A celebrity goddess and, perhaps, a tragic figure. As one of Greece’s leading deities, Aphrodite has served as the epitome of class and glamour. Yet a recent discovery sparks doubts. The upcoming publication, A Duty for Beauty, assembles Aphrodite’s lost diary entries to tell hitherto hidden tales of jealous retributions, psychological experimentations, and abused lovers. With exclusive excerpts from the book, Vanity Fair’s society editor, Francesca Pinder, delves into the myth of Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
She was created from the sea’s foam and carried ashore on a scallop shell. With indescribable beauty, she has attracted a cult following. Indeed, men and women alike covet Aphrodite. Whilst some affairs are fleeting, others have featured more prominently on her amorous landscape. At the top of her list of lovers: Adonis, a mortal created at Aphrodite’s own hand. Thanks can be given to Aphrodite’s ego and King Cinyras’ daughter for Adonis’ existence. After giving the goddess some heavy competition in the beauty department, a jealous Aphrodite incited incestuous relations in the Cyprian’s family. His daughter became pregnant and Adonis was the result. Quickly taken by his beauty, Aphrodite took him under her wing. What were Aphrodite’s motives? A rare show of maternal instinct, or a magpie keen to keep the glittering Adonis for herself? The myth’s avid followers have heavily scrutinized Aphrodite and Adonis’ relationship for proof of love amidst lust. But the diary’s discovery put any romanticized version of the story into jeopardy. In the public eye, she has maintained a high standard among Greece’s inner circle. But does this archive expose a goddess who is perhaps lacking in divine qualities?
The diary entries focus on tales of a strip club, Chaos Kitchen. On the face of things, it appears that Adonis worked here as an exotic dancer. But Aphrodite insinuates that this establishment was created for specific purposes – a setting for her psychological experiments. It seems that Aphrodite tested theories concerning the manifestation of sexuality and the erotic in male bodies. With Adonis as her test subject, she would document visitors’ comments about him and his presence there. In one entry she writes:
“Chaos Kitchen aims to be the ultimate man cave. Visitors will pass through the threshold to be greeted with raw animal magnetism and masculine sexuality… and Adonis will be the captain of this ship (I hope). From the first gaze, I sensed the unhampered macho energy that he wields. Alas, I must test my theory. What is the epitome of “man”…. do any of us really know?”
Initially, Adonis seems to exemplify what she and her visitors – in this case, Renaissance sculptor Antonio Canova – consider to be “man”:
“I welcomed Antonio Canova to Chaos Kitchen. Together we swooned… how Adonis carries the Charles Atlas seal of approval! As he prowled towards us, flashes of naked flesh divulged the muscular physique lurking beneath his apron. Canova described Adonis as having a “slim but well-muscled torso, with elegant symmetry of form”. As we were guided along a trail of pancakes, Adonis added more pancakes to the mix by throwing them to the ground with considerable force. The strength and power he seemed to radiate… only an impulsive drop into a lunge aroused us from our reverie. As Adonis snaked against a wall, his eyes never lost contact with mine. Antonio was as taken by his rugged presence charm as I am… In fact, he has declared Adonis as the muse for his latest sculpture. Oh sins of the flesh – erotic nightmares beyond any measure, and sensual daydreams to treasure forever.”
Yet, her hypothesis is challenged by the English playwright William Shakespeare. In a diary entry that details his visit, Aphrodite notes how Adonis could not be firmly categorized as ‘masculine’.
“Adonis has always seemed to be such a perfect specimen of manhood. So… dominant. But after William visited Chaos Kitchen (he has always had a penchant for the erotic), I’ve started having doubts. He described Adonis as “the field’s chief flower, sweet above compare, stain to all nymphs, more lovely than a man, more white and red than doves or roses are”. It took me a while to grapple with his poetic verse, but he seemed to see womanish qualities in Adonis – love poetry has made a habit of landing lustful gazes on women. Yet William made Adonis the object of desire. He spoke of how Adonis danced: sporadically bending over and exposing his buttocks; masking his face with his apron before snapping upright to face us. His dissected body parts guided his gaze so he couldn’t see Adonis as just a man. I guess that being in the kitchen setting boosted the feminine as well. The boy likes to cook goddammit.”
Shakespeare manages to upset her virile expectations for Adonis: as his gendered state is scrutinized, the diaries highlight Adonis’ ambiguity. Whilst it appears that Aphrodite had hopes to nurture Adonis as a masculine icon, theorist Dani Cavallaro had her focus elsewhere:
“Dani Cavallaro came by Chaos Kitchen today. Like William, she didn’t just see rugged manhood in Adonis. In fact she was more pre-occupied with the club itself. She told me that the inanimate objects there didn’t “literally look at us. But we know that we are meant to look at them in certain ways, depending on their contexts”. Adonis always seems to be covered in flour in Chaos Kitchen (his cooking skills are great, but there’s a lot to be desired in the cleaning department). I remember Adonis pushing himself up into a handstand and violently thrusting upside down as his breath became increasingly erratic. I have always seen Adonis as a human body and flour as a food object. But thoughts of bodily substances sprang to mind as I watched the flour coat Adonis’ naked flesh. Dani commented, “faeces, urine, menstrual blood, semen, nail pairings, spittle, sweat exist inside and outside the body. We are unable to allocate these substances to one definite place”. I guess it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives us insane.”
The intentions behind Aphrodite’s experiment are unclear. As Aphrodite’s plaything, Adonis is not treated as her equal, but as a pawn. What incited such callous behaviour in a goddess of love? Perhaps the public comparisons of herself and King Cinyras’ daughter prompted an eager bid to prove she was more brains than beauty. By conducting this experiment, she could develop sexuality as a field of research and boost her status as a sex symbol beyond aesthetics. But what if her actions were not so earnest? Despite her academic intentions, her gushing scribbles reveal an emotive investment in the project. So were her actions driven by jealousy and fuelled by misandry? Aphrodite is often defined by her title as the goddess of love and beauty. But the fundamental traits that we have come to recognize her by have been shaken: the beauty of another made her question her own, and the harsh treatment of Adonis is out of sync with the loving tendencies she is renowned for. Starved of love, but spurred by lust: Aphrodite, are you misguided or a just a goddess gone wrong?