portrayal of Penelope as a "godlike wife" emphasises her remarkable virtues and unwavering devotion, aligning her with the divine realm. It highlights her exceptional beauty, wisdom, and unwavering loyalty, qualities that are reminiscent of the gods themselves. This exceptional usage of the epithet demonstrates Penelope's elevated status and underscores her significance in the epic narrative.

Figure 1: Apollo Belvedere (Leochares, 4th century BCE).

In the realm of ancient Greek mythology, where deities reigned over diverse facets of human existence, commanding awe and fascination, Aphrodite emerged as an indomitable and enchanting force, incorporating beauty and, more specifically, beauty that inspires sexual attraction. Her domain extended to the realm of eroticism and sensual pleasure. With her irresistible allure and formidable presence, Aphrodite wielded immense power, captivating the hearts and igniting the passions of both gods and mortals alike. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite (1914, 5), the divine goddess of beauty emerges as a captivating and potent entity capable of arousing profound sexual desire. As depicted in the hymn, she possesses the ability to manipulate the deepest emotions and actions of both gods and mortals, instigating profound infatuation and igniting uncontrollable passions. Her influence transcends the boundaries of free will and social status, ensnaring the hearts of her chosen targets in a web of irresistible attraction. This mesmerising power is exemplified in the narrative of the hymn, where Aphrodite herself falls victim to her own enchantments, succumbing to a passionate liaison with Anchises, a mortal who becomes the father of Aeneas. The poet, whilst praising Aphrodite for her unmatched beauty and enchanting charisma, also presents a cautionary perspective, attributing to her the responsibility for stirring discord and turmoil among both gods and humans. As Ann Bergren, a distinguished scholar specialising in Greek literature and literary theory at the University of California, Los Angeles, elucidates in her insightful analysis of the hymn (2008), Aphrodite's purpose lies in the creation of illusions and fantasies, weaving a complex tapestry of "false things like to real things" (pseudea homoia etumoisin) that bewilder, beguile, and ultimately entrap those under her irresistible spell.


The goddess of love and beauty has been the subject of extensive exploration in ancient religious traditions. Her representations in various forms have been noted for their dynamic and fluid nature, capturing different dimensions of her divine power and personality. Depictions of Aphrodite can be found in diverse contexts, such as her temple at Paphos, where worshippers revered her in the form of a conical stone, and in the renowned statue at Knidos sculpted by Praxiteles, which presented her as a nude woman, emphasising the aesthetic and sensual aspects of her nature. The role of Aphrodite in Plato's Symposium further highlights her multifaceted existence, as she is portrayed in two distinct forms: Aphrodite Urania, associated with spiritual and intellectual love, and Aphrodite Pandemos, associated with physical and sensual love. These representations of Aphrodite had a profound impact on the perception and expression of erotic desire, gender identity, and appeal within the ancient Greek culture. The exploration of Aphrodite's appearances provides valuable insights into the intricate interplay between mythology, art, and society, illuminating the complexities of her divine presence and her enduring influence on ancient Greek civilisation (Kenaan, 2010).

Figure 2: Aphrodite surprised as she bathes (Roman copy of a Hellenistic original, 2nd century CE).

Beauty has been also recognised as a potent force that ignites the flames of love, influenced by the enchanting presence of the goddess Aphrodite. The tale of Pygmalion vividly portrays this dynamic relationship between beauty and love. Pygmalion, renowned for his mastery as a sculptor, meticulously carved a statue of unparalleled allure and grace. This statue, so flawless in its appearance, emerged as the epitome of perfection. As Pygmalion beheld the astonishing beauty of his creation, an overwhelming sense of attraction enveloped him, gradually transforming his admiration into an all-encompassing love (Ovid, 1922, 10.243). This mythic narrative underscores the profound impact of beauty, capable of forging deep emotional connections and awakening the most fervent passions within the human heart. The story of Pygmalion serves as a timeless testament to the transcendent power of aesthetics, blurring the boundaries between the realm of artistry and the realm of human emotions. Moreover, it evokes the innate human yearning for idealised forms of love and the ceaseless pursuit of beauty as an inherent and cherished aspect of the human experience.


