In Greek mythology, Adonis was the personification of male beauty. Although a mortal by birth, after he was killed he was deified and worshiped as a god of death and rebirth, especially in relation to the seasons of the year.
In the most widely known version of the myth, Adonis was the son of Theias, king of Assyria. The goddess Aphrodite had driven the king's daughter Myrrha, or Smyrna, into an incestuous love for her father. Myrrha went to the king's bed in the dark, concealing her identity, and Adonis was conceived as a result. Theias was horrified at what he had inadvertently done and wanted to kill his daughter. However, Aphrodite was overcome with guilt about her involvement in the deceit, so she mercifully changed the girl into a tree that afterward bore her name: the myrrh.
Adonis was miraculously born from the tree that his mother had become. He was incredibly beautiful, and Aphrodite fell in love with him at first sight. She saved Adonis from Theias by placing the child in a carved chest and putting him in the care of Persephone, the goddess of the underworld. However, Persephone, too, was smitten by the beautiful boy—an attachment that never ended. She refused to give him back to Aphrodite, and the two goddesses had a furious quarrel. Zeus was called on to judge their rival claims. He ruled that the boy must spend one third of the year on earth with Aphrodite, one third of the year in the underworld with Persephone, and the other third in any manner he chose. Adonis spent his free time hunting.
Aphrodite had warned Adonis against hunting, but he was a headstrong young man who paid her no heed. Instead, when his dogs had cornered a wild boar, he hurled his spear at the animal, hitting it in the side and maddening it to the point of attack. The boar dislodged the spear with its snout and pursued the fleeing Adonis. When the animal caught up with the young man, it buried one of its tusks in his groin. As Adonis lay bleeding to death, Aphrodite heard his pitiful moans and turned her swan-drawn chariot in their direction. She took up his mutilated body in her arms and declared that every year a memorial ceremony would be held to honor her beloved, and that his blood would be turned into the flowers of spring. The anemone bloomed at her command; it was a short-lived flower that was almost as beautiful as Adonis himself.
The above is the most familiar account of the Adonis myth. However, the story is complicated, and there are numerous different versions. Even the parentage of Adonis is not always the same. According to the poet Hesiod (fl. 800 BCE), Adonis was the son of Phoenix and Aephesiboea; Apollodorus, a Greek mythographer of the third century BCE, names the boy's parents as Cinyras and Metharme.
Some accounts say that, after Aphrodite had changed Myrrha into a tree, Theias fired an arrow at the trunk, which burst open, allowing Adonis to emerge. Yet another version states that Adonis sprang from the tree after it had been gored by a wild boar—thus bringing together the cause of his birth and his death. In one story, Zeus does not adjudicate between Aphrodite and Persephone, but delegates the task to Calliope, the muse of poetry.
The story of Adonis has different endings, too. In one version, Aphrodite was so distraught by her lover's death that she went to Persephone and begged to be allowed to bring Adonis back from the dead for half the year. Touched by her appeal, the goddess of the underworld relented.
Adonis was not invented by the Greeks but adopted by them from ancient vegetation myths of western Asia. His story first appeared in texts of the 14th century BCE written in Ugaritic, an extinct language of northern Syria. The name itself is a variation of adonai, a Hebrew word meaning "lord" that is one of the names of Jehovah in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Adonis and Aphrodite are thought to have originally been a single entity—the male and female forms of a single deity. Almost as soon as they had been separated into two different deities, however, they were reunited in legend as lovers. This embellishment is similar to—and almost certainly derived from—the story of Astarte, the Phoenician fertility goddess who also had a lover named Adonis. Among other earlier examples of a union between a god and a goddess of vegetation is the marriage of Tammuz and Ishtar in ancient Babylonian mythology. After their wedding, Tammuz was cut down like wheat in the fields. The inconsolable Ishtar sought him out in the underworld and persuaded the goddess of death to return him for half the year.
