When French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville landed at Tahiti in 1768, he immediately named the island ‘La Nouvelle Cythère’ (New Cytheria) after the birthplace of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love.
The origin of Aphrodite’s name is unknown but according to the poet Hesiod it derived from ‘aphros’ – Greek for ‘foam’ – suggesting her full name meant “risen from foam”. Aphrodite’s Roman equivalent was the goddess Venus. In the most famous version of her myth, Aphrodite floated ashore on a scallop shell, as depicted in Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.
Bougainville’s account of Tahiti portrayed it as a place full of beautiful women, who were free and easy with their sexual favours. The publication in 1771 of his memoirs, Voyage Autour du Monde, followed by the English translation, A Voyage Around the World, in 1772, provided European men with a vision of earthly paradise.
One passage tells of how the Tahitians sent women out to meet the French ships:
“A young girl came on board and placed herself upon the quarterdeck near one of the hatchways, which was open in order to give air to those who were heaving at the capstan below it. The girl carelessly dropped a cloth, which covered her, and appeared to the eyes of all beholder, such as Venus showed herself to the Phrygian Shepherd, having, indeed, the celestial form of that goddess,” Bougainville wrote.
Paintings, such as William Hodges’ 1776 landscape Oaitepeha Bay (above, top), replete with naked women lounging around by the water’s edge, also helped fuel the image of Tahiti as “the truest picture of an Arcadia,” as the naturalist Joseph Banks would later describe it on his arrival in 1769.
Some of the above via Miriam Kahn’s Tahiti Beyond the Postcard.