Most everyone has some basic understanding of the Greek gods. Usually it involves either Disney's Hercules or Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, and maybe (if they've taken classics in college) they'll mention that Zeus was a freak.
Then there's Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and love. I was curious as to western and European depictions of the ancient goddess, so I did a quick google search. Just one simple question: "What does Aphrodite look like?" The most popular result was Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," showcasing the heavenly woman in an over-sized clam and with cascading blonde hair. I also saw a lot of Halloween costumes draped across stick thinned and big-breasted women.
Now before I continue I should warn you: this piece is not about beauty standards as epitomized by the way we remember ancient gods.
This piece is about Cyprus, though. My mother's island, and Aphrodite's mythical birthplace.
Cyprus: A Brief Introduction
Europeans know Cyprus by one village: Ayia Napa. It's a holiday destination for the party-crazed teen and twenty-something year old who likes clear blue seas, copious amounts of alcohol, and vomiting on the steps of what used to be an Orthodox-Christian monastery. It's a particularly popular destination for British expats who affectionately call my family "cyp bastards" and who visit my grandmother only to tell her--as she's placing plates of food in front of them--that Cypriots need to learn how to build "proper houses". They show some familiarity with "The Cyprus Problem," which is the 40+ years of Cypriot division into a self-proclaimed republic occupied by Turkish forces in the north, and the predominantly Cypriot-Greek south. Some tourists take the division as an opportunity to show-off their Islamophobia while others ignorantly talk to locals about the conflict with dangerous flippancy.
Americans know even less. In my area of New York, there's a healthy handful of Greeks and Cypriot-Greeks so some people have heard of the island from their neighbors and friends; but when I lived in Baltimore I found myself continually describing Cyprus by its location.
"Yeah it's kinda near Egypt and Syria and Turkey, and it's culturally pretty similar to Greece but not at the same time and..."
One time I was having dinner at a friend's house while her grandfather was visiting. They're a thoroughly American family, unable to trace their family back to one or two European countries and instead could resort to "I'm 1/35th English, 7/432nd Finnish, 2/31sts German and my ancestor was Pocahontas." Besides the fact that I was thoroughly weirded out by the early dinner (4pm?????), I had to navigate her grandfather's questions. I kind of expected them. I have thick, curly hair and it was summer so I was tanner than usual and my name is common in Hispanic communities. People often ask me where I'm from. Joys of being ethnically ambiguous.
"My dad was born in Greece, and my mom's from Cyprus."
"Cyprus?! Wow! What a place to be! It's so dangerous there right now. I hope none of your family is still there?"
Cue Lena's confusion.
I tried to laugh it off and correct him. The political climate is more exasperation than anything, but Cyprus is incredibly safe an--
"Nope! I heard it's chaos there right now!"
I wondered if maybe he'd misheard me and thought I'd said my mother was from Syria. I emphasized the correction, but he shook his head.
"I heard you. It was Cyprus alright. Chaos! Absolute chaos!"
My friend and her cousin apologized to me after dinner, but I was more bewildered than offended. How little did people honestly know about Cyprus, and if they had heard of it, what information did they have? More time on google gave me questions like, "Is Cyprus Asian?" "Is Cyprus Middle East?" "Are Cypriots white?" (For the record, Cyprus is geographically in the Middle East, occasionally considered part of the Levant by some scholars, politically part of the European Union, and its people are considered white.)
I've attached a video below of some average looking Cypriots (or...well...the hippie musician Cypriots who took advantage of an empty village square to play some traditional instruments during a music festival).
The Island That Took My Family
I've spent almost every "major" birthday of my youth in Cyprus. My first, my third, my thirteenth, my sixteenth, my eighteenth, and my twentieth. But the first real memories I have of the island are from when I was eleven. I hadn't been in eight years, and the only reason I went was to visit my godmother, who had recently moved back to our village after being born and raised in New York. She's my mom's sister, and she taught me how to Greek dance; she taught me traditional Cypriot dances too, taught me at the age of four to dance the tsifteteli--a leftover belly dance from our Ottoman days.
She'd moved when I was ten, had taken my cousins too. It'd only been one year, and I missed her.
I remember looking out the window of our rental car that first night. I remember looking at the half-hung moon, tired after a fifteen hour trip that included two planes and a four hour layover. I remember glaring at the sparse, drought-stained earth and blaming the desperate land for taking my family away.
I remember crying when I saw my godmother and my cousins. I remember crying when I had to say goodbye. I remember holding my little cousins in a tight hug and crying when I said goodbye the next time I'd visited, and the next, and the next, and when they visited me in NY, and when I'd said goodbye this past Thursday too.
This most recent trip felt particularly poignant. It was filled with almost every cliche you could imagine:
I was running from my home's and future's emotional demands; there was a long-lost relative we reunited with via a road-trip; the women of my family passed by the 'Petra tou Romiou' (Aphrodite's famed birthplace); there was an outsider who offered sage-like advice from his isolated mountain-escape; and I helped my younger cousin move into an apartment for University.
Maybe this isn't a story for a blog. Too long. Too filled with the winding twists of familial history and cultural nuance. Not to mention the parts of the story that are not mine to tell.
But I'll try...
Aphrodite: The Goddess of Love and Beauty
I used to hate Aphrodite as much as I hated Cyprus for taking my family.
According to myth, she was born out of Uranus' testicles when they'd been cast into sea-foam, making her a Titan yet missing a mother. Aphrodite herself actually has two forms: the Celestial and the Pandemos, the latter of which is the supposed inspiration of love for all women. Nice to know that the goddess of love for women didn't have a mother...
She's an ageless, perpetual beauty whose most famous stunts include adultery and the Trojan War. Growing up, I never liked her much. If a myth involved Aphrodite, it usually ended with some lesson about the follies of capricious feminine weakness. In a way, she was simply a manifestation of every evil assigned to women. "Inspiration of love for all women"--and apparently why that love is foolish.
I tried to do some more digging only to discover that myth never gave her a childhood. She rose from the sea-foam at the Petra tou Romiou as a voluptuous adult, and, as a result, myth stole from her a past.
But I know this isn't fair. There has to be more to her than ill-tempered jealousy, than a series of sexual advances and a narrative controlled by men.
My desire to learn more was precisely what led to this matriarchal, family road-trip...
"Jo, I've never visited the Petra tou Romiou...can we go?"
My aunt glanced at me from the kitchen, where she'd been helping my grandmother crack olives. I'd just gotten off the phone with my mom, who wasn't doing well back at home, and my fingers kept weaving themselves over each knuckle.
"Sure," my aunt had said, eyeing my restless hands. She had also spoken to my mom. "Actually--when Rena gets here-- maybe we could go to these yurts I was looking at."
"Sounds like an adventure." Shakily, I'd smiled.
My aunt had smiled back.
"It will be."
From guides to rants.