Remains of an ancient cult to the goddess of love have come to light in the southern Golan Heights site of Susita

At the site, on a 350 meter-high-plateau overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Kinneret, archaeologists found a cache of three figurines of Aphrodite (whom the Romans called Venus), dating back about 1,500 years. The figurines, made of clay, are about 30 centimeters tall. They depict the nude goddess standing, with her right hand covering her private parts - a type of statue scholars call "modest Venus."

According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite was born of the ocean foam at the place where the testicles of the Titan Uranus were cast into the sea by his son Cronus, who castrated him. According to another story, she is the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods. Aphrodite was a popular goddess, represented in statues all over the Greek and Roman world. The best known of these is is the Venus de Milo, on display at the Louvre.

The figurines at Susita were unearthed in the excavations of the University of Haifa's Zinman Institute of Archaeology, now in its 10th season, headed by Prof. Arthur Segal and Dr. Michael Eisenberg.

Many statues and figurines of Aphrodite have been uncovered over the years. One, from marble, which became known as the Venus of Beit She'an, was uncovered in 1993 in the baths of that ancient city.

"Aphrodite was the goddess of love, but also the goddess of fertility and childbirth," Segal says. "Pregnant woman hoping for a safe birth would sacrifice to her, as would young girls hoping for love. Mainly, flowers, rather than animals, would be sacrificed to Aphrodite. The figurines we found were made in a mold in rather large numbers. They would be offered to the goddess in a temple by supplicants, or kept above one's bed," Segal said.

Another special find at Susita is an odeon - a small, roofed theater-like structure with seats for about 600 people, uncovered for the first time in Israel, according to the excavators. They said such structures were fairly common in the Roman period and were used for the reading of poetry and musical presentations to a select audience, in contrast to theaters, which could seat around 4,000 people.