Aphrodite (Venus in Roman mythology) is known best as the Greek goddess of love, one of the twelve Gods who lived on Mount Olympus. In truth, she is not only a goddess of love but also one of sexual desire, eroticism, and female power. Origins of the goddess likely date to the Semitic goddess Ishtar or Astarte, and her reign in Greece may have begun with worship of her among the Phoenicians.
Many who study the emergence of the Greek gods and goddesses suggest that nomadic and conquering tribes tended to bring their particular god or goddess to an area and then create a relationship between their god (usually a storm or weather god) with the local goddess. This accounts for Zeus’ many extramarital affairs with local mother or harvest goddesses. Aphrodite’s origin is somewhat different, because she was likely a central goddess, Ishtar/Astarte absorbed gradually into Greek lore.
Though Zeus is the ruler of Mount Olympus, Aphrodite’s relationship to him is as an Aunt. While Zeus was the son of Cronus, Aphrodite is in a peculiar way, the daughter of Uranus. She is said to have emerged from the foam in the sea caused by Cronus’ castration of Uranus. This makes her somewhat superior to, or at least on equal standing with Zeus, but she defers to him, or is given special province over love, beauty and eroticism.
She does not hesitate, however, in disregarding her own marriage to Hephaestus, the black smith of the Gods, and brother to Zeus. In fact she is aligned consistently with Ares and has a continued affair with him. In one telling, Hephaestus discovers the affair and creates a netted trap to catch the two lovers, which succeeds. The Gods all then appear to laugh at Aphrodite and Ares in a very compromising position.
In Greek mythology, Aphrodite is often viewed as capricious and tricksome, perhaps like sexual love itself, a thing not exactly trustworthy. She is the cause of the Trojan War. When she competes with Hera and Athena to be named the fairest goddess, as judged by Paris, she promises him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world. Unfortunately this woman is Helen, who is already married. She delivers on her promise, which dooms Troy.
You will find numerous depictions of Aphrodite in both modern and ancient art. Perhaps the most recognizable of all is the Botticelli 15th century work, The Birth of Venus, where the goddess is viewed rising naked from the sea on an open clamshell. In many artistic renderings, whether painted, drawn or sculpted, Aphrodite is depicted sans clothing. As such, she represents the sexual freedom and unabashedness, for which she was either praised or censored.