Another patron of beauty who is treated as a goddess in several sources (Nagy, 2016), Helen of Troy, possessed an appearance that was unmatched and widely celebrated, believed to be bestowed upon her by the gods themselves. Her lineage traced back to Zeus, the king of the gods, and she was either the daughter of Leda, the queen of Sparta, or Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Helen was also the sister of the twin heroes Castor and Pollux, and the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta. Renowned for her physical allure, Helen's beauty extended beyond the superficial. She captivated hearts with her grace, charm, wisdom, and eloquence. Her name, meaning "the shining one" or "the torch," evoked associations with radiant light. In an intriguing version of her story, Helen was not taken to Troy but instead to Egypt, where she was held captive by the shape-shifting King Proteus, who possessed the ability to glimpse the future. Another interpretation suggests that the Helen present in Troy was a phantom created by Hera or Hermes, emphasising the divine nature of her beauty and the desire to spare her from the horrors of war (Nagy, 2016).

Figure 3: Menelaos pursuing Helen (The Syriskos Painter, circa 480 BCE).

Within the ancient myths and legends surrounding Homer, the blind poet who sang of the Trojan War and its heroes, the theme of beauty's power recurs. One version speculates that Homer lost his sight due to the overwhelming brilliance of Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, who appeared to him in a vision adorned in his formidable armour. An alternative account suggests that Helen, offended by Homer's portrayal of her as an adulteress who abandoned her husband Menelaus for Paris, invoked her wrath and caused the poet's blindness. Gregory Nagy, a prominent scholar in classical studies and comparative literature, argues that these myths illustrate the potency of poetry to visualise mythical events and that Homer's blindness symbolises his poetic vision. Nagy draws support from various sources, including the Vita Homeri, Plato's Phaedrus, and the poetry of Stesichorus, whilst also exploring comparable myths that depict poets being punished or rewarded for their depiction of mythological figures. Nagy contends that these myths reveal both the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of poetic creation in ancient Greece (Nagy, 2016). In both versions, Homer's blindness is attributed to a luminous brilliance emanating from a celestial source, which implies beauty, whether it be the gleaming bronze armour of Achilles or the resplendent countenance of Helen. This luminosity can be viewed as a symbol of the poetic genius that inspired Homer to compose his epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which exalt the triumphs and tragedies of the war and its aftermath. Rather than a punishment, Homer's blindness is portrayed as a gift, signifying his connection to the divine realm of heroes and gods. It also grants him the ability to perceive beyond superficial appearances, uncovering the profound meaning and significance beneath. His poetry transcends mere imitation, serving as a creative interpretation and an expression of his vision of beauty and truth.


Certain myths surrounding beauty in ancient Greek mythology take on an etiological nature, with some being linked to the realm of flowers. One such myth is the story of Adonis, captivatingly entwined with the goddess of love, Aphrodite. Upon witnessing Adonis while he hunted in the woods, Aphrodite became enamoured by his unparalleled beauty, prompting her to conceal him in a chest entrusted to the queen of the underworld, Persephone. However, even Persephone was unable to resist Adonis's allure, leading to a dispute between the two goddesses. Ultimately, Zeus intervened and decreed that Adonis would spend a third of each year with Aphrodite, another with Persephone, and the remaining portion with whomever he chose. Opting to stay with Aphrodite, Adonis revelled in her affection and lavish gifts. The myth takes a tragic turn when Adonis meets his demise during a hunting expedition, attacked by a wild boar. Despite Aphrodite's swift attempt to save him, her efforts were in vain, and she sorrowfully sprinkled his blood with nectar, giving rise to the anemone flower as a poignant symbol of their ill-fated love. Stricken by the loss of her beloved, Aphrodite implored Zeus to grant Adonis six months of life each year, creating the cyclical pattern of his death and resurrection. This myth not only exemplifies the intertwined nature of beauty and tragedy in Greek mythology but also highlights the profound association between beauty and the natural world, symbolised by the anemone flower. Through this narrative, the ancient Greeks sought to explain the origin of the flower and contemplate the ephemeral essence of beauty, as well as the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth (Cyrino, 2010).

Figure 4: Aphrodite and Adonis (Aison, circa 410 BCE).

