The Garden of Aphrodite or a Cypriote cult place

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Along the walls there were palms, laurel-trees and an olive-tree. From the entrance you could smell sweet scented lilies, lavender and anemones, myrtle and fragrant herbs, such as rosemary and thyme. Ivy-leaves were trailing on the walls of the forecourt. On a bench the visitor could relax and listen to the sound of waves from the sea and to the birds singing in the trees. He did not have access to the enclosed area, where there were plenty of statues and statuettes in limestone and terracotta.

In the middle a big terracotta bowl with sacred water. There the priestesses had to wash their hands before entering the sanctuary. And there she appeared – behind one of the life-size sculptures. A tall dark-haired maiden, with a wreath of fruit and leaves on her head. She was wearing a chiton, heavy jewellery and was rather made up. The priestess was arranging the votives and the other gifts from the visitors and then she moved aside.

Some years ago, a quite unusual exhibition, or rather installation, was arranged at Medelhavsmuseet. I had always wanted to produce an exhibition, which would attract all the five senses of the modern visitor. The meaning of religion, ancient  (and modern) people’s relations to their gods and the physical aspect of their rites are age-less subjects. But it had to be presented in such a way that the visitor would be attracted and inspired to new thoughts and questions.

Since Medelhavsmuseet has the most important collection in the world, outside Nicosia, of Cypriote antiquities, it seemed quite natural to try to reconstruct the idea of an open-air Cypriote sanctuary. The storerooms are crowded with all kinds of sculpture, originally set up in the Cypriote sanctuaries as votives.


The exhibition was not a reconstruction of an ancient sanctuary. Rather, the intention was to give the visitor an idea of a Cypriote rustic sanctuary ca 2500 years ago.

In the middle of a large room in the museum, we built a rather high wall enclosing the ”fore-court” of a fictitious sanctuary, where there were sculptures of limestone and terracotta representing Cypriotes of both sexes. Originally, they were all votive offerings in ancient sanctuaries at Kition, Mersinaki and Vouni and are dated to the 6th-4th centuries BC. Some of them (young men, brandishing a club and dressed in a lionskin) might represent the Phoenician god Melqart-Herakles. The Greek goddess Athena is reproduced behind a chariot group with four horses.

Trees, flowers and herbs, all of the same kind that existed in ancient Cyprus, surrounded our “forecourt”. We know that plants and herbs played an important part in the cults and they also had a symbolic meaning in mythology. Birds and incense were also important elements in the cult.

The typical sanctuary of the Iron Age in Cyprus combined a walled temenos  (open court) with small cult buildings (often with sacred trees) and altars. The votives or offerings to the deity were often kept in the court, close to the altar.


From the earliest periods the principal deity was the great Mother Goddess and the worship of a fertility goddess always remained supreme in Cyprus. She was identified above all with Aphrodite, who was already described as "the Cyprian" by Homer and Hesiod. Her sanctuary at Old Paphos was the chief religious centre of the island and famous throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. The early Greek writers call her Aphrodite, while dedications in other sanctuaries in Cyprus in the sixth century BC name her simply "the Paphian".

Cypriot gods included a principal male deity and various local gods, including one of the woodlands (Hylates) and another of music. The Phoenicians introduced their own deities. Of their pantheon, there is documentary evidence in Cyprus for the worship of the goddess Astarte and the gods Baal, Reshef, Mikal and Melqart. Statues of a male figure dressed in a tunic covered by a lionskin, brandishing a club and holding a lion, are reminiscent of both the Phoenician Melqart and the Greek Herakles. In Cyprus he may have been called Reshef or Apollo.

There is no firm evidence that the worship of Greek deities was established in Cyprus before the fourth century BC. At this time too, Cypriot and Phoenician gods and goddesses started to become identified with Greek deities. The Cypriot Hylates and the Phoenician Reshef both became identified with the Greek Apollo. There were many local cults of Apollo in Cyprus.

In the 7th-5th centuries the sanctuaries were hives of activity. Here the gods were believed to reside and even participate in the sacred banquets accompanied by ritual dancing celebrated in their honour. The priests wore animal masks, animals were sacrificed, libations were offered and incense burnt. The offerings included many statues and statuettes of limestone and terracotta, which the devotees believed, acted as substitutes for themselves as continuous worshippers. Some idea of the deity may be gained from the dedications: in the sanctuaries of gods statuettes of horsemen and chariots are common, while in those of the fertility goddess bearers of offerings, mostly women, worshippers with upraised arms and musicians predominate.

Myths associated with the cult of vegetation exist in most of the Mediterranean cultures, but derive from the Near East. This myth is all about life, death and resurrection and was made substantial through ritual acts. The aim of these was to guarantee the continued existence of mankind and nature. In Cyprus the youth Adonis was a god of vegetation, with power over nature. He was also the lover of the great Mother Goddess, who was later called Aphrodite. Every year they were united in a sacred marriage; a ritual act which was performed in the temple of the goddess. The king acted as the God of vegetation, while a priestess symbolised the Goddess.


The museum guards in the exhibition also acted as guides, able to speak about mythology, archaeology, ancient rituals and also something about flowers, herbs and trees. The guides were mostly female, dressed in copies of ancient costumes and jewellery from the museum shop. The exhibition was open for several months, from May until October 1995, and it became a great success. Unfortunately, the Swedish climate was not a success to the Mediterranean trees and herbs, and many of them withered down during the autumn. The poor olive-tree lost its leaves and the palm-tree died. On the other hand, the laurel-tree put forth many shoots and seemed to like the climate. The sound of the sea-waves and of the singing birds came from a tape-recorder, well hidden behind the flowers. From the Museum of Natural History, we borrowed some suitable and stuffed birds of Mediterranean origin. There was a very special atmosphere in the exhibition room. Many visitors sat down for hours, enjoying the scent from the flowers and the restful sounds from the sea. Some of them started to put their own votive offerings in the fore-court, when they noticed that the guides had put offerings of, f ex, dried pomegranates, eggs painted in red colour and dried flowers.

When the exhibition had come to an end, four of the six female guards had become pregnant. The blessing of Aphrodite?

 Marie-Louise Winbladh

Former curator of the Cyprus Collections