All about Adonis
by Catherine Proppe
August 9, 2016
Adonis (Ἀδωνις) is the God of tragic, untimely death and the joyful promise of life’s renewal. It was not uncommon in ancient Greece to lose loved ones in the prime of life, when child and maternal mortality rates were high and a culture of warfare frequently took young lives.
In ancient Greek religion, each person’s life is metaphorically a lamplight or torch (ἑλένη) of life. It is possible that this is why Greeks call themselves Hellenic (Ἑλληνικός), because, like the Olympic torches that are derived from the light of the sun, each Greek carries the ancestral spark of fire, the essence of life. The light of the sun is also present in the plants that grow in the sun’s light.
The Horai are the immortal Goddesses who determine the hour for something to occur in nature, such as the moment a sprout emerges or the moment a seed falls to earth.
Adonis, as the story goes, was the son of princess Smyrna (Σμύρνα), who became pregnant by her father. The disgraced Smyrna was magically transformed into a myrrh (σμύρνα) tree. Eileithyia, the Goddess of childbirth, split open the tree so that Adonis could be born. When the myrrh tree is wounded it appears to weep tears of resin. Myrrh resin was used for embalming in ancient Egypt. Myrrh was also used as incense, ointment, and medicine.
Aphrodite, the immortal Goddess of passionate love, became greatly enamored of Adonis from the moment of his birth. Aphrodite is called the Paphian and the Kyprian because of her famous temple in the city of Paphos on the island of Kypros (Cyprus). She is also called Cythera because of a legend that she was born on the island of Kythera (Κύθηρα). She is often accompanied by the immortal Gods of romantic love, the Erotes, depicted as winged children.
Aphrodite entrusted the infant Adonis for safekeeping to Persephone, the Goddess of afterlife and spring renewal, also known as Phersephone. Later, Persephone refused to relinquish Adonis and it was decided by a divine mediator that he should spend part of the year above ground with Aphrodite and the Olympians and part of the year with Persephone and the Titans in Tartaros, the deepest realm beneath the earth.
One day the youthful Adonis was out hunting and was attacked and gored to death by a wild boar. A poem by Bion beautifully conveys the grief of Aphrodite as she beholds Adonis’ dying body:
“(Aphrodite) saw, she marked his irresistible wound, she
saw his thigh fading in a welter of blood, she lift her
hands and put up the voice of lamentation saying
‘Stay, Adonis mine, stay . . .
Awake Adonis, awake for a
little while, and give me one latest kiss; kiss me all
so long as ever the kiss be alive, till thou give up
thy breath into my mouth and thy spirit pass into
my heart, till I have . . .
drunk up all thy love . . .
take thou my husband, take him if thou wilt; for
thou art far stronger than I . . .’
The Paphian weeps and Adonis bleeds, drop for
drop, and the blood and tears become flowers upon
the ground. Of the blood comes the rose, and of
the tears the windflower.
‘I cry woe for Adonis, the beauteous Adonis is dead.’”
Ovid gives a stirring account of Aphrodite’s grief, her declaration that Adonis would be mourned each year, and her resolve to transform Adonis’ blood into the quick-growing, short-lived scarlet wind-flower, the anemone (ἀνεμώνη). The word wind, anemos (ἂνεμος), refers to the wind outside as well as to the wind of the body, and therefore the breath that “animates” life.
“She saw him lifeless, writhing in his blood,
She rent her garments, tore her lovely hair,
And bitterly beat her breast, and springing down
Reproached the Fates: ‘Even so, not everything
Shall own your sway. Memorials of my sorrow,
Adonis, shall endure; each passing year
Your death repeated in the hearts of men (sic)
Shall re-enact my grief and my lament.
But now your blood shall change into a flower:
Persephone of old was given grace
To change a woman’s form to fragrant mint,
And shall I then be grudged the right to change
My prince?’ And with these words she sprinkled nectar,
Sweet-scented, on his blood, which at the touch
Swelled up, as on a pond when showers fall
Clear bubbles form; and ere an hour had passed
A blood-red flower arose, like the rich bloom
Of pomegranates which in a stubborn rind
Conceal their seeds; yet is its beauty brief,
So lightly cling its petals, fall so soon,
When the winds blow that give the flower its name."
Adonis was worshipped annually in Adonia (Ἀδωνια) rituals that mourned the tragedy of young life coming into the world only to be taken, too soon, by death. The Adonia ritual included germinating quick-growing plants and mourning figurines representing the deceased. The mourners may have ritually watered the Adonis gardens with their tears and perhaps anointed them with myrrh, the “tears” of Adonis’ mother, the myrrh tree.
A month at Seleucia, Adonisios (Ἀδωνίσιος), and a month at Iasos, Adonion (Ἀδωνιών), were named for the ritual.
