At first I thought that Aphrodite was one of those women - you know, brain dead and beautiful? She got herself (and others) into enough trouble! But she was also far more than that. Women and men turned to her for aid to ease their longing; she was seen as gentle, fierce, pure, whorish, unpredictable, complex, fickle, steadfast, beautiful ... you get the picture. Love, to the ancient Greeks, was not a fluffy bunny emotion; it often clouds your judgement, gnaws at you, and just plain hurts. Aphrodite was not even immune to that herself (see her relationship with Anchises, among others). I said this would be quick, so I'll finish up with a few more important facts: she was born from the foam on the sea (read more), married to an ugly nice god but slept around with a gorgeous jerk of a god (read more), and could be quite involved in the lives of mortals (see Paris and Helen, Pygmalion and Galatea, and Meliboea, to name a few). She also had a girdle that made her smokin' hot and she sometimes lent it out.
When you think of Aphrodite, you probably think of the painting at the right - Botticelli's beautiful white-skinned red-headed goddess sailing to shore on a shell. He got it as right as can be expected, but the truth was, there was more than one story of her birth. The most well known has to do with the first part of her name: "aphro" (it means foam), and it's mostly the one we all think about as "the real story" - try to keep in mind though that there really isn't just one correct version. So without further ado, the story of Aphrodite's birth (according to Hesiod, a Homeric Hymn, and Pausanias).
Wayyyyyyyy back in the day, there was this dude named Uranus (Heaven). Now, Uranus wasn't such a great guy. He was totally harsh to his kids and his wife, so it wasn't much of a surprise when they turned on him. Gaia (Earth), his wife, sent their youngest son Cronus against his father, armed with a sickle. So, as Cronus was throwin' his dad out of heaven, he castrated him with the sickle (we are talking some serious daddy issues). The blood from Uranus' genitalia fell into the sea, and caused a foam upon which the beautiful Aphrodite was born. She was blown to the island of Cythera and then went on to Cyprus (thus explaining a couple of her names below) with Love and Desire accompanying her (this is slightly confusing since other myths say that she gave birth to Love later, but don't worry your head about it!). As she arrived on the shore, she found the Horai (Seasons) there waiting for her dancing around like beautiful dorks. As she stepped off her pillow of foam onto the sand they clothed her in golden robes and jewels and led her to Mount Olympus. It's worth mentioning that Cyprus maintained the largest cult of Aphrodite, based on her apparent "birth" there, and she was particularly big in Paphos.
The second most popular story is the one described and alluded to by Homer (in the Iliad), Apollodorus, and Euripides (in Helen). It says that Aphrodite is not so parentless as she seems, her mother's name is Dione and her father was Zeus. This creates a couple of problems when Zeus decides he wants to sleep with her, but not for long. Not a whole lot of pretty details on story two, but I did warn you.
There are also stories that ascribing parentage to Uranus (Heaven) and Hemera (Day). And even another story that said that she was the daughter of Euonyme and Cronos. Euonyme may sound new to you. That's okay, she was new to me, too. Robert Bell says that she is an epithet of Gaia. So another Earth connection. But then Carl Kerenyi says that Euonyme is just a corruption of Eurynome (the Oceanid and Creatrix). Then there's the version that makes her an Oceanid. Try to believe all of them at once, if you can.
I'm still working on this part. Trust me, there's a lot of them. She slept with both gods and mortals - but tended to prefer the former - except in the case of Adonis, but you can find that whole story in the Myth Pages. It's a story that everyone should know, as it is still referred to by "educated people." There was also her relationship with Ares, with Hermes, with Poseidon, with Zeus, and with Dionysus, with a little minor water deity named Nerites. In addition to Adonis, there was the unfortunate fling with Anchises, the lucky Boutes, and the young Phaon and Phaethon. She had a number of children from these unions, in fact, she bore children to most everybody except her husband. To Ares she bore Phobus (Fear), Deimus (Dread), and Harmonia, To Hermes she bore Hermaphroditus, the counterpart of Androgyne (there is more about them here). To Dionysus she bore Priapus - who had huge genitals given to him by Hera in disapproval for Aphrodite's promiscuity.
Some of her affairs were hilarious and some were tragic, and some just nice. I will try to remember to come back and fill in some more details when I get a chance.
Marriage for upper class women in ancient Greece wasn't so much about the love, and this was just as true for Aphrodite. When Hephaestus got mad at his mommy, Hera, for throwing him off Olympus and crippling him, he tricked her into imprisonment in a golden throne. Zeus, the dutiful husband, offered up his ward Aphrodite to whoever let Hera out. Aphrodite was pretty sure Ares would be able to do it (he wasn't). When Hephaestus came back and released her himself, she was stuck with him. Sort of. It's tough to make a goddess do what she doesn't want to do.
Homer tells the story of how Ares wooed her with gifts and flowers (plus he was certainly more attractive than the lame Hephaestus). They started sleeping together, mostly in Hephaestus' bed. But Helios (the Sun) saw through the window that they were getting it on and went straight to tattle to Aphrodite's husband. Well now, he was a master craftsman - the God of such things in fact - so he made a trap with a golden net to catch them in delicto flagrante. It worked and they were caught in the act. Hephaestus, pissed off like nothing, called all of the gods to witness (and laugh their butts off at) their shame. Hephaestus got his bride-gifts back, and Poseidon (the sea god) convinced him to let the couple go (they were off like a shot in different directions). That was Aphrodite's only marriage. Well, almost the end. Hephaestus gave Harmonia, Aphrodite's daughter from the affair, a cursed necklace that screwed all of her descendants (see Semele, Agave, Ino, etc.)
Aphrodite is more complicated than most Greek myth summaries give her credit for. That said, she does have her moments - like the one about Aphrodite's work ethic. You see, the Fates alotted Aphrodite one divine duty, and one only: to make love. Perhaps sex got old for her, perhaps she had a headache, who knows, but one day Athena found her at a loom. Athena immediately complained that her territory was being violated, and threatened to abandon the loom and everything that went with it. Aphrodite, not wanting to be stuck with too much to handle, apologized profusely, and never did a day of work after that. But that is NOT all there is to this Goddess. More later, but I need to mention that she was also the patron goddess of prostitution.
~Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, translated by N. S. Gill~
I will sing of stately Aphrodite, gold-crowned and beautiful, whose dominion is the walled cities of all sea-set Cyprus. There the moist breath of the western wind wafted her over the waves of the loud-moaning sea in soft foam, and there the gold-filleted Hours welcomed her joyously. They clothed her with heavenly garments: on her head they put a fine, well-wrought crown of gold, and in her pierced ears they hung ornaments of orichalc and precious gold, and adorned her with golden necklaces over her soft neck and snow-white breasts, jewels which the gold- filleted Hours wear themselves whenever they go to their father's house to join the lovely dances of the gods. And when they had fully decked her, they brought her to the gods, who welcomed her when they saw her, giving her their hands. Each one of them prayed that he might lead her home to be his wedded wife, so greatly were they amazed at the beauty of violet-crowned Cytherea.