Adonis (Ancient Greek: Άδωνις) was the mortal lover of the goddess Aphrodite in Greek mythology. In Ovid's first-century AD telling of the myth, he was conceived after Aphrodite cursed his mother Myrrha to lust after her own father, King Cinyras of Cyprus. Myrrha had sex with her father in complete darkness for nine nights, but he discovered her identity and chased her with a sword.
The gods transformed her into a myrrh tree and, in the form of a tree, she gave birth to Adonis. Aphrodite found the infant and gave him to be raised by Persephone, the queen of the Underworld. Adonis grew into an astonishingly handsome young man, causing Aphrodite and Persephone to feud over him, with Zeus eventually decreeing that Adonis would spend one third of the year in the Underworld with Persephone, one third of the year with Aphrodite, and the final third of the year with whomever he chose. Adonis chose to spend his final third of the year with Aphrodite.
One day, Adonis was gored by a wild boar during a hunting trip and died in Aphrodite's arms as she wept. His blood mingled with her tears and became the anemone flower. Aphrodite declared the Adonia festival commemorating his tragic death, which was celebrated by women every year in midsummer.
During this festival, Greek women would plant "gardens of Adonis", small pots containing fast-growing plants, which they would set on top of their houses in the hot sun. The plants would sprout, but soon wither and die. Then the women would mourn the death of Adonis, tearing their clothes and beating their breasts in a public display of grief.
The Greeks considered Adonis's cult to be of Oriental origin. Adonis's name comes from a Canaanite word meaning "lord" and most modern scholars consider the story of Aphrodite and Adonis to be derived from the earlier Mesopotamian myth of Inanna (Ishtar) and Dumuzid (Tammuz).
In late nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship of religion, Adonis was widely seen as a prime example of the archetypal dying-and-rising god, but the existence of the "dying-and-rising god" archetype has been largely rejected by modern scholars. His name is often applied in modern times to handsome youths, of whom he is the archetype.
The worship of Aphrodite and Adonis is probably a Greek continuation of the ancient Sumerian worship of Inanna and Dumuzid. The Greek name Ἄδωνις (Ádōnis), is derived from the Canaanite word ʼadōn, meaning "lord". This word is related to Adonai (Hebrew: אֲדֹנָי), one of the titles used to refer to the God of the Hebrew Bible and still used in Judaism to the present day. The Syrian name for Adonis is Gaus.
The cult of Inanna and Dumuzid may have been introduced to the Kingdom of Judah during the reign of King Manasseh. Ezekiel 8:14 mentions Adonis under his earlier East Semitic name Tammuz and describes a group of women mourning Tammuz's death while sitting near the north gate of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The earliest known Greek reference to Adonis comes from a fragment of a poem by the Lesbian poet Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570 BC), in which a chorus of young girls asks Aphrodite what they can do to mourn Adonis' death. Aphrodite replies that they must beat their breasts and tear their tunics. The cult of Adonis has also been described as corresponding to the cult of the Phoenician god Baal. As Walter Burkert explains:
Women sit by the gate weeping for Tammuz, or they offer incense to Baal on roof-tops and plant pleasant plants. These are the very features of the Adonis legend: which is celebrated on flat roof-tops on which sherds sown with quickly germinating green salading are placed, Adonis gardens... the climax is loud lamentation for the dead god.
The exact date when the worship of Adonis became integrated into Greek culture is still disputed. Walter Burkert questions whether Adonis had not from the very beginning come to Greece along with Aphrodite. "In Greece," Burkert concludes, "the special function of the Adonis legend is as an opportunity for the unbridled expression of emotion in the strictly circumscribed life of women, in contrast to the rigid order of polis and family with the official women's festivals in honour of Demeter."
The significant influence of Near Eastern culture on early Greek religion in general, and on the cult of Aphrodite in particular, is now widely recognized as dating to a period of orientalization during the eighth century BC, when archaic Greece was on the fringes of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
In Cyprus, the cult of Adonis gradually superseded that of Cinyras. W. Atallah suggests that the later Hellenistic myth of Adonis represents the conflation of two independent traditions.
Festival of Adonia
The worship of Adonis is associated with the festival of the Adonia, which was celebrated by Greek women every year in midsummer. The festival, which was evidently already celebrated in Lesbos by Sappho's time in the seventh century BC, seems to have first become popular in Athens in the mid-fifth century BC.
At the start of the festival, the women would plant a "garden of Adonis", a small garden planted inside a small basket or a shallow piece of broken pottery containing a variety of quick-growing plants, such as lettuce and fennel, or even quick-sprouting grains such as wheat and barley.
The women would then climb ladders to the roofs of their houses, where they would place the gardens out under the heat of the summer sun. The plants would sprout in the sunlight, but wither quickly in the heat. While they waited for the plants to first sprout and then wither, the women would burn incense to Adonis.