In Greek mythology, the closest equivalent to the story of Adonis comes from Phrygia, Asia Minor (part of modern Turkey). It concerns Attis, a beautiful shepherd boy, and the mother goddess Cybele. Mad with love, Attis pursued Cybele, who repelled all his advances. In despair, he emasculated himself, and plants grew where he bled. In another version of the legend, Zeus sent a boar that gored him to death. After his resurrection, Attis finally wed the repentant Cybele. The ceremony was later imitated by cultists as a way of giving thanks for the harvest in the fall and praying for the renewal of vegetation in the spring.
Adonis was adopted by the Greeks from the Phoenician civilization of the eastern Mediterranean. This has been established by archaeological excavations at Byblos, an ancient town in modern Lebanon. The nearby Adonis River runs red every year during the spring floods. This effect—which is caused by particles of red hematite that break from the river's bedrock—was said to be the blood of Adonis. Near Byblos was a temple to Astarte that was destroyed in the fourth century CE by Constantine (c. 280–337 CE), the first Christian emperor of Rome. The sanctuary was surrounded by high cliffs, and from a grotto within, it poured a stream that cascaded into a gorge. It was in this gorge that Adonis was said to have died.
Byblos was only a small town when Egypt's Old Kingdom flourished (c. 2575–c. 2130 BCE). It was noted for its sea trade, especially in wood. From the surrounding forests the Phoenicians built ships that plied the Mediterranean and spread their influence throughout North Africa, including Egypt, and southern Europe, including Greece. The chief deity of Byblos was the goddess Baalat: she looked much like the Egyptian cow goddess Hathor, with a disk between her two horns. Baalat's name was kept secret from the uninitiated, lest enemies gained knowledge of it and used it to invoke the deity against the Phoenicians themselves. Her generic name corresponded to the baal, or "lord," of Phoenician villages. One form taken by this divinity was that which became known to the Greeks as Adonis. In another manifestation, baal was Hay-Tau, one of the earliest Phoenician deities, a god of forest vegetation who took the form of a tree, in particular the myrrh tree. He replaced the earlier vegetation gods Aleyin and Mot, whose names appear in Ugaritic texts. The Egyptians conflated Hay-Tau with their own Osiris, who had also been imprisoned in a tree, and whose grieving wife sought him everywhere, just as Aphrodite sought Adonis.
In prehistoric times, Adonis was worshiped at the Adonia festival, where his effigy was mourned and then thrown into the water. From the fifth century BCE, Athenians kept "Adonis gardens" in which they grew plants that could be forced to early growth and then died young, as a parallel to the story of Adonis himself. The ceremony performed at Athens in honor of Adonis featured throwing plants and statues into the sea or into fountains in a form of sacrifice that was intended to increase the harvest.
These rites of Adonis were based on rites for the dead, which go back to prehistoric times when dead ancestors were worshiped in caves and underground stone temples. Women tore their clothes and wept, calling "My lord, my lord" as they paraded through the streets. House fronts bore images of Adonis made of wax or terra-cotta. Dirges were played to the accompaniment of short flutes called giggros. Baskets of quick-growing plants, such as fennel, barley, and lettuce, were set out to denote the transient life of the vegetation god. They wither fast because they have small root systems and are burned by the hot summer sun. Originally, the legend had it that Aphrodite laid the body of her dead Adonis on a bed of lettuce. In later Roman accounts he was mourned by Venus, who placed his body on an imperial bed of silver draped with purple.
The Greeks believed that the spirit of Adonis was present in swine, which were consequently sacrificed to him. Thus victim became conflated with killer, a reflection of the fact that life and death are part of the same continuum. In the rites for Aphrodite, references to swine are accompanied by references to Adonis.
Like Aphrodite, Adonis is linked to the myrrh tree, and its oil was used at his festival. Myrrh was also an embalming oil and was given to the infant Jesus by the Magi from the East as a symbol of his mortality—a reminder that he was doomed to die.
See also: APHRODITE; ASTARTE; ATTIS; BAAL; DUMUZI; ISHTAR; PERSEPHONE; ZEUS.
- Theogony and Works and Days. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. , and M. L. West, trans.
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
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