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

Adonis (/əˈdɒnɪs, əˈdnɪs/; Greek: Ἄδωνις) is a divine figure in Greek mythology. His legend possibly derives from ancient Canaanite religion; the ancient Greeks themselves believed him to be of oriental origin.[1] He is portrayed as a beautiful youth and his cult was associated with fertility.

There has been much scholarship over the centuries concerning the multiple roles of Adonis, his meaning and purpose in Greek religious beliefs. Modern scholarship sometimes describes him as an annually renewed, ever-youthful vegetation god, a life-death-rebirth deity whose nature is tied to the calendar.[2] His name is often applied in modern times to handsome youths, of whom he is the archetype.


Etymology and originEdit

The Greek Ἄδωνις (Greek pronunciation: [ádɔːnis]), Adōnis was a borrowing from the Canaanite word ʼadōn, meaning "lord",[3][4][5] which 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.[4] Syrian Adonis is Gauas[6] or Aos, akin to Egyptian Osiris, the Semitic Tammuz and Baal Hadad, the Etruscan Atunis and the Phrygian Attis, all of whom are deities of rebirth and vegetation (see life-death-rebirth deity).

Circa the sixth century BC, the appearance of the cult of Adonis is reported in Jerusalem by the biblical Book of Ezekiel, although under the Babylonian name Tammuz.[7] The earliest reference to Adonis being worshipped in Greece comes from a fragment of one of Sappho's poems, dating to the seventh century BC, in which a chorus of young girls ask Aphrodite what they can do to mourn Adonis's death. Aphrodite replies that they must beat their breasts and tear their tunics.[8]

Parentage and birthEdit

Adonis, a naked Roman torso, restored and completed by François Duquesnoy, formerly in the collection of Cardinal Mazarin (Louvre Museum).

Adonis's birth is shrouded in confusion for those who require a single, authoritative version, for various peripheral stories circulated concerning Adonis' parentage.

The most widely accepted version is recounted in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where Adonis is the son of Myrrha and her father Cinyras. Myrrha turned into a myrrh tree and Lucina helped the tree to give birth to Adonis.[9]

The patriarchal Hellenes sought a father for the god, and found him in Byblos and Cyprus, which scholars take to indicate the direction from which Adonis had come to the Greeks. Pseudo-Apollodorus, (Bibliotheke, 3.182) considered Adonis to be the son of Cinyras, of Paphos on Cyprus, and Metharme. According to pseudo-Apollodorus' Bibliotheke, Hesiod, in an unknown work that does not survive, made of him the son of Phoenix and the otherwise unidentified Alphesiboea.[10]

In Cyprus, the cult of Adonis gradually superseded that of Cinyras.[11] Hesiod made him the son of Phoenix, eponym of the Phoenicians, thus a figure of Phoenician origin; his association with Cyprus is not attested before the classical era. W. Atallah[12] suggests that the later Hellenistic myth of Adonis represents the conflation of two independent traditions.

Alternatively the late source Bibliotheke calls him the son of Cinyras and Metharme. Another version of the myth is that Aphrodite compelled Myrrha (or Smyrna) to commit incest with her father Theias, the king of Assyria. Fleeing his wrath, Myrrha was turned into a myrrh tree. Theias struck the tree with an arrow, whereupon it burst open and Adonis emerged. Another version has a wild boar tear open the tree with its tusks, thus foreshadowing Adonis' death.

The city Berytos (Beirut) in Lebanon was named after the daughter of Adonis and Aphrodite, Beroe. Both Dionysus and Poseidon fell in love with her. She would eventually marry Poseidon.


Venus and Adonis, by Annibale Carracci (1560-1609), Italian Baroque painter
Abraham River (Lebanon), one of the claimed sites of Adonis
The Death of Adonis - Museo Gregoriano Etrusco (Vatican).

