Aphrodite and Anchises

Published June 2, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

(The lead-in to this myth can be found here.)

It didn’t take Hermes long to find the right mortal for their purposes.  The descendants of Dardanos were well-known for their beauty, and the difference in fortune between the ruling and non-ruling branches of the family were considerable.  But even the least powerful branch of the family was still of noble birth, and their descent from Zeus himself made them paragons among mortals.  When he reported his selection back to the others, he found his father to be particularly pleased by the choice, though of course he wouldn’t explain why.

Consequently, the plan was soon put into action.  Hermes approached Aphrodite, who gave him a narrow-eyed look of disgust.

“Go away,” she told him.  “I’m not letting you touch me again.”

Hermes repressed a grimace.  Why was she so opposed to him, anyway?  The mortal girls all found him irresistible — well, almost all of them did, anyway.  “I’m here on business,” he assured her.  “Father wants you to see something down in the mortal realm.”

“Really?”  Aphrodite stood up, adjusting the gown that clung to her curvaceous frame, revealing everything it covered.  “Why?”

“He didn’t say,” Hermes replied, with a grin.  “You can ask him if you want?” he added, knowing very well what her response would be.

She sighed.  “Better to get it over with.  Just show me whatever it is already.”

Hermes nodded, and began leading her down below to the mortal realm, to Dardania, not far from mighty Troy.  They came to a stop near the home of Anchises, who was just returning to his domicile, having been in negotiations with a potential husband for his daughter, who had just entered the marriageable age.  Anchises, a cousin of King Priam in Troy, was a handsome man of middle years, still dark-haired, but despite his rank he also had the dark skin of someone who spent far too much time out in the hot Anatolian sun, as he often had to tend to his herds himself, lacking the funds to hire someone trustworthy enough to do it for him, and lacking a son who could take on the responsibilities.

“What does Father want me to see here?” Aphrodite asked, looking around in confusion.  There was nothing around that called for the attention of the goddess of love, after all.

When Aphrodite’s gaze was fixed on Anchises, Zeus put their plan into action.  He had been watching his children from Mt. Olympos, and now he threw the arrows he had taken from Eros, just in the manner he normally threw thunderbolts.  They flew truly, and struck Aphrodite in the back, sending her reeling forwards, both from the impact and from the sudden and overflowing love she now felt for Anchises.  (If you’d like to consider this the origin of the term ‘thunderstruck,’ I shan’t stop you.)

Hermes watched, laughing quietly to himself, as Aphrodite preened herself carefully, then approached the home of Anchises.

The mortal man was amazed when he opened his door and found himself confronted by the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.  She introduced herself as a princess from a far-off land, brought to his door by Hermes to be his wife.

It didn’t make any sense to Anchises, but he wasn’t about to complain about it, either!  He had been a widower for a number of years now, and was quite eager to take this beautiful young woman as a new wife.  In fact, he couldn’t quite bring himself to wait for a formal wedding feast, and decided that a few promises in the bedchamber would suffice.  (There was little more involved to a marriage, in truth, than those promises.  The feast was more to let others know about it.  And Anchises couldn’t really afford to give a feast anyway.)

By the next morning, some of the effects of the arrows had already worn off of Aphrodite — they were her own power, after all — but she still couldn’t fight off the feeling of affectionate desire for Anchises.  (She had already been attracted to him even before the arrows hit her, really.)  She continued on living there as his wife for many months, long enough to become aware that she was pregnant, and to see that her step-daughter’s new marriage was not a happy one.

It bothered her to see the girl so unhappy, because Aphrodite knew it was her own fault:  because she was thus being remiss in her duties, there was no one to make mortals fall in love.  In the usual course of events, she would have sent her son Eros to ensure that every maiden fell in love with her husband on their wedding night, to prevent tragedies, and to make the maidens happy with their new, less fortunate lot in life.  But Eros was a lazy little brat, and wouldn’t work unless his mother made him, so all the maidens who had gotten married since Aphrodite had begun her dalliance with Anchises hadn’t been made to fall in love with their husbands.

