Adonis (Άδωνις) was the God of Beauty and desire, and is an archetypal life-death-rebirth deity in Greek mythology, and a central cult figure in various mystery religions.[1] He is closely related to the Egyptian Osiris, the Semitic Tammuz & Baal Hadad, the Etruscan Atunis and the Phrygian Attis, all of whom are deities of rebirth and vegetation (Some mythologists believe he was later exported to Germania, and that Balder is to be read as his counterpart in Germanic mythology).

Adonis is one of the most complex cult figures in classical times. He has had multiple roles and there has been much scholarship over the centuries concerning his meaning and purpose in the Greek religious beliefs. He is an annually-renewed, ever-youthful vegetation god, a life-death-rebirth deity whose nature is tied to the calendar.

His cult belonged to women: the cult of dying Adonis was fully-developed in the circle of young girls around Sappho on Lesbos, about 600 BCE, as a fragment of Sappho reveals. He is often associated in modern times with youthful libido and physique.

Origin of the cult

Adonis, it seems, was based very heavily on Tammuz. His name may be Semitic, a variation on the word "adon" meaning "lord" that was also used, as "Adonai", to refer to Yahweh in the Old Testament. When the Hebrews first arrived in Canaan, they were opposed by the king of the Jebusites, Adonizedek, whose name means "lord of Zedek" (Justice).

Yet there is no trace of a Semitic cult directly connected with Adonis, and no trace in Semitic languages of any specific mythemes connected with his Greek myth; both Greek and Near Eastern scholars have questioned the connection (Burkert, p 177 note 6 bibliography). The connection in cult practice is with Adonis' Mesopotamian counterpart, Tammuz:

"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 cult: a cult confined to women 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." —Burkert, p. 177).

When the cult of Adonis was incorporated into Greek culture is debated: Hesiod made him the son of Phoinix, eponym of the Phoenicians, and his association with Cyprus is not attested before the classical era. W. Atallah[2]suggests that the later Hellenistic myth of Adonis represents the conflation of two independent traditions. Adonis was worshipped in unspoken mystery religions: not until Imperial Roman times (in Lucian of Samosata, De Dea Syria, ch. 6 [1]) does any written source mention that the women were consoled by a revived Adonis.

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 soon, and withered quickly, and women mourned for the untimely death of the vegetation god (Detienne 1972).


A field of anemones in Israel

Birth and death of Adonis

Adonis' birth is shrouded in confusion for those who require a single, authoritative version. The resolutely patriarchal Hellenes sought a father for the god, and found him in Byblos and Cyprus, faithful indicators of the direction from which his cult had come to them. In Cyprus, the cult of Adonis gradually superseded the cult of Cinyras [3]. Walter Burkert questions whether Adonis had not from the very beginning come to Greece with Aphrodite (Burkert 1985, p. 177).

Multiple versions of the birth of Adonis exist: The most commonly accepted version is that Aphrodite urged Myrrha to commit incest with her father, Theias,the King of Smyrna or Syria (which helps confirm the area of Adonis' origins). Myrrha's nurse helped with the scheme, and Myrrha coupled with her father in the darkness. When Theias at last discovered this deception by means of an oil lamp, he flew into a rage, chasing his daughter with a knife.

Myrrha fled from her father, and Aphrodite turned her into a myrrh tree. When Theias shot an arrow into the tree — or when a boar used its tusks to rend the tree's bark — Adonis was born from the tree. This myth fits both Adonis' nature as a vegetation god and his origins from the hot foreign desert lands where the myrrh tree grew. (It was not to be seen in Greece.)

  1. Pseudo-Apollodorus, (Bibliotheke, 3.182) considered Adonis to be the son of Cinyras, of Paphos on Cyprus, and Metharme.
  2. Hesiod, in a fragment, believes he is the son of Phoenix and Aephesiboea.

As soon as Adonis was born. the baby was so beautiful that Aphrodite placed him in a closed chest, which she delivered for security to Persephone, who was also entranced by his unearthly beauty and refused to give him back. The argument between the goddess of love and the goddess of death was settled, either by Zeus or Calliope, with Adonis spending four months with Aphrodite, who seduced him with the help of Helene, her friend, four months with Persephone and four months of the years to himself. Some say Aphrodite eventually seduced Adonis into spending his four months alone with her.

The Death of Adonis by Guiseppe Mazzuoli - Adonis is gored by a boar

Adonis died at the tusks of a wild boar, sent by either Artemis in retaliation for Aphrodite instigating the death of Hippolytus, a favorite of the huntress goddess, Apollo, to avenge the blinding of Erymanthus as he saw Aphrodite and Adonis making love, or Aphrodite's paramour, Ares (the boar is sacred to him).[4]

As Aphrodite sprinkled nectar on his body, each drop of Adonis' blood turned into a blood-red anemone, and the river Adonis (modern Nahr Ibrahim) flowing out of Mount Lebanon in coastal Lebanon ran red, according to Lucian (chs. 6 – 9). Therefore, Persephone ultimately laid claim to Adonis as his shade was transported forever more to the Underworld.

Lucian, who attributes the color of the river Adonis to siltation, adds "Nonetheless, there are some inhabitants of Byblos who say that Osiris of Egypt lies buried among them, and the mourning and the ceremonies are all made in honor of Osiris instead of Adon" [2]. Certainly there are many parallels with the myth of Osiris, encased in the coffin, imprisoned in the tree from which he issues forth.

"In Greece" Burkert concludes, "the special function of the Adonis cult 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."

The most detailed and literary version of the story of Adonis is Ovid, Metamorphoses, x

Modern metaphorical use of the name

In modern parlance the name "Adonis" is frequently used as an allusion to an extremely attractive, youthful male, often with a connotation of deserved vanity: "the office Adonis".

In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman refers to his sons Biff and Happy as "Adonises." This is representative of the idealistic way he views them.

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.


  1. The standard modern survey and repertory is W. Atallah, Adonis dans la littérature et l'art grecs (Paris) 1966.
  2. Atallah 1966.
  3. Atallah 1966
  4. According to Nonnus, Dionysiaca 42.1f. Servius on Virgil's Eclogues x.18; Orphic Hymn lv.10; Ptolemy Hephaestionos, i.306, 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.



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