Mutilating goddesses: Aphrodite in Late Antique Aphrodisias

Recently I participated in a conference in Germany, entitled “Prehistoric and ancient goddesses.”  My interest was in violence towards goddesses’ images, particularly Christian attacks on pagan divinities.  I focused my paper on how the citizens of Aphrodisias in southwestern Turkey eradicated the cult of Aphrodite, and in so doing transformed the visual landscape of their city.  Aphrodisias’s rich archaeological and epigraphic record, and the prominence of Aphrodite there, made this a useful case study for the dissolution of a pagan goddess’s cult in late antiquity.

Early Christian attacks on pagan cults and images have recently attracted considerably scholarly attention.  Debate has focused on the extent of these attacks, and the range of attitudes Christians had towards pagan artifacts.  What has not been addressed in these discussion, however, is the dimension of gender.  In my paper, I asked questions such as:  in what ways were pagan goddesses treated differently than their male counterparts?  What forms might attacks on their worship take?  And were certain goddesses particularly problematic?

My paper argued that, while in theory all pagan deities were anathema to Christians, in practice Aphrodite was particularly targeted for attack.  This was due to her visual form — her erotic charm, her frequent nudity — and to her divine ‘personality,’ especially her concern with erotic desire and sexual love.  In consequence, Aphrodite’s cult and images attracted particularly violent responses, not only in Aphrodisias but in other Late Antique towns also.  Her sacrifices were banned, her statues mutilated, and her temples torn down, or converted into Christian churches.  Such treatment testifies to the dangerous power of Aphrodite for adherents of the new religion; it also offers illuminating insights into the transformation of the Late Antique city in the transition from paganism to Christianity.