Once the plants had withered, the women would mourn and lament loudly over the death of Adonis, tearing their clothes and beating their breasts in a public display of grief. The women would lay a statuette of Adonis out on a bier and then carry it to the sea along with all the withered plants as a funeral procession.
The festival concluded with the women throwing the effigy of Adonis and the withered plants out to sea.
In classical literature
While Sappho does not describe the myth of Adonis, later sources flesh out the details. According to the retelling of the story found in the poem Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 17/18 AD), Adonis was the son of Myrrha, who was cursed by Aphrodite with insatiable lust for her own father, King Cinyras of Cyprus, after Myrrha's mother bragged that her daughter was more beautiful than the goddess.
Driven out after becoming pregnant, Myrrha was changed into a myrrh tree, but still gave birth to Adonis. According to classicist William F. Hansen, the story of how Adonis was conceived falls in line with the conventional ideas about sex and gender that were prevalent in the classical world, since the Greeks and Romans believed that women, such as Adonis's mother Myrrha, were less capable of controlling their primal wants and passions than men.
Aphrodite found the baby, and took him to the underworld to be fostered by Persephone. She returned for him once he was grown and discovered him to be strikingly handsome. Persephone wanted to keep Adonis; Zeus settled the dispute by decreeing that Adonis would spend one third of the year with Aphrodite, one third with Persephone, and one third with whomever he chose. Adonis chose Aphrodite, and they remained constantly together.
Then, one day while Adonis was out hunting, he was wounded by a wild boar, and bled to death in Aphrodite's arms. In different versions of the story, the boar was either sent by Ares, who was jealous that Aphrodite was spending so much time with Adonis, by Artemis, who wanted revenge against Aphrodite for having killed her devoted follower Hippolytus, or by Apollo, to punish Aphrodite for blinding his son Erymanthus.
The story also provides an etiology for Aphrodite's associations with certain flowers. Reportedly, as she mourned Adonis's death, she caused anemones to grow wherever his blood fell, and declared a festival on the anniversary of his death.
In Idyll 15 by the early third-century BC Greek bucolic poet Theocritus, Adonis is described as a still an adolescent with down on his cheeks at the time of his love affair with Aphrodite, in contrast to Ovid's Metamorphoses in which he is portrayed as a fully mature man. Pseudo-Apollodorus (Bibliotheke, 3.182) describes Adonis as the son of Cinyras, of Paphos on Cyprus, and Metharme. According to Pseudo-Apollodorus's Bibliotheke, Hesiod, in an unknown work that does not survive, made of him the son of Phoenix and the otherwise unidentified Alphesiboea.
In one version of the story, Aphrodite injured herself on a thorn from a rose bush and the rose, which had previously been white, was stained red by her blood. In other version an anemone flower grew on the spot where Adonis died, and a red rose where Aphrodite's tears fell. The third century BC poet Euphorion of Chalcis remarked in his Hyacinth that "Only Cocytus washed the wounds of Adonis". According to Lucian's De Dea Syria, each year during the festival of Adonis, the Adonis River in Lebanon (now known as the Abraham River) ran red with blood.
Panyasis in Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.4;
Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.284–529;
Hyginus, Fabulae 58;
The First Vatican mythographer, 2.197;
the Second Vatican mythographer, 45;
Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoseon Synagoge 34.
Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.3; Hes fr 139 MW.
Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.4; Hyginus, De Astronomica 2.7.3.
Panyasis in Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.4; Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.3–3.14.4; Bion, “Lament for Adonis”;Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.684–739.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata 436; Plutarch, Alcibiades 18.3; Plutarch, Nikias 13.7; Lucian, De Dea Syria 6, 8; Theocritus,
Panyasis in Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.4; Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.3–3.14.4.
Bion, “Lament for Adonis”; Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.684–739.
Servius, in his commentary on Vergil’s Eclogues, mentions that Helios causes Myrrha’s lust, but he gives no reasonfor Helios’ wrath (Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 730).
Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.3; Hes fr 139 MW.
Hyginus, De Astronomica 2.7.3; Panyasis in Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.4.
Apollodorus, Bibliotheke 3.14.3.
Panyasis in Apollodrous, Bibliotheke 3.14.4.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.284–529.
Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.725–728.
Bion, “Lament for Adonis.”
Bion, “Lament for Adonis” 7–12, 19–27, 45–50.
Bion, “Lament for Adonis” 94–6.
Bion, “Lament for Adonis” 98.
Sappho LP 140.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata 436; Plutarch, Alcibiades 18.3; Plutarch, Nikias 13.7; Lucian, De Dea Syria 6, 8; Theocritus, Idyll XV.
Aristoph. Lys. 387-442.
Plut. Alc. 18.2-3.
Plut. Nik. 13.7.
Lucian, De Dea Syria
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