Adonis is a character from Greek mythology who was loved by the goddess Aphrodite. He represents fertility and rebirth, and was honoured annually by women.
The Greek myth of Adonis, the beautiful youth loved by Aphrodite, has inspired artists and storytellers from the 5th century BC to modern day. Even today, a handsome young man might still be referred to as an Adonis. His cult, celebrated by women, was introduced to Greece from Cyprus or Assyria and spread around the Mediterranean, where he was honoured as a representation of fertility, vegetation and rebirth.
Who Was Adonis?
Adonis was a mythical figure and a god of fertility and vegetation. His name possibly derives from the Semitic title ‘Adon’, meaning ‘lord.’ He was sometimes said to be the son of Phoenix and Alphesiboea, or of Cinyras and his wife Metharme. Usual tradition, however, tells that he was the result of an incestuous union between King Cinyras of Cyprus and his daughter Myrrha.
The story goes that Myrrha, desiring her own father, crept to his bed under the cover of darkness. Cinyras did not realise who she was until several nights later, when he brought a lamp with him to catch a glimpse of his secret lover. When he saw his own daughter, he was horrified and attempted to kill her. Myrrha fled, and wandered the world in sorrow until the gods took pity on her. They transformed her into a Myrrh tree, and her tears fell as drops of Myrrh. This detail hints at the Eastern origins of the myth, as Myrrh trees are not native to Greece.
Adonis was either born with the help of the goddess of childbirth and her nymphs, or when the trunk of the Myrrh tree was slashed by the tusk of a boar, a birth that foreshadows Adonis’ death.
Love for the Beautiful Adonis
The baby was so beautiful that Aphrodite desired to keep him as her own; she hid him in a chest and sent him to the underworld, to the goddess Persephone, asking her to look after him in secret. Persephone, however, also fell in love with the child and refused to give him up. Zeus decreed that Adonis would spend a third of the year with each goddess, and keep a third for himself. Adonis always chose to spend his own third with Aphrodite.
In an alternative version of the myth, Zeus gave the decision to the muse Calliope, who decided that Adonis would spend half the year with each goddess. Aphrodite was so furious with this decision that she induced the Thracian women to kill Calliope’s son Orpheus. In Ovid’s version, it was not until Adonis grew into a handsome man that Aphrodite desired him.
Venus and Adonis, from Ovid to Shakespeare
Adonis, like many young men, loved to hunt. Aphrodite warned him away from the more dangerous animals, but he ignored her advice and pursued a wild boar, which pierced him with its tusks. Hearing his death groans, Aphrodite rushed to her lover’s side, pricking her foot on a white rose on the way, staining it red. This was the origin of the red rose. Aphrodite decreed that Adonis’ death would be mourned annually. According to Ovid, she transformed his blood into a red anemone, a short living plant that would re-bloom each year in his memory as an everlasting symbol of her grief and love.
In some versions of the myth, the boar was actually a disguised Ares (Aphrodite’s lover) or Hephaestus (her husband), angry and jealous at the attentions heaped on young Adonis. Alternatively, the boar was spurred on by Artemis, avenging the death of Hippolytus, which Aphrodite had instigated.
Shakespeare’s own version of the myth, his poem Venus and Adonis, follows Ovid’s account with a few embellishments. Shakespeare’s Adonis is a little younger and more innocent, shying away from Venus’ advances. An episode is added in which Adonis’ stallion lusts after a mare, foiling the young man’s attempt to escape Venus’ constant attentions. Some of Shakespeare’s other elaborations include Venus’ seduction speech and her lament over Adonis’ body.
From the late 5th century BC, Adonis begins to appear in art together with Aphrodite. The myth of Adonis was also a very popular subject in postclassical art, especially amongst painters, who typically show the goddess restraining Adonis in the hunt or mourning his death. Painters interested in the mythology of Venus and Adonis include Rubens, Boucher, Poussin, Giordano, Titian, Veronese, and others.
The Ancient Festival of Adonis (Adonia)
Adonis’ festival, the Adonia, was celebrated annually in ancient Greece amongst women. Adonis was remembered by the planting of seeds with short lives, representing the brief but beautiful life of the handsome young man. Mourning was followed by rejoicing for his rebirth. Connected to fertility, the seasons and vegetation, his cult represented life, death and rebirth.
The city of Byblos (Beirut) in Phoenicia (modern Lebanon) was particularly sacred to him and a centre for his cult. It was said that the Adonis River turned red each spring from the blood of Adonis.