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Aphrodite's arc in Xena: Warrior Princess
The Xena & Hercules universe introduced a wide array of mythological characters to TV viewers of the mid-'90s. Though they didn't always adhere to the legends of old, these takes on old stories remain some of the most influential of the modern era. Among them, Aphrodite, the goddess of love, is one of the very few characters to have played equally influential roles on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.
In her early appearances, Aphrodite is just as mean and spiteful as any of the rest of the gods and lashes out against humanity for even the smallest perceived slights. As time went on, though, her blood ties with Hercules and her warm friendship with Iolaus, Gabrielle, and Xena showed us a different side to the god of love entirely. Specifically, Xena: Warrior Princess was a show full of evolutionary arcs among its main cast as well as its recurring characters, and Aphrodite did more work on herself than most.
The Early Days
Like most Xena characters, Aphrodite first appeared on Hercules. In the season 2 episode "The Apple," she is introduced to us as a highly immature, extremely jealous goddess of love. She, Athena, and Artemis pull an unsuspecting Iolaus into their beauty competition. A mischievous Aphrodite grants Iolaus the fabled Golden Apple, which will make anyone he chooses fall madly in love with him. This is, of course, just one of her many schemes, and Iolaus soon figures a way out of it, which annoys her to no end. By the next time she shows up in "Love Takes a Holiday," she has decided to completely retire her role as a love god due to her own boredom. She attempts to become "goddess of the hunt!" but can't shoot a bow. When a boar charges her, she screams and runs.
Though her mythological partner Hephestus does appear occasionally and the two pledge their love for one another, Aphrodite is not the kind to be beholden to one man alone, even if he happens to be a god. In most of her ensuing appearances, she's apparently single, surrounded by a bevy of scantily clad men. Though Aphrodite does make a lot of her appearances in lingerie, never let it be said that she wasn't an equal opportunity nudist. When she dresses others, from Gabrielle to her new followers, she generally insists on belly shirts and fringe. What can we say? The girl had a look.
Forming Friendships and Learning Lessons
Of all the gods, Aphrodite was consistently the one that had the most in common with humanity, though that wasn't always a good thing for her. While the other gods felt destructive and vindictive towards people, Aphrodite took on a much more forgiving air. She felt that the politics of Olympus were overall boring and useless and that the gods were out of touch with the people they were meant to serve. Aphrodite was the god most dedicated to her role and despite her frivolity, she took her position as the deity of love seriously.
That isn't to say that she wasn't prone to her own overreactions from time to time. She attempted to ruin her son Cupid's marriage due to her own displeasure at the idea of becoming someone's mother-in-law. She used the bumbling Joxer multiple times in her schemes by putting him under any number of spells. She even once gave Gabrielle's pen magical powers that brought her words to life, reigning terror upon the countryside before Xena made her change things back to how they were. Despite this, she slowly became close with Xena and Gabrielle, and they learned that they could rely on her to do the right thing, even if they had to guilt-trip her to do it.
Aphrodite was a prankish god, and most of her appearances revolved around her either getting herself into trouble due to her own vanity or simply stumbling into a problem she couldn't find a way out of. Still, there's some pretty serious stuff in her story arc, too. When Ares, the god of war, lost his powers, Aphrodite retained hers but began acting erratically due to her need for a counterbalance. She flailed and acted out, and Xena ultimately had to come to her aid because of the level of chaos she caused. The emperor Caligula discovered how to use this to his advantage and destroyed hundreds of lives with help from the power he absorbed from her. Xena did murder him for his trouble, but this told us that Aphrodite's relationship with her powers was always a lot more complicated than we could have foreseen in her early days.
It's Where You End Up That Counts
Though Aphrodite caused him many problems and annoyed him to no end, it's important to note that her brother Hercules was still quite fond of her and understanding of her impetuousness in a way that he did not extend to the other gods. This is much the same for Xena, who later spared Aphrodite from the Twilight of the Gods, an event she partially orchestrated in which many of them died. For her part, Aphrodite put her immortality on the line to help Xena and Gabrielle, even standing up to her intimidating sister Athena and drawing a line in the sand between herself and the others. This action would go on to have serious consequences for Aphrodite, but she refused to budge, showing us, at last, a woman of courage, capable of standing by her convictions.
Aphrodite remained a fun and silly character through much of these series, but there was a note of genuine sympathy and remorse from her in later appearances. Once shallow and obsessed with obtaining more followers to appease her own pride, she grew more introspective with time. In Xena's sixth season episode "Many Happy Returns," a confused young woman glommed onto Aphrodite and began dressing and acting much like the goddess of love. When Xena tried to dissuade her from this path, Aphrodite looked at her and shrugged. "It's true, we gods really aren't all we're cracked up to be." This level of self-awareness would have been unheard of in her early days, and it showed a level of growth that few of the gods saw throughout these series.
It may have been tempting for writers to put Aphrodite in a box and define her via unfavorable feminine stereotypes like jealousy and vanity, but this was a character who was always way more interesting than that. By allowing Aphrodite to grow, create friendships, learn, and change, the creators gave us one of the underrated greats of the Xenaverse. Actor Alexandra Tydings did excellent work adding dimensions and bringing life to a character that could have easily been a bad trope. Instead, Aphrodite was a true highlight of both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.