The most detailed and literary version of the story of Adonis is a late one, in Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses.[13]

The central myth in its Greek telling: Smyrna, daughter of Theias, king of Assyria, conceives a child by him through trickery. Theias finds out and is determined to kill her, when the gods intervene and turn her into a myrrh tree. Nine months later, the baby Adonis comes out of the tree. Aphrodite fell in love with the beautiful youth (possibly because she had been wounded by Eros' arrow). Aphrodite sheltered Adonis as a new-born baby and entrusted him to Persephone, who was also taken by Adonis' beauty and refused to give him back to Aphrodite. The dispute between the two goddesses was settled by Zeus (or by Calliope on Zeus' behalf), who decided that Adonis was to spend one-third of every year with each goddess and the last third wherever he chose.[14] He chose to spend two-thirds of the year with Aphrodite.

Adonis was killed by a wild boar, said to have been sent variously by Artemis, jealous of Adonis' hunting skills or in retaliation for Aphrodite instigating the death of Hippolytus, a favorite of the huntress goddess; or by Aphrodite's paramour, Ares, who was jealous of her love for Adonis; or by Apollo, to punish Aphrodite for blinding his son Erymanthus.[15]

Aphrodite came to Adonis when she heard his groans and he died in her arms. She sprinkled his blood with nectar, from which sprang the short-lived anemone, which takes its name from the wind which so easily makes its petals fall. And so it is the blood of Adonis that each spring turns to red the torrential river, the Adonis River (also known as Abraham River or Nahr Ibrahim in Arabic) in modern Lebanon. Afqa is the sacred source where the waters of the river emerge from a huge grotto in a cliff 200 metres (660 feet) high. It is there that the myth of Astarte (Venus) and Adonis was born.

Origin of the cultEdit

Venus and Cupid lamenting the dead Adonis, 1656, Cornelis Holsteyn

In Greek mythology, Adonis is from Phoenicia. He was born and died at the foot of the falls in the village of Afqa, located in the Jbeil District of the Mount Lebanon Governorate, 71 kilometres (44 mi) northeast of Beirut in modern-day Lebanon. The ruins of the celebrated temple of Aphrodite Aphakitis— the Aphrodite particular to this site— are located there.

The name Adonis is derived from the Semitic word adon, which means "lord".[16][17] There is not a single, specific Semitic deity from whom Adonis is clearly derived,[18] but, in practice, the cult of Adonis is generally stated to correspond with the cult of the earlier Semitic god Tammuz, whose cult was derived from the even earlier cult of the Sumerian god Dumuzid the Shepherd, the consort of the goddess Inanna.[19] The cult of Adonis has also been described as corresponding to the cult of the Phoenician god Baal.[20] 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.[21]

The exact date when the legend of Adonis became integrated into Greek culture is still disputed. Walter Burkert questions whether Adonis had not from the very beginning come to Greece with Aphrodite.[22] "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." Both Greek and Near Eastern scholars have questioned this connection.[23]

Mystery cultsEdit

The Death of Adonis, by Giuseppe Mazzuoli, 1709 (Hermitage Museum)

Adonis was worshiped in unspoken mystery religions: not until Imperial Roman times (in Lucian of Samosata, De Dea Syria, ch. 6[24]) does any written source mention that the women were consoled by a revived Adonis. The third century BC poet Euphorion of Chalcis in his Hyacinth wrote "Only Cocytus washed the wounds of Adonis".[25]

Women in Athens would plant "gardens of Adonis" quick-growing herbs that sprang up from seed and died. The Festival of Adonis was celebrated by women at midsummer by sowing fennel and lettuce and grains of wheat and barley. The plants sprang up, but soon withered, and women mourned for the death of the vegetation god.[26]

In 1966, Wahib Atallah wrote that the "cult of Adonis belonged to women", and further asserted "the cult of dying Adonis was fully developed in the circle of young girls around Sappho on Lesbos, about 600 BC, as a fragment of Sappho reveals."[27]

Cultural referencesEdit

In relatively modern times, the myth of Adonis has featured prominently in a variety of cultural and artistic works. Giovan Battista Marino's masterpiece, Adone, published in 1623, is a long, sensual poem, which elaborates the myth of Adonis, and represents the transition in Italian literature from Mannerism to the Baroque. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the poem Adonais for John Keats, and uses the myth as an extended metaphor for Keats' death.