“How much do you want Hippodameia to be happy?” Aphrodite asked Anchises one day.

“Of course I want my daughter to be happy,” he replied.  “What sort of question is that?”

“I didn’t ask if you wanted her to be happy,” she corrected her mortal husband.  “I asked how much you wanted her to be happy.  Would you be willing to risk — or even lose — your own happiness for hers?”

“What are you saying?” Anchises asked.  He had some inkling of what she was asking, but he couldn’t imagine how his pregnant bride could be capable of such things.

“I can make Hippodameia fall in love with Alcathoos,” Aphrodite told him, “but if I do so…you and I will no longer be able to live together as husband and wife.”  She could never allow Eros to see her living as a wife to a mortal man!

Anchises sighed, wondering if delusions could be a side-effect of pregnancy.  “How could you possibly do that, my dear?”

For a few moments, Aphrodite hesitated.  She knew he would never even believe her unless she told him the truth, but as soon as she did tell him…she risked the most utter humiliation.  But Anchises’ face was beginning to take on that terrible smile:  the smile of a man about to patronize a woman not because she’s wrong, but because he thinks she can’t be right.  That sort of smile had never bothered her before, but before it had not been aimed at her.  (Mortal women being patronized didn’t bother her in the slightest.  Unlike two of her sisters…)

So Aphrodite shed her disguise, and appeared before Anchises in all her divine splendor.  “I am not the mortal girl you took me for,” she told him, “but the goddess Aphrodite.”  The disbelief in Anchises’ eyes soon gave way to desire…and to pride.  “If you ever tell anyone my true identity, my father will make you suffer for it!” she promised him.  Her dignity was worth far more than her love for any mortal man!

“Of course I’ll never tell anyone,” Anchises promised her.  “I just…this is a little overwhelming…”

“I’m sure it is.  But now you see the dilemma before you?  I cannot use my power to make your daughter fall in love without abandoning you as a wife,” she told him.  “Which will it be?  Will you continue to make yourself happy in my bed, or will you make your daughter happy?”

“I…I…there must be another way!” Anchises insisted.  “Why can’t you make her fall in love without leaving me?”

“It simply doesn’t work that way,” Aphrodite sighed.  “Now which will it be?”

Anchises had to look away from his divine bride.  He didn’t want his daughter to be unhappy, but he couldn’t stand the idea of losing the wife he had fallen so completely in love with.  “Let me talk to Hippodameia,” he said.  “Maybe I can convince her to find happiness without needing your intervention.”

Aphrodite nodded, resuming her mortal disguise.  “Try your hardest,” she told him.  “You do have some time, in any case.  I can’t return to Olympos while I’m carrying a mortal child.”  Her father and brothers certainly had it easy!  They were only committed for a single night to make a child, yet she had to carry hers around for nine months, risking humiliation the entire time!

Anchises had many long talks with Hippodameia and Alcathoos, trying to encourage them to find love with each other.  By the time Aphrodite gave birth, he thought he had succeeded, and as he first held his infant son in his arms, Anchises thought he would have this perfect life forever.

But by the time of the naming ceremony, ten days later, Anchises’ happiness came crashing down about his ears.  The ceremony had just finished when Hippodameia arrived, looking distraught.

“You don’t have to be so upset,” her father told her.  “I’m not upset that you missed the ceremony.  And I’m sure young Aineias here doesn’t know the difference,” he added, gesturing to the sleeping infant with a laugh.

But Hippodameia’s unhappy state had nothing to do with the naming ceremony.  She burst into tears and wailed that her husband was the most awful man in the world, and that she would be the most wretched creature to live if she was forced to remain with him.  He had told her she was no good, she reported, and threatened to strike her if she didn’t behave herself, and on and on her list of complaints went.

In the end, Anchises, holding his crying daughter in his arms, turned to his divine bride, tears coming to his own eyes as he did so.  “There must be something you can do…” he said to her.