Plutarch says that at the Adonia women brought little images of the deceased to be viewed and mourned:
“… the Adonia. This fell at that time, and little images like dead folk carried forth to burial were in many places exposed to view by the women, who mimicked burial rites, beat their breasts, and sang dirges.”
“The women were celebrating at that time the festival of Adonis, and in many places throughout the city little images of the [G]od were laid out for burial, and funeral rites were held about them, with wailing cries of women…”
Some accounts say that Aphrodite laid out the lifeless body of Adonis on a bed of lettuce.
In the play The Festival of Adonis, a song sung at the Adonia describes an image of Adonis laid out alongside apples and aromatics and cakes made of flowers and honey. The song’s lyrics say that the Adonia will bring blessings to “all below,” that is, the deceased. It also speaks of Acheron (Ἀχέρων), the river which souls must cross on their way to the afterlife. The word achos (ἄχος) means pain, distress, “ache,” which is a threshold many must pass on their way to death:
‘Hush, dear. The Argive's daughter's going to sing
‘… Aphrodite radiant-eyed;
The stealthy-footed Hours from Acheron's rill
Brought once again Adonis to thy side
How changed in twelve short months! They travel slow,
Those precious Hours: we hail their advent still,
For blessings do they bring to all below…
That's fair, Adonis. On his right are piled
Ripe apples fallen from the oak-tree tall;
And silver caskets at his left support
Toy-gardens, Syrian scents enshrined in gold
And alabaster, cakes of every sort
That in their ovens the pastrywomen mould,
When with white meal they mix all flowers that bloom,
Oil-cakes and honey-cakes…
But sweet Adonis hath his own sweet bed:
Next Aphroditè sleeps the roseate-armed,
A bridegroom of eighteen or nineteen years.
Kiss the smooth boyish lip—there's no sting there!
The bride hath found her own: all bliss be hers!
And him at dewy dawn we'll troop to bear
Down where the breakers hiss against the shore:
There, with dishevelled dress and unbound hair,
Bare-bosomed all, our descant wild we'll pour…
Adonis, now: pour new-year's blessings down!
Right welcome dost thou come, Adonis dear:
Come when thou wilt, thou'lt find a welcome here."
Sappho, the famous Greek poetess, wrote a lament for Adonis in the form of a conversation with Aphrodite:
“‘Gentle Adonis is dying, O Cythera, what shall we do?’
‘Beat your breasts, O maidens, and rend your garments.’”
The Greek poetess Praxilla’s Hymn to Adonis represents Adonis being asked in the afterlife what beautiful things he missed the most. His response is a reminder to pay attention to the beauty in nature:
“The most beautiful thing I leave behind is
the sun’s light;
second, the shining stars
and the moon’s face;
also, ripe cucumbers
Walter Burkert describes the worship of Adonis as a rite “confined to women which is celebrated on flat roof-tops on which shards sown with quickly germinating green salading are placed, Adonis gardens. The atmosphere of the festival is infused with the sweet aroma of incense, but the climax is loud lamentation for the dead [G]od. The dead Adonis was then laid out on his bier in the form of a statuette and borne to his grave: the effigy and the little garden were thrown into the sea.”
A later verse in The Greek Bucolic Poets describes how Aphrodite forgave the boar who killed Adonis because the boar explained in its defense that it was overcome with passion and was only intent on kissing Adonis on the thigh:
“When the Cytherean (Aphrodite) saw Adonis dead, his hair dishevelled and his cheeks wan and pale, she bade the Loves (Erotes) go fetch her the boar, and they forthwith flew away and scoured the woods till they found the sullen boar. Then they shackled him both before and behind, and one did put a noose about the prisoner’s neck and so drag him, and another belaboured him with his bow and so did drive, and the craven beast went along in abject dread of the Cytherean. Then upspake Aphrodite saying, “Vilest of all beasts, can it be thou that didst despite to this fair thigh, and thou that didst strike my husband?” To which the beast “I swear to thee, Cytherean,” answered he, “by thyself and by thy husband, and by these my bonds and these thy huntsmen, never would I have smitten thy pretty husband but that I saw him there beautiful as a statue, and could not withstand the burning mad desire to give his naked thigh a kiss. And now I pray thee make good havoc of me; pray take and cut off these tusks, pray take and punish them – for why should I possess teeth so passionate? And if they suffice thee not, then take my chaps also – for why durst they kiss?” Then had Cypris compassion and bade the Loves loose his bonds; and he went not to the woods, but from that day forth followed her, and more, went to the fire and burnt away those his tusks.”
Many scholars attribute the name “Adonis” (Ἀδωνις) to the Phoenician word for Lord: Adon.