Death of Adonis, by Luca Giordano.

Such allusions continue today. Adonis (an Arabic transliteration of the same name, أدونيس) is the pen name of a famous Syrian poet, Ali Ahmad Said Asbar. His choice of name relates especially to the rebirth element of the myth of Adonis (also called "Tammuz" in Arabic), which was an important theme in mid-20th century Arabic poetry, chiefly amongst followers of the "Free Verse" (الشعر الحر) movement founded by Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.[citation needed] Adunis has used the myth of his namesake in many of his poems, for example in "Wave I", from his most recent book "Start of the Body, End of the Sea" (Saqi, 2002), which includes a complete retelling of the birth of the god.[clarification needed]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Cf. "Adonis", in David Leeming (ed.), The Oxford Companion to World Mythology (Oxford University Press, 2005): "The best known of the Canaanite dying gods was the young spring god Adonai (“my lord”), who was particularly favored by the Phoenicians and also became popular in Greece and Rome as a human with whom Aphrodite/Venus fell in love." Less certain is "Adonis", in Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth (eds.), The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd rev. ed. (Oxford University Press, 2005): "Name given by the Greeks to a divine personage whom they thought to be eastern in origin (Semitic Adon=‘Lord’)".
  2. ^ Origen discusses Adonis, (whom he associates with Tammuz), in his Selecta in Ezechielem ( “Comments on Ezekiel”), noting that “they say that for a long time certain rites of initiation are conducted: first, that they weep for him, since he has died; second, that they rejoice for him because he has risen from the dead (apo nekrôn anastanti)” (cf. J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus: Series Graeca, 13:800).
  3. ^ W. Burkert (1985), Greek Religion, pp. 176–77.
  4. ^ a b Botterweck, G. Johannes; Ringgren, Helmer, eds. (1974). Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament. Vol. 1 (reprint, revised ed.). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 59–74. ISBN 9780802823380. 
  5. ^ West, M. L. (1997). The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-19-815221-3. Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  6. ^ Detienne, Marcel (1994). The Gardens of Adonis: Spices in Greek Mythology, Princeton University Press, ISBN 978-0-691-00104-3 (p.137)
  7. ^ Ezekiel 8:14
  8. ^ West, M. L. (1997). The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. pp. 530–531. ISBN 0-19-815221-3. Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  9. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses X, 298–518
  10. ^ Ps.-Apollodorus, iii.14.4.1.
  11. ^ Atallah 1966
  12. ^ Atallah 1966.
  13. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses X, 519–741
  14. ^ Buttery, Jr., Theodore Vern (1970). "Adonis". In Hutchins, Robert M.; Preece, Warren E.; Kasch, Howard E. Encyclopædia Britannica (hardcover). A-Anstey, 1 (Commemorative Edition for EXPO ’70 ed.). Chicago: William Benton. p. 164. ISBN 0852291353. 
  15. ^ According to Nonnus, Dionysiaca 42.1f. Servius on Virgil's Eclogues x.18; Orphic Hymn lv.10; Ptolemy Hephaestionos, i.306u, all noted by Graves. Atallah (1966) fails to find any cultic or cultural connection with the boar, which he sees simply as a heroic myth-element.
  16. ^ West, M. L. (1997). The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-19-815221-3. Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  17. ^ "Britannica Library". Retrieved 2017-02-02. 
  18. ^ R. S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 23.
  19. ^ West, M. L. (1997). The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-19-815221-3. Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  20. ^ West, M. L. (1997). The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press. p. 57. ISBN 0-19-815221-3. Retrieved 30 May 2017. 
  21. ^ Burkert, p. 177.
  22. ^ Burkert 1985, p. 17.
  23. ^ Burkert, p 177 note 6 bibliography
  24. ^ "De Dea Syria". Archived from the original on 2009-10-25. 
  25. ^ Remarked upon in passing by Photius, Biblioteca 190 (on-line translation).
  26. ^ Detienne 1972.
  27. ^ W. Atallah, Adonis dans la littérature et l'art grecs, Paris, 1966.