The Myth of Adonis

Adonis is derived from the Canaanite title, Adon. It is the Semitic word for master or ‘lord’ and it means ‘my’, therefore Adonai (Adonis is the Hellenized version of the same) translates as ‘my lord’; similarly the meaning of Baal, with whom he shares traits, is also ‘lord’ or ‘master’. The Biblical David refers to his lord as Adonis.

The myth of Adonis suffers from a lot of confusion. He had two origins, several fathers and mothers, in some ways. His mother was Greek Aphrodite, the equivalent of Phoenician Astarte and Roman Venus. However, his lover was also Astarte and Venus; while his fathers were several kings and gods. This mother-wife association with Venus descends from her duality as the Morning and Evening Star.

The Greeks knew the cult of Adonis in the sixth century BC, unquestionably through contact with Cyprus. In the same period Ezekiel (8:4) notes his existence in Jerusalem under the Babylonian name of Tammuz, who saw the women of Jerusalem weeping for him at the north gate of the temple. Adonis parallels the eastern companion god Dumuzi/Tammuz and the Hittite Telipinu. He is a Semitic immigrant to the Greek pantheon and is therefore not counted among the greater gods. His cult was established in Greece by 600 BC and his worship was known to Sappho and her circle.

Adonis has two origins: Cyprus and Byblos. On Cyprus, his father is either Canaanite/Phoenician king Theias or Cinyras, king of Paphos, or Pygmalion; his mother was Myrrha, the king's daughter. At Byblos, it is Phoinix, father of the Phoenicians. Paphos sees him linked to the goddess Aphrodite, with whom a tie has already been established. The worship of Adonis, a cult especially popular with women, was celebrated on flat rooftops by the planting of plants and the offering of incenses. It also involved lamentations for the dead god. The incense and wailing of women are identical practices to those found in Baal worship. In Greece, the goddess Persephone fulfills much of his role. In Phoenicia, his worship supplanted that of Aleyin, a vegetation god and son of Baal, who was killed by Mot.

According to legend the king of Canaan, Theias, had a daughter named Myrrha or Smyrna (myrrh, Mera, Meru, Mary) who was cursed by Aphrodite. She was forced to commit incest with her father when she was twelve; with the complicity of her nurse she succeeded in deceiving him for eleven nights, but on the twelfth night Theias discovered whom she really was and prepared to kill her. Myrrha (Mary) fled, and the gods taking pity on her, turned her into a tree, the myrrh tree. Ten months later the bark peeled off and an infant emerged and was named Adonis. Aphrodite was very moved by the beauty of the child, placed him into a coffin and she gave him to Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, to bring up. Becoming infatuated with the beautiful child Persephone refused to give him back. When Aphrodite returned to retrieve the coffin she discovered that Persephone had opened it and claimed the handsome child for herself. Zeus became the arbitrator in settling the dispute between the two goddesses, and it was decided that Adonis should live one-third of the year with Aphrodite on earth, one-third with Persephone in the Underworld, and the final third with whichever he pleased. Adonis chose to spend two-thirds of the year with Aphrodite and one-third with Persephone in the Underworld.

Adonis was an avid hunter. Astarte fell deeply in love with him. She tried to persuade him to give up the dangerous sport. Adonis refused. The story goes that while out hunting, Adonis was killed by a wild boar. The Phoenician goddess Astarte tried to save him but she was too late. And so it is the blood of Adonis that each spring turns to red the torrential river, the Adonis River (modern Nahr Ibrahim in Lebanon) . Afqa is the sacred source where the waters of the river emerge from a huge grotto in a cliff 200 meters high. Some say it is there that the myth of Astarte (Venus) and Adonis was born, but his roots trace back through Atunis of Etruria and Attis of Phrygia to the Vedic homeland of Anatolia and, more anciently, Armenia.

Across from the grotto are the remains of the Roman Temple of Venus. The temple was destroyed by the Christian Emperor Constantine (285 - 337 AD), it was later rebuilt by Julian the Apostle (362 - 363). His most important temples were at Byblos and Paphos. The temple of Astarte, in Byblos, celebrated the annual death and resurrection of Adonis.

Photo: Carving of Adonis fighting the wild boar with his visionary mushrooms in the background. Note that boars are well know for rooting out truffles and other mushrooms, so were naturally associated with Adonis as a mushroom god.