It may be worth considering other origins of the name “Adonis.” For example, the word adona (ἁδονά) is Doric for hedonee (ἡδονή), which means enjoyment, pleasure, hedonism. Ancient Adonis gardens (Ἀδώνιδος κῆποι) consisted of quickly germinating plants which soon withered and died, a metaphor for any short-lived joy. In addition, the word deenaios (δηναιός) means long-lived, and it could be argued that Ἀδωνις means “not long-lived.”
There is also reason to connect the name Adonis with the name of the God of the afterlife. The names Aidoneus (Άιδωνεύς) and Aidoneeos (Ἀ̄ῐδονῆος, Ᾱἰδωνῆος) are the poetic forms of Aidees (Ἅιδης, Ἅδης, Ἄιδη , Ἀΐδας, Ἀΐδα, Ἄϊος, Ἅιδην), aka “Hades.” The God of the afterlife is also called Plouton (Πλούτων) (wealth-giver) in addition to having numerous other epithets, including Ἀγήσανδρος (leader of men), Ἀγησίλᾱος (leader of the people), Ἀκάκης (transcending evil), Ἀναπομπός (one who sends up or back souls), Εὐκλῆς (of good report, famed), Εὐχαίτης (with beautiful hair), and Πανδοκος (all-receiving).
It is worth noting that Ἅιδης’ spouse, Persephone, and Adonis were both snatched by death in their youth and subsequently return to life above ground each year in Spring renewal.
A literal translation of the name Adonis (Ἀδωνις), the immortal God of tragic early death and subsequent renewal, is “Arising (Ἄ) + direction (δ) + brings-forth (ω) + prevailing (ν) + divine power (ι) + ς.”
Many scholars contend that the annual mourning of Adonis was a fertility ritual to engender a good harvest. That being said, it seems likely that worshippers of Adonis were motivated by their need to mourn deceased loved ones and to derive comfort from burying seeds and seeing them come back to life in the hope that just as buried seeds come back to life, deceased loved ones would also be afforded new life in the afterlife.
 Antoninus Liberalis, Metamorphoses 34; Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 58.
 Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.522.
 Apollodorus 3.14.4; Hyginus, Astronomia Ii.6.
 Hesiod (Theogony 715 and 807 f).
 Theocritus. The Greek Bucolic Poets, “The Poems and Fragments of Bion: I. The Lament for Adonis,” translated by J.M. Edmonds, Loeb Classical Library (London: William Heinemann; New York: MacMillan Co, 1912) 389-391. http://books.google.com/books?id=IMrCpKxmgCUC&q=adonis#v=snippet&q=adonis&f=false
 Metamorphoses 10.723 ff (trans. Melville)
 Persephone transformed Mintha (Μίνθᾰ) into the plant that bears her name, mint (μίνθᾰ) (Strabo 8.3.14).
 Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Alcibiades 18.2, Vol. IV of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1916) http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/home.html
 Plutarch, Nicias 13.7
 Athenaeus, Scholars at Dinner p. 193; Eubulus, The Impotent Men.
 Theocritus’ Idyll 15, The Festival of Adonis (trans. C.S. Calverley). https://ia600307.us.archive.org/4/items/theocritustransl11533gut/11533-h/11533-h.htm#IDYLL_XV
 "The Poems of Sappho, with Historical and Critical Notes, Translations, and a Bibliography" by Edwin Marion Cox, Published 1925. The translations are in the public domain in the United States due to the lack of copyright notice in the 1925 edition. http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/usappho/sph60.htm
Κατθνάσκει Κυθέρἠ, ἄβροσ Ἄδωνισ, τί κε θεῖμεν,
Καττύπτεσθε κόραι καὶ κατερείκεσθε χίτωνασ.
The transliteration and additional editorial material are Copyright © 2000 J.B. Hare, All Right Reserved. All uses other than Academic Fair Use (as defined by U.S. copyright law) require permission of the copyright holder.
 P. 375 Greek Lyric IV Bacchylides, Corinna, and Others (trans. David A. Campbell) Harvard University Press, 1992, Cambridge, MA and London, England
 Walter Burkert (p. 177) in Greek Religion “Foreign Gods” https://books.google.com/books/p/harvard?q=Adonia&vid=ISBN9780674362819&hl=en&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8#v=snippet&q=notes&f=false
Burkert references Aristophanes, lys 289-98, Plut. Alc. 18; Menander Sam. 39-46; Eust. 1701.45; Theocr. 15 Adoniazousai
 The Greek Bucolic Poets. Translated by Edmonds, J M. Loeb Classical Library Volume 28. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 1912. (This piece of Anacreontean verse is shown both by style and metre to be of late date, and was probably incorporated in the Bucolic Collection only because of its connexion in subject with the Lament for Adonis.)