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The Appealing Adonis Who Enthralled Many Ancient Civilizations

The Appealing Adonis Who Enthralled Many Ancient Civilizations

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In Greek mythology, Adonis is declared as an extremely good looking man. This character is best known as being one of Aphrodite’s lovers. Although the figure of Adonis and the myth surrounding him have become an established part of Greek mythology, its origins are not to be found in Greece itself. Rather, this figure is believed to have been imported from the East. The Greeks adopted the mythical man from the Canaanites, who worshipped Adonis or, more accurately, Adon, as a god. Additionally, the story of Adonis is well-known amongst other ancient civilizations of the Near East, including the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians.

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

In Greek mythology, there are several versions of the Adonis story. Perhaps the most widely known of these is the version found in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In this account of the tale, Adonis is depicted as the product of an incestuous relationship between Cinyras, a king of Cyprus, and his daughter Myrrha. Having committed incest with her father, Myrrha prayed to the gods thus:

“O Gods, if you will listen to my prayer, I do not shun a dreadful punishment deserved; but now because my life offends the living, and dying I offend the dead, drive me from both conditions; change me, and refuse my flesh both life and death!”

Title page of a 1556 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, published by Joannes Gryphius (decorative border added subsequently). Hayden White Rare Book Collection, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Title page of a 1556 edition of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, published by Joannes Gryphius (decorative border added subsequently). Hayden White Rare Book Collection, University of California, Santa Cruz. ( Public Domain )

Myrrha’s prayer was answered, and she was transformed into a tree. It was as a tree that Myrrha, aided by her nurse Lucina, eventually gave birth to Adonis.

Adonis grew into an exceptionally handsome man, and won the love of Aphrodite, as a result of an accident. According to Ovid,

“He wins the love of Venus (the Roman version of Aphrodite) and so avenges his own mother's passion. For while the goddess' son with quiver held on shoulder, once was kissing his loved mother, it chanced unwittingly he grazed her breast with a projecting arrow. Instantly the wounded goddess pushed her son away; but the scratch had pierced her deeper than she thought and even Venus was at first deceived.”

Monument of Ovid by Ettore Ferrari.

Monument of Ovid by Ettore Ferrari. (CC BY-SA 3.0 RO )

Baby’s Beauty Myth

In another popular version of the myth, Aphrodite is said to have been present at Adonis’ birth. Amazed by the baby’s beauty, Aphrodite decided to hide Adonis from the rest of the goddesses, and entrusted him to Persephone, the wife of Hades, and the goddess of the Underworld.

When Adonis grew up, Persephone was so attracted by his good looks that she refused to give him back to Aphrodite. A dispute rose between the two goddesses, and finally Zeus had to intervene. He decided that Adonis should spend a third of the year with Persephone, another third with Aphrodite, and the remaining third with anyone he pleased. Adonis chose to spend this remainder with Aphrodite.

As a result of her obsession for Adonis, Aphrodite forsakes everything else. As Ovid puts it, 

“Delighted with the beauty of the youth, she does not think of her Cytherian shores and does not care for Paphos, which is girt by the deep sea, nor Cnidos, haunts of fish, nor Amathus far-famed for precious ores. Venus, neglecting heaven, prefers Adonis to heaven, and so she holds close to his ways as his companion, and forgets to rest at noon-day in the shade, neglecting care of her sweet beauty.”

Adonis’ Life & Death

Adonis is portrayed in the myths as a great hunter. Although warned by Aphrodite to avoid ferocious beasts such as lions and wolves, Adonis ignored her warning.

Aphrodite and Adonis, Attic red-figure aryballos-shaped lekythos by Aison, ca. 410 BC, Louvre.

Aphrodite and Adonis, Attic red-figure aryballos-shaped lekythos by Aison, ca. 410 BC, Louvre. ( Public Domain )

During one of Adonis’ hunting trips, he encountered a boar, who would bring about his death. In some accounts, the boar is said to have been Ares, who was another of Aphrodite’s lovers, jealous of the attention Adonis was getting from the goddess. Ovid, however, did not state whether the boar was connected to Ares or not,

“As he (the boar) rushed out from his forest lair, Adonis pierced him with a glancing stroke. Infuriated, the fierce boar's curved snout first struck the spear-shaft from his bleeding side; and, while the trembling youth was seeking where to find a safe retreat, the savage beast raced after him, until at last he sank his deadly tusk deep in Adonis' groin; and stretched him dying on the yellow sand.”    

Adonis’ death is not quite the end of the myth. As Adonis lay dying, Aphrodite turned his blood into flowers,

“She sprinkled his blood with sweet-smelling nectar, and his blood as soon as touched by it began to effervesce, just as transparent bubbles always rise in rainy weather. Nor was there a pause more than an hour, when from Adonis, blood, exactly of its color, a loved flower sprang up, such as pomegranates give to us, small trees which later hide their seeds beneath a tough rind. But the joy it gives to man is short-lived, for the winds which give the flower its name, Anemone, shake it right down, because its slender hold, always so weak, lets it fall to the ground from its frail stem.”

Death of Adonis, by Luca Giordano

Death of Adonis, by Luca Giordano. ( Public Domain )

The Cult of Adonis

In the mythology of the Canaanites, Adonis is known as Adon, which means ‘The Lord’. Adonis and Adon share certain similarities as well as differences. For example, whilst Adonis is a mortal, Adon is a god, specifically of beauty, fertility, and renewal.

Adonis and Adon are both connected with goddesses of love, Aphrodite for the former, and her Canaanite counterpart, Astarte, for the latter. Additionally, in both the Greek and Canaanite versions of the myth, Adonis / Adon experiences death. Nevertheless, there is a difference in what occurred after his death. Whilst Adonis’ blood is turned into flowers, Adon is resurrected, an event celebrated in his cult. In The Syrian Goddess , which is traditionally attributed to Lucian, the author wrote that he had witnessed the secret rites of the cult of Adonis at Byblos, and that

“In memory of this calamity (i.e. the death of Adonis) they beat their breasts and wail every year, and perform their secret ritual amid signs of mourning through the whole countryside. When they have finished their mourning and wailing, they sacrifice in the first place to Adonis, as to one who has departed this life: after this they allege that he is alive again, and exhibit his effigy to the sky.” 

Featured image: The Death of Adonis - Museo Gregoriano Etrusco (Vatican). Photo source: ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

By Wu Mingren

References

Atsma, A. J., 2015. Aphrodite Loves 2. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/AphroditeLoves2.html

Greek Myths & Greek Mythology, 2016. The Myth of Aphrodite and Adonis. [Online]
Available at: http://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/myth-aphrodite-adonis/

Khalaf, S. G., 2016. The Myth and Cult of Adonis. [Online]
Available at: http://phoenicia.org/adonis.html

Lucian, The Syrian Goddess [Online]
[Strong, H. A., Garstang, J., (trans.), 1913. Lucian’s The Syrian Goddess .]
Available at: http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/tsg/tsg07.htm

Ovid, Metamorphoses [Online]
[More, B. (trans.), 1922. Ovid’s Metamorphoses ]
Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses1.html

Santorini Books, 2015. Phoenicians: Adonis Legend. [Online]
Available at: http://www.phoenician.org/adonis_legend.htm

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