Another tragic tale linked to beauty in mythology is found in the story of Narcissus. A poem discovered amongst the manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, housed at Oxford University, which appears to pre-date all other known versions, provides fresh insights into the myth. In this newly found poem, Narcissus's exceptional beauty captivated not only Echo and other females but also countless men. However, his excessive self-absorption led him to spurn all his admirers, leaving behind a trail of heartbreak. Eventually, a rejected suitor sought divine intervention to deal with Narcissus. The punishment imposed was for Narcissus to perpetually gaze at his own reflection in a pool of water, intensifying his infatuation with himself as he stared. According to the Roman poet’s Ovid account, Narcissus wasted away and died from a broken heart, transforming into the world's first narcissus flower. However, the earlier version reveals a darker, more violent ending to the myth, indicating that Narcissus met his demise through bloody suicide. It is believed that this story served as a cautionary warning about the potential consequences faced by attractive young men who rejected the advances of elders (Keys, 2004). Both versions of the myth demonstrate that beauty served not only as a tool for enhancing a character's status or justifying actions and events but also as a means of education and social influence in ancient Greek mythology.


The story of Marsyas offers a multifaceted exploration of beauty within mythology, allowing simultaneous consideration of several aspects of the concept. It begins with the goddess Athena throwing away the aulos, a flute-like instrument, as its playing caused her face to appear distorted, with puffed-up cheeks undermining her divine beauty. However, the discarded aulos is discovered by Marsyas, a satyr who diligently practises and becomes a masterful player, showcasing the transformative power of skill and dedication. As Marsyas excels in his musical prowess, he dares to challenge Apollo, the Musagetes (leader of the muses), whose realm encompasses the beauty of art and mastery. This aspect of the myth emphasises beauty as a competitive and comparative attribute, with individuals striving to surpass others in their artistic abilities. Marsyas' audacity to challenge Apollo highlights the desire for recognition and the pursuit of excellence as integral components of beauty. However, the myth also serves as an educational story, as Marsyas suffers a brutal punishment following his defeat in the musical competition with the deity (Apollodorus, 1921, 1.4). This cautionary element prompts reflection on the potential consequences of challenging established norms and authorities, reinforcing the importance of humility and respecting the boundaries set by divine figures.

Figure 5: Satyr Marsyas (Roman copy of a Greek original, 3rd century BCE).

The alluring nature of beauty within myths often concealed a potent source of danger, affecting both those who possessed it and those who fell under its spell. Throughout ancient tales and legends, beauty was portrayed as a seductive force capable of manipulating individuals into committing deeds they might otherwise avoid. The concept of kalon-kakon, which means "the beautiful-evil thing", is a recurring theme in ancient Greek mythology, especially in relation to women. According to Hesiod, the first woman, Pandora, was created by Zeus as a punishment for humanity after Prometheus stole fire from the gods. She was endowed with various gifts from the gods, such as beauty, grace, and cunning, but she also brought with her a jar containing all the evils of the world. When she opened the jar, she unleashed these evils upon humanity, leaving only hope inside. Pandora is thus an example of kalon-kakon, a woman who is both attractive and destructive, a source of pleasure and pain. Many other female characters in Greek mythology can be seen as manifestations of kalon-kakon, such as Helen, Medea, Clytemnestra, and Phaedra. These women are often portrayed as beautiful and desirable but also as causes of war, murder, betrayal, and tragedy (Meehan, 2017).


Beauty was often the reason for the desire that led to the abduction of beautiful heroes in myths. The exploration of abduction, rape, and marriage in ancient Greek mythology, however, unveils the pervasive use of these violent acts as tools to assert male dominance and uphold social order, particularly over women and marginalised groups. Historians Lydie Bodiou and Michel Briand, within their analysis of the myth of Persephone (2015), present a comprehensive examination of how ancient authors and artists employed abduction as a metaphor for sexual initiation and the transition into marriage. This seminal work serves as a paradigmatic example of how these themes were not merely fictional constructs, but also historical realities that reflected the patriarchal values and power structures deeply ingrained in ancient societies. Bodiou and Briand delve into the multifaceted nature of abduction, rape, and marriage, shedding light on the diverse perspectives offered by different genres and periods. In doing so, they challenge and subvert the dominant discourse surrounding these acts, revealing the complex interplay between power dynamics, gender roles, and societal expectations. By dissecting the role of beauty in abduction, the authors highlight its dual nature as both a source of allure and danger. Beauty becomes a potent symbol, capable of evoking divine favour or wrath and influencing the dynamics of resistance and consent.

