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The fable of Adonis is derived from a Syrian legend, mentioned as early as Hesiod. The most generally accepted version is as follows. Theias, king of Syria, had a daughter, Myrrha or Smyrna, who was impelled by the wrath of Aphrodite to want to commit incest with her father. With the help of her nurse Hippolyta she succeeded in deceiving Theias, with whom she spent twelve nights, but on the twelfth night Theias realized how his daughter had deceived him and armed with his knife pursued her with the aim of putting her to death. Myrrha put herself under the protection of the gods, who changed her into a myrrh tree. Ten months later the bark of the tree rose and burst open and a child emerged, who was called Adonis. Aphrodite, moved by the infant's beauty, sheltered it and entrusted it secretly to Persephone to bring up, but she too was so taken by the child's beauty that she did not want to give it back to Aphrodite. This argument between the two goddesses was settled by Zeus (another version says by the Muse Calliope in the name of Zeus) and it was decided that Adonis should spend one-third of the year with Aphrodite, one-third with Persephone and one-third wherever he chose, but Adonis always spent two-thirds of the year with Aphrodite and only one-third with Persephone. Later, the anger of Artemis (provoked for reasons which are not exactly known) caused him to be gored by a wild boar during a hunt, and he was fatally injured.

This first outline of the myth, which can be seen as symbolic of the mystery of natural growth, embodied in this child who is born of a tree, spends a third of the year underground and for the remainder come into the daylight to join forces with the goddess of springtime and love, was subsequently both embellished and elaborated. The reason often given for the curse of Artemis upon Myrrha is that Cenchreis, mother of Smyrna, and wife of Cinyras (who here takes the place of Theias) had offended the goddess by claiming that her daughter was more beautiful; Smyrna's desire for an illicit love was a punishment for Cenchreis' presumption. As soon as she realized the incestuous nature of her passion, Smyrna wanted to hang herself but her nurse advised her to satisfy her love. Once incestuous intercourse had taken place the girl his herself in shame in a forest where Aphrodite, taking pity on her victim, changed her into a tree. Smyrna's father who cleft the bark of the tree with his sword, thus bringing the baby Adonis into the world, but in yet another version it was a wild boar which freed the child from the protecting tree by opening it up with its tusks, thus foretelling the young man's death. It pleased the imagination of Hellenistic poets to think of Adonis as having been brough up by the Nymphs, hunting or leading his flocks in the country or the forest. The tragedy which led to his death was sometimes said to have been caused not by Artemis but by the jealousy of Ares, Aphrodite's lover, or, on yet another hypothesis, by the vengeance of Apollo on Aphrodite who had blinded ERYMANTHUS, the god's son, because he had seen her bathing naked.

The Adonis legend is set sometimes on Mount Idalion, sometimes in Lebanon. A river called the Adonis flowed through Byblos, its waters coloured red every year on the day when the death of Adonis was celebrated.

The story of Adonis provides a basis for several legends about flowers, not merely the mythical origin of myrrh (the tears of Myrrha) but also that of the red rose, which was originally white. As Aphrodite was running to the assistance of her wounded friend she pricked her foot on a thorn and the flowers dedicated to him were coