Adonis is unique. His blessing, His lesson, His gift to mankind is unique. This unique gift is alluded in both His many myths and what we know of His cult. This gift, this blessing, this lesson can be found in the consistent theme that pervades His myth and His cult. This consistent theme is what I call the Gift of Adonis, which I will discuss in this essay.
Before we discuss more about this consistent theme let us first explore what we know of the myths of Adonis and also of the nature His cult. Though one should never take the myths literally, the myths are a useful tool to try to understand the nature of any God. The reason for this is that myths are allegories, stories that point to the Nature and the Mystery of the deity concerned. The power of the myths lies not in the literal interpretation of the tale of the myth. Rather the power of myths lies in understanding the message of the myth, to look where the myths are pointing to.
Most of the myths of Adonis that survives into the modern period actually come down to us through the work of Ovid’s Metamorphosis,
Apollodorus’s The Library, Antoninus Liberalis in his Metamorphoses and in Nonnus’ Dionysica. There are fragments from Hyginus and other authors that give us a unique glimpse into the myth of Adonis.
What we know of the cult of Adonis comes mostly from fragmentary records of Pherecrates, the poetry of Sappho, Plato, Plutarch’s Nikias, Aristophane’s Lysistrata, Sophocle’s Kratinos and Theocritus of Alexandria. We also have votive objects like vases and jars which depicts scenes from the Adonai.
Let us first study the myth of Adonis. There are multiple genealogical myths of Adonis, though the most popular version seems to be that He is a son of Smyrhna/Myrrha. Smyrhna/Myrrha owing to severe neglect of worshiping Aphrodite became pregnant due to incest. Smyrhna/Myrrha in shame fled from the palace. Her father in anger sent his men to pursue his daughter for bringing shame upon his household. The Gods taking mercy upon her sought to protect her from her angry father and transformed her into a myrrh tree.
However despite being transformed into a myrrh tree the pregnancy continued. Nine months later the trunk of the myrrh tree bulged. With
the blessings of Eileithyia the trunk of the tree split seamlessly revealing a beautiful baby within the fragrant trunk. Now we have two versions of what comes next.
In the first version Aphrodite, seeing the plight of Myrhha felt sorry for her and forgiven Myrrha. Aphrodite Herself came to help in the delivery. However at the sight of the phenomenally beautiful baby Aphrodite was enarmored by His beauty. Fearing for the safety of the baby Adonis She decided to send the baby to the care of Her friend Persephone in the underworld. Persephone accepted this but She Herself fell in love with the baby Adonis. When Aphrodite wanted the child Adonis back She was very surprised that Persephone refused the request. A bitter argument broke out between the two Goddesses. This got so bad that it had to be eventually resolved by Zeus who declared that Adonis will stay one third of the year with Persephone, one third of the year with Aphrodite and the remaining one third of the year to stay with whomsoever He chooses. Aphrodite is said to spend most of Her day and activity with Adonis for the four months He is allotted to spend with Her. She was even more ecstatic when Adonis eventually chose to spend the remaining last four months with Her.
In the second version Adonis was received by the nymphs at birth who bathed Him in the tears of the myrrh tree who is His mother. The nymphs then returned him to the royal house. Not surprisingly owing to His royal heritage he was raised as a prince. He is said to have spent His early life in either Kypros or in Assyria. The older He grew the more beautiful, glorious and sightly He became. In fact His beauty was frequently equated with the Erotes. Despite this Adonis was an outdoor man. He loved venturing outdoors and was noted to be a skilled hunter. It is one day when He was outdoors that Aphrodite upon gazing at His extremely beautiful mien fell deeply in love with
heavenly Adonis. So great was Her love for Him that She even abandoned Her home in Heaven for Him to be near Him.
Adonis in turn is said to be the most wonderful and amazing and personable individual around, bringing many beautiful and fond experiences into the life of Aphrodite, making every minute with Him a beautiful one.
Various authors state that Aphrodite was acutely aware even early on that Adonis lifespan was very limited and that it will be ended at the hands of some wild beast. It is said that Aphrodite told Adonis of this many times and tried hard to urge caution.
All the myths end in a similar manner. Adonis, still in the prime of His youth died after being slain by a boar in a hunt gone wrong. Who the boar is or who sent the boar varies from tradition to tradition. Because Adonis is said to be a very skilled hunter the boar cannot be any normal boar. It must be some unique boar. Some tradition says that the boar was sent by Artemis to avenge the fate Aphrodite set upon Hippolytus. Others say that it is Ares who taking the form of a boar slew Adonis due to His jealousy over Aphrodite’s love for
Adonis. Either way Aphrodite is said to be so deeply grieved and moved by the death of Adonis that She established the Adonai ( the annual festival to commemorate the life and death of Adonis ). She is said to have lain His body in a patch of lettuce. On top of that from His blood it is said sprung forth the anemones, a plant from the Ranunculae family after some nectar mingled with His spilled blood.
Also barring a singular variant of the many myths dealing with the genealogy of Priapus the bulk of the myths attribute the relationship between Adonis and Aphrodite to be childless.
Though no surviving myths allude to this a few Roman period authors and some Hellenistic authors specifically point out that during the Adonai what is celebrated is not only the death of the God but also the revival of the God from the world of the dead. One author suggest that after death Adonis is allowed to live some part of the year with Aphrodite, the remaining bulk with Persephone in the underworld. It is this that leads most modern day Classicist to define Adonis as a life-death-rebirth deity similar to Tammuz and Dumuzi. This also
completed at least scholastically the historical and religious link between the Semitic Adonai with the Greek Adonis which was recognized as far back as the Classical Period.
This now lead us to the cult of the God Adonis. Little is known about the actual worship of Adonis. What we do know of the cult of Adonis is that it was very popular amongst women. In fact in some places the cult of Adonis was exclusively celebrated by women.
We know that the cult of the dying Adonis was already integrated into the Greek religion at a very early period from its original Semitic root. The Adonia was celebrated in Lesbos by the time of Sappho (600BCE ) in connection with Aphrodite. We know this owing to a surviving poetry written by Sappho. We know as well that the festivity of the dying Adonis was celebrated in Athens in the Classical period almost exclusively by women. We know that a more formalized version of the Adonia was celebrated in Alexandria on the
Nile during the Hellenistic period.
Of the Athenian practice of the Adonai we have a relatively good picture of what went on. The festivity seemed to formally run for two days though an eight day prelude is indicated.
The eight day prelude is what we call “The Garden of Adonis”. In the rite of the garden of Adonis women would plant seeds of lettuces, fennel or barley in shallow broken pots or shallow baskets. They would then carry the shallow pots or baskets to the rooftop of their houses. It is believed that figurines and images of Adonis were put inside the basket or pots. In the eight days prelude to the two day festivity of the Adonia the lettuces, fennels, and barley ( being fast germinating plants ) would sprout. This would transform the usually dull rooftop of the city of Athens into an instant sea of green. However this would quickly change as under the intense summer heat of the Athenian sun the sprouts in their very shallow containers would rapidly wither and then die.
On the first day of the Adonai, which is about nine days after the Garden of Adonis was sown the women would mourn for Adonis. They
would perform the full lamentation ritual for a dying Adonis and would even sing eulogies to Adonis like in a funerary ritual. They would even go as far as to beat themselves as Aphrodite was supposed to have done when Adonis died. There is evidence that as part of the Adonia the pots or baskets with the dead shoots of lettuces, fennels or barley would be sunk into the sea with the images of the deity.
Though some modern scholars theorize that the Adonia was a fertility festival, writers from the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman period clearly are not in agreement with them. In fact modern scholarship is now moving more in agreement with the ancient authors.
Adonis despite being a life-death-rebirth deity is not and was never seen as a fertility deity. In fact He is often seen as the perfect opposite, that as a sterile deity. There is no doubt that He is a vegetation deity, specifically over plants that has a very fast life cycle or fast germinating plants. However He is not an agricultural deity. The lettuce which is a plant strongly associated with Adonis
despite being a plant of agricultural significance is also seen as a vegetable that can cause impotence. It was also seen as a transient vegetable that can only be eaten not long after it is harvested. Unlike say wheat, barley, pulses and beans or various root vegetables which can be stored for months or say grapes which can be preserved into either raisins or wine, the lettuce is transient. The stem of celtuces ( lettuce with a large stem ) can be preserved in salt but the leafy lettuces associated with Adonis poorly preserves.