Figure 6: Rape of Persephone (Circle of the Darius Painter, circa 340 BCE).

Beauty in ancient Greek mythology emerges as an all-encompassing and multifaceted concept that permeates every aspect of human existence. It functions not only as a subjective aesthetic quality but also as a powerful tool employed to emphasise the divine nature of characters and phenomena, to inspire love and desire, and to convey moral and educational lessons. Beauty was intricately woven into the fabric of Greek mythology, playing a pivotal role in shaping narratives and eliciting profound emotional responses. Throughout the mythological tales, beauty is portrayed as an inherent characteristic of the gods and goddesses, elevating them above mortal beings. The sublime beauty of these divine figures serves as a reminder of their superior nature, evoking reverence and awe in the minds of mortals. Moreover, beauty acts as a powerful catalyst for love and desire, stirring the hearts of both gods and mortals alike. It possesses the capacity to ignite passionate emotions and forge deep connections between individuals, with multiple tales showcasing its ability to inspire devotion, infatuation, and even tragic consequences. However, beauty in Greek mythology also serves as a cautionary tool for education. The stories of Marsyas and Narcissus narrate the potential dangers and consequences associated with beauty. They warn against hubris and the misuse of this potent force, urging individuals to exercise caution and humility when dealing with such power. Ultimately, beauty in ancient Greek mythology intertwines with every thread of the mythological tapestry, leaving an indelible mark on the characters, events, and moral lessons conveyed.

Bibliographical References

Aeschylus. (1926). Aeschylus in two volumes (H.W. Smyth, Trans.). 1. Persians. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0012:card=633&highlight=godlike


Anonymous. (1914). The Homeric hymns and homerica (H. G. Evelyn-White, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0138%3Ahymn%3D5


Apollodorus. (1921). Apollodorus. The library. In 2 Volumes (J.G. Frazer, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0022:text=Library:book=1:chapter=4


Bergren, A. (2008). Weaving Truth: Essays on Language and the Female in Greek Thought. Hellenic Studies Series 19. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies. Retrieved from http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_BergrenA.Weaving_Truth.2008


Bodiou, L. & Briand, M. (2015). Rapt, viol et mariage dans l’Antiquité gréco-romaine: L’exemple de Déméter et Korê [Abduction, Rape and Marriage in Ancient Greece and Rome: The Example of Demeter and Kore]. Dialogue, 208, pp. 17-32. https://doi.org/10.3917/dia.208.0017


Cyrino, M. S. (2010). Aphrodite. Gods and heroes of the ancient world. London: Routledge.

Homer. (1919). The Odyssey (A.T. Murray, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0135%3Abook%3D11%3Acard%3D117


Homer. (1924). The Iliad (A.T. Murray, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0134:book=4:card=85&highlight=


Kenaan, V. L. (2010). Aphrodite: The goddess of appearances. In A. C. Smith & S. Pickup (Eds.), Brill's Companion to Aphrodite, pp. 29-50. Leiden: Brill.


Keys, D. (2004). The Ugly End of Narcissus. BBC History Magazine, 5(5), p. 9. Retrieved from http://www.papyrology.ox.ac.uk/POxy/news/narcissus.html


Meehan, D. (2017). Containing the kalon kakon: The portrayal of women in ancient Greek Mythology. Armstrong Undergraduate Journal of History, 7. https://doi.org/10.20429/aujh.2017.070202


Nagy, G. (2016). A variation on the idea of a gleam that blinded Homer. Classical Inquiries. Retrieved from https://classical-inquiries.chs.harvard.edu/a-variation-on-the-idea-of-a-gleam-that-blinded-homer/


Ovid. (1922). Metamorphoses (B. More, Trans.). Boston: Cornhill Publishing Co. Retrieved from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0028%3Abook%3D10%3Acard%3D243


Shakeshaft, H. (2019). Beauty and the gods in Archaic Greece [PhD thesis]. University of Oxford.

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