“There is,” Aphrodite assured him, “but you know the cost.”

Anchises looked down at his daughter, and sighed sadly.  “Yes, I know the cost,” he replied, “and if that is how it must be, then…I will pay it.”

Aphrodite smiled, and leaned in to give him a kiss on the cheek.  Then she picked up her son, and walked to the door.  “I will return Aineias to you in a few years’ time,” she told him, then she left the house they had shared, never to return.

Shedding her mortal disguise, Aphrodite called to her son Eros, and told him that he had been slacking terribly in his duties, giving him such a stern lecture as he had never heard before — a tongue-lashing worthy of Hera, in fact.  Setting Eros off to do his duty — starting with making Hippodameia and Alcathoos fall so madly in love with each other that they would never again be unhappy — Aphrodite returned to Mt. Olympos with her infant son.

No matter how she raised him on ambrosia, however, Aphrodite soon realized that Aineias was hopelessly mortal.  He would age and die just like his father.  It was a bitter realization, but she knew she wasn’t alone in such unpleasantness:  Eos and Thetis were both the mothers of mortal children, too, and would suffer the same tragic fate as Aphrodite, watching their sons wither and die.

Within a few years, Aphrodite returned Aineias to Anchises, letting him be raised by his sister Hippodameia, as well as by nymphs that Aphrodite sent by periodically to see to it that the boy had the best life possible.  And she often sat on the slopes of Mt. Ida, watching her son grow.  (Whenever she did so, of course, her other son again slacked off on his duties.  For that reason, many men found that their wives never did fall in love with them.  Some of those men, like Agamemnon, came to regret the idle nature of Eros…)

Zeus, too, was keeping an eye on things in the region of Troy.  For despite that it had been his idea to punish Aphrodite in this manner, he didn’t want people to know that Aphrodite had taken a mortal husband.  True, young Aineias knew that his mother was the goddess Aphrodite, but it was only right that the boy know his own begetting.  It was the rest of the people around holy Ilios who needed to be kept ignorant.

And for many years they remained ignorant.  But then one year Anchises was at a feast in Troy, listening to everyone else boast about the fine lineages of their wives, of how well they weaved, of how well they ran the household, and — of course — how beautiful they were and how talented in the bed chamber.

The boasts of his fellows ate at Anchises, and he turned to wine to suppress his own desires to brag about the mother of his son.  But the more inebriated he became, the harder it was to silence his tongue.

So when one of the other men chuckled at the mysterious and absent mother of Aineias, Anchises could keep silent no longer, and he told them the whole tale of how he had been approached by Aphrodite herself, and how he had lived those months with a goddess in his bed.

He had hardly finished speaking when a bolt of lightning flew down from the sky and struck him down.

Zeus had intended to kill him with that thunderbolt, but Aphrodite had tugged at his arm and disrupted his aim:  instead of being killed, Anchises was lamed, never again able to stand unaided.

King Priam’s young son Helenos — gifted with divine sight — informed them that this thunderbolt was not a punishment for a lie, but a punishment for telling a forbidden truth.

From that day on, Anchises was pitied for his lameness, but envied for having bedded a goddess, and everyone in the entire Troad soon knew that young Aineias was the son of Aphrodite.  Gossip began to spread that surely he would be married to one of Priam’s daughters — as indeed he eventually was — and that he would be preferred above all of Priam’s many sons to be the next king.

The question is, when (if?) I get to the Trojan War, am I going to go with the early Greek version, in which Aineias and his sons rule over a rebuilt Troy, the later Greek/early Roman version in which Aineias/Aeneas goes to Italy with Trojan refugees and his sons by a local wife are the ancestors of the Romans, or the Julian/Vergilian version in which Aeneas goes to Italy and his purely Trojan son becomes the ancestor of the Julian emperors?

The latter is the best known (thanks to the Aeneid) so I’m inclined to go with one of the others.  Probably the first one, since it’s the one in the Iliad.  (Well, okay, technically it’s just implied, and only in one line, but still!)


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