The theme of sterility and transiency is seen in the Garden of Adonis. Though extremely quick to sprout, Garden of Adonis was also expected to fade and die quickly, which leads to the popular ancient Greek saying of “more sterile than the gardens of Adonis.” The Garden of Adonis though beautiful was considered to be very short lived, transient and leading to no longer term gain or any substantial gain. Plato’s criticism that the average farmer would not sow their seeds for the eight days of Adonia reflects the sentiment of the people that the Adonia festival was not a fertility festival but rather one that celebrates beautiful transiency and things short lived and also the insubstantial.
The second day of the Adonia however was totally different as it was a day of merriment. On the second day Adonis was celebrated as having been revived from the dead and now returns to the world above to be rejoined with Aphrodite.
The Gift of Adonis can thus be seen through both His myth and His cult. The one common theme in the myth and cult of Adonis is that of beauty, transiency and insubstantiality. The transiency of Adonis is something that is beautiful, it is something wonderful, it is awesome, but it is mostly a memory, an experience, a scent that passes. It is not something substantial that you can clutch on forever, it is not something concrete. Like the Garden of Adonis, it springs suddenly into being, transforming that which is dull, that which is bland into something so amazingly beautiful, but then it quickly fades, vanishes, leaving nothing really solid behind. But it is beautiful, and the experience of its transient beauty will linger long after it has passed.
Adonis unlike most other mortals who had a relationship with a Goddess like Endymion and Selene or Tethys with Peleus did not produce an offspring. In most cases where male mortals and female deities did not produce offspring like the case of Artemis and Orion there is usually a myth of the male mortal being either in constant service or able to provide something concrete to the Goddess. This is absent in the myth of Adonis. Adonis was even explicitly withheld from hunting, one of His areas of expertise when Aphrodite was
around. Also Adonis died at a very early age, yet in this very brief time brought so much beauty, love and wonder into the life of Aphrodite. The revived Adonis also only live for a very brief period with lovely Aphrodite, yet in this very brief time brings beauty and wonder and happiness into Her life.
What Adonis brings is beauty, happiness and wonder but it is not substantial and is above all transient. It is not something that can be eaten or can be grasped. It is more an experience, be it a passionate kiss from a stranger that fills you with beautiful and passionate memory but ultimately amounts to nothing more than the beautiful memory as the stranger has left and will never return.
It could be something more mundane like being showered by petals from a cherry tree in full blossom. The experience is wonderful and beautiful, even downright magical and worthy of poetry but it is ultimately all very transient, with no long term consequence that is even remotely substantial.
The anemone flower which is sacred to Adonis is the best analogy of this. The anemone flower, especially the red anemone flower as described in myth is a phenomenally beautiful flower that blossoms only in spring. It is blessedly beautiful, but it is also phenomenally transient. The reason the flower is called “anemone” is because the flower’s petal tends to fall off in the “anemi” or what
we call the wind. A gust of wind is capable of denuding the flower off some of its petals, damaging its beauty. Thus we have a flower that is so beautiful, so amazing to look at but also so fragile that its beauty is very transient. We experience the joy, the wonder of seeing such a beautiful flower.
However should we try to grasp it, try to make it substantial the flower will fade rapidly. Most people who try harvesting the anemone flower and bring it home soon discover that the flower is already damaged in transport and has thus lost its beauty. Or else the flower fades and dies rapidly within a day or two after it is brought home. Regardless if you try to make it substantial all that you have not long after you bring the flower home is a memory, be it in your mind or in a photograph.
Adonis lesson is thus simple and it is the consistent theme in both His cult and in His myth. Adonis teaches us to appreciate, to cherish, to love, and to learn from the many beautiful, many wonderful but inherently transient and insubstantial things in our life.
Adonis blesses us as His worshipers with many beautiful experiences, glorious encounters, stunning sights that moves us, but they are all ultimately transient, they are all short lived, and above all they are insubstantial. They leave no longer term consequence on us. However the memory remains, the experience lingers, the recollection brings tear to our eyes.
Adonis teaches us to cherish this, Adonis teaches us to recollect this, and above all Adonis teaches us to draw strength from this.
Everything beautiful, every lovely, everything wondrous in life no matter how transient or insubstantial it may be is something that we should celebrate, that we should remember, that we should be inspired and by moved by, that we should above all cherish. This to me sums up the lessons and gift of Adonis.