06 October 2011

Cyprus, Afrodite and the Holy Virgin

A few years back, I had the awesome experience of living in Cyprus for 3.5 years. I loved the small island country, the warm family-oriented people and the ancient history all around us, with about 3500 archaeological sites and dozens of museums tucked in the old medieval streets of all the towns.

Aphrodite (also transliterated Afrodite) is a major figure in the history and culture of Cyprus. It is said that she was born out of the foam of the sea where the Mediterranean crashes against the great rocks of a bay near Paphos, on the western coast of the island.

Note Homer's comment on Afrodite:
"And laughter-loving Afrodite went to Paphos in Cyprus where she has her sacred precinct and fragrant altar."
-- Odyssey VIII 362

Afrodite is a great tourist focus with sites like Afrodite's Bay and Afrodite's baths in the Pafos district. Replicas of the classical figures of Afrodite as well as many of the old Greek gods are sold. The stories of these gods are told in the literature with the same historical tone as other historical stories. It is hard to tell how seriously these are taken.

This focus on the pagan past is surprising in light of the strong Christian identity of Cyprus, and the great struggles of the Christians against their pagan opponents and persecutors until about AD 400. Afrodite's ties with traditional Cyprus is a great money-earner.

Of course commercial interests are the context for much of the reproduction of classical art work representing the ancient Greek religious scenes and characters from the myths.

These ancient "myths" (Greek mythos for "story"), further, are the symbolic history of the Greek peoples. Like other ancient and current oral-relational peoples of the world, the Greeks encapulate and transmit their identity and origins and pre-history in story form.

The story flow and relationships of the characters are in focus, not necessarily (not usually) literal, specific objective "facts" like moderns have come to prefer. Think of Aesop's Fables, and compare with the Germanic Grimm's fairy tales, and stories like Hansel and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood in the Black Forest of Germany.

But such stories convey quickly whole categories of wisdom and truth in story form, notably guidance for life, personal safety or moral values.

Prayer Bows
In Cyprus, bits of cloth are tied to branches and stems of bushes and trees in certain areas, as prayers for fertility (originally, and apparently still so intended). These bows on the bushes were originally prayers to Afrodite, and now are considered prayers to Mary Mother of Jesus (the God-Bearer theotokos). These are found on trees or bushes in church yards, as well as more genral public areas.

As in the rest of the Christian world, other previously pagan celebrations have been reinterpreted into Christan themes. For instance, the annual celebration of Kataklysmos. This originally-pagan holiday also originally honored Aphrodite.

Kataklysmos is now supposed to be a celebration of the deliverance from the Flood (kataklysmos). This is usually celebrated in Cyprus at the same time as Pentecost Sunday, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first Day of Pentecost after Jesus' resurrection. Kataklysmos is celebrated with traditional dances and fairs all weekend and Monday. The most famous venue is the Larnaca seafront boardwalk fair.

Learn more about Cyprus and its fascinating, deep-history culture at these links on my website:
Across the Greek Divide
Cyprus: Notes and Perceptions
Eastern Orthodoxy
Eastern Orthodoxy Presentation
Prayer for Cyprus
History and Art in Cyprus
Italians, Etruscans and Greeks: Genetics and Ethnicity

For More on Cyprus
History of Cyprus
The Church of Cyprus - Official Site
The Church of Cyprus - Religion Wiki
The Church of Cyprus - Wikipedia

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