The name “Adonis” has long been associated with the idea of beauty and with Classical myth. His legend, however, starts long before our present conceptions of the ancient world.
Phoenicia, a land roughly equivalent to modern-day Lebanon, was a farming community. Its people lived by the seasonal calendar, feeding themselves with the result of difficult physical labor. In a pre-scientific society, life revolved around placating the gods: if they granted good rains and a corresponding harvest, there would be feasting. If not, starvation would stalk all houses.
Farmers prayed to the god Adon, a name which means “Lord.” Adon’s beauty was seen in the sprouting of seedlings, the threshing of grain, and the fallow land that slept through the winter, only to be resurrected yet again in the spring. His name was shared with the people to the south, who came to call their god “Adonai.” As time went on, Phoenicia’s legends drifted west, influencing the poetry and theater of a land called Hellas, known in English as the country of Greece.
The poet Sappho mentioned Adonis, a god who died. She spoke to all the women who wept for him, counseling them to beat their breasts and mourn the loss of such beauty. What was the exact story? It has not come down to us through the ages; like the rest of Sappho’s poetry, only a fragment remains. (2)
The Birth of Adonis
Stories of Adonis and his beauty grew as civilization grew more complex. The bards told the story of a woman named Myrrha, who lived in either Cyprus or Assyria. Jealous of her beauty, Aphrodite cursed Myrrha with passionate love for her father, Cinyras or Theias. Driven by the depths of her lust, Myrrha snuck into Cinyras’ bedroom at night, cloaking her identity with the darkness. After a week of passionate encounters, however, Cinyras in turn became obsessed with revealing the identity of his mystery lover. Accordingly, he lit a light the next night before Myrrha could sneak away. Now aware of the incestuous nature of their relationship, Cinyras cast Myrrha out of the palace. Fortunately or unfortunately, however, she was now pregnant.
Myrrha wandered through the desert, spurned by those who knew her past. Desperate, she prayed to Zeus for help. The supreme god felt compassion for her situation and turned her into a tree, forever known afterwards as myrrh. In the transition, Myrrha gave birth to the infant Adonis. (3)
The boy lay under his mother’s branches, wailing. He attracted the attention of the goddess Aphrodite, who took pity on the abandoned infant. She placed him in a box and searched for a foster mother. Eventually, she decided on Persephone, the goddess of the underworld, who agreed to take care of the baby.
Alas for Aphrodite? Growing up, the boy’s beauty developed with each passing day, and Persephone was quite taken with her charge. When Aphrodite came to bring Adonis back to the human world, Persephone refused to let him go. Aphrodite protested, but Persephone stood firm: she would not surrender Adonis.
Aphrodite cried, but Persephone refused to budge. The two goddesses continued to argue: Aphrodite insisted that she had found the child, while Persephone stressed the care she had put into raising him. Eventually, both goddesses turned to Zeus, asking him to decide which goddess deserved to live with Adonis.
Zeus was confounded by the situation, with no idea which side to back. He thought of a compromise: Adonis would stay with Persephone one-third of the year, with Aphrodite another third, and wherever he chose for the remaining time. This seemed fair to both goddesses, and also to Adonis, who by now was old enough to have his own opinion. He chose to stay with Aphrodite during his time, and so spent one-third of the year in the underworld. (4)
Thus, the myth of Adonis, like those of Ceres and Persephone, is tied into an explanation of the seasons and why they occur regularly. When Adonis is with Aphrodite, the land blooms and plants grow lush; when he goes to stay with Persephone, the world mourns his distance. In a land as far south as Hellas, the Mediterranean climate meant short, rainy winters followed by dry, long summers, exactly matching the amounts of time that Adonis spent with each of his “mothers.”
Adonis and Aphrodite
As an adult, Adonis in turn fell in love with Aphrodite, and the two of them spent all the time they could together. Unfortunately, Aphrodite’s other consort, Ares, grew jealous of the attention that his paramour lavished on the boy. Lacking Adonis’ beauty, Ares was unable to compete for Aphrodite’s love. Instead, he fumed, watched, and waited, eventually developing a plan to get rid of his rival.
Beyond everything else, Adonis and Aphrodite loved to frolic in nature and ride to the hunt. Noting this, Ares came up with an idea. One day, when the two lovers were out hunting, Ares sent a wild boar out into the woods. Haunted by a premonition, Aphrodite pleaded with Adonis to ignore the animal and stay with her, but Adonis was taken with the idea of killing something so massive.
Adonis went after the animal, chasing it through the forest. He cornered it and tried to kill it with his spear. The massive swine fought back, and the two did battle. Cornered, the boar jumped out at Adonis, goring him in the groin and escaping.
Mangled and bleeding, Adonis staggered out of the forest. He managed to make his way back to Aphrodite, who took him in her arms and sobbed at his pain. The goddess did what she could, but to no avail; Adonis was too badly wounded to survive. He died in Aphrodite’s arms, returning to the underworld for good. Hearing Aphrodite’s sobs, the entire world mourned the loss of such beauty.
Centuries later, the Adonia festival occured yearly in Athens as well as in other city-states. Because of the erotic nature of his life, Adonis’ celebrants included prostitutes, slaves, and peasants as well as well-to-do ladies. From all walks of life, Hellenistic women gathered to plant annuals, plants that grow, bloom, and go to seed within one year. After planting, the celebrants chanted to commemorate the birth, life, and death of such brief flowers. The women also celebrated the eventual rebirth of nature after the quiet winter, waiting for Adonis to re-join the mortal world.
Adonis in Classical Literature and Art
Various Classical writers re-tell Adonis’ story, focusing on his relationship with the various goddesses as well as his tragic end. Ovid’s version, captured in his Metamorphoses, is perhaps the most famous. Part of his Metamorphoses, the story is grouped with other resurrection myths, including that of Eurydice and Orpheus. (5)
Ovid, of course, was Roman rather than Greek. He was a contemporary of Horace and of Virgil; together, the three of them are considered the greatest poets writing in the time of the emperor Augustus. He was also a contemporary of Jesus, another man who later became canonized.
Read More: Roman Religion
Adonis’ beauty is celebrated in Classical art as well as in verse. Many vases and urns recovered in anthropological digs are decorated with images of Aphrodite, or Venus as she was called by the Romans, together with Adonis. These can be found in many collections around the world, including the National Archaeological Museum of Florence (6)) and the J. Paul Getty Villa in Malibu, California. (7)
Art in Adonis’ Memory
Many years passed. The ancient world grew, rose to take over Eurasia, and broke apart as northern tribes plundered and conquered. In what was once known as the “Dark Ages,” learning was kept alive in monasteries. Beauty became a copyist’s trick: illuminated manuscripts were penned by hand and hidden from the rough outside world. Adonis still lived, although underground once again — this time for almost a thousand years.
The word “Renaissance” means “rebirth.” A combination of events — the fall of Byzantium to the Ottoman Turks, the rise of the Italian city-state, the proximity of Italian cultural life to Roman ruins — caused the move away from scholasticism, or a focus on the church, to humanism, a focus on mankind.(8)
Painters around Italy chose to paint the great myths, Perhaps the best known is Tiziano Vecellio, also known as Titian. His “Venus and Adonis” displays the couple right before Adonis left to pursue the boar. Venus (as Aphrodite was known in the Roman world) tries to keep him from leaving, but to no avail. The painting displays the artist’s finesse with brushstroke and color; the lovers are depicted with human anatomical precision. Today, the painting is displayed at the J Paul Getty Villa in Malibu, CA. (9)
An equally famous painting was created by Peter Paul Rubens a little less than a century later. Obsessed with Titian’s style, Rubens used many of the same subjects and drew inspiration from many of Titian’s works. In his version of the Adonis myth, Rubens also focused on the moment when the lovers parted; his painting gives a sense of drama to the scene. (10)
Adonis’ beauty was again celebrated by a lesser-known painter. Simon Vouet painted his version of Venus and Adonis in 1642. Although illustrating the same moment from the myth, Vouet’s painting indicates the movement of French painting towards the Rococo period, focusing less on a rendering of human shapes and more on decorative elements, including bright colors and the presence of cherubs. (11)
The Adonis myth moved back to literature in 1593, in a cold island nation to the west. During a lockdown caused by the bubonic plague, the city of London closed its theaters. A playwright by the name of William Shakespeare turned to poetry, publishing a work called Venus and Adonis. Here, the story changed again: Adonis, who lived for his love of the hunt, became in turn the hunted, pursued by the goddess of love.The poem, which made Shakespeare famous in his lifetime, is today considered a minor work of the Bard; beauty changes again. (12)
In today’s world, we rarely pause to stop and consider nature or its beauty. We work, we raise our children, and we pass our days focused on practical matters. Then, of course, we complain that the world has lost its beauty. Where did we go wrong?
Perhaps it’s time to once again remember Adonis and his beauty. When we re-read the old legends, we go back to the source. Revived, we go outside and see what he saw — the gorgeous sunsets, the fresh flowers, the animals running to and fro. If we stay quiet and wait, perhaps we’ll catch a glimpse from the past. Over there! Look! Adonis has returned to the world, riding to the hounds, with Aphrodite at his side.
“The Myth and Cult of Adonis.” PhoeniciaOrg, 2020. Accessed on 15 March, 2020. https://phoenicia.org/adonis.html
Sappho. “The Death of Adonis.” Poet and Poem, 2020. Accessed on 3 April, 2020.https://poetandpoem.com/Sappho/The-Death-Of-Adonis
Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Adonis: Greek Mythology.” Updated February 5, 2020. Accessed on 25 March, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Adonis-Greek-mythology
“Adonis.” Encyclopedia Mythica, 1997. Accessed on 13 April 2020. https://pantheon.org/articles/a/adonis.html
Kline, A.S. (Translator.) “Ovid: The Metamorphosis Book X.” Poetry in Translation, 2000. Accessed on 4 April, 2020. https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph10.php#anchor_Toc64105574
“K-10-10: Adonis and Aphrodite.” Theoi Greek Mythology, Theoi Project, 2019. Accessed on 13 April 2020. https://www.theoi.com/Gallery/K10.10.html
“Altar with the Myth of Adonis.” J Paul Getty Museum, n.d. Accessed on 13 April, 2020. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/12835/unknown-maker-altar-with-the-myth-of-adonis-greek-south-italian-425-375-bc/?dz=0.5340,0.5340,0.34
“Why Was Italy the Birthplace of the Renaissance?” Reference. Media Group, 2020. Accessed on 15 April 2020. https://www.reference.com/history/did-renaissance-start-italy-4729137bf20fd7cd
Titian. “Venus and Adonis.” J Paul Getty Museum, n.d. Accessed on 15 April, 2020. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/846/titian-tiziano-vecellio-venus-and-adonis-italian-about-1555-1560/
Rubens, Peter Paul. “Venus and Adonis.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2020. Accessed on 15 April, 2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437535
Vouet, Simon. “Venus and Adonis.” J Paul Getty Museum, n.d. Accessed on 15 April, 2020.http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/577/simon-vouet-venus-and-adonis-french-about-1642/
“Venus and Adonis.” Folger Shakespeare Library, 2020. Accessed on 4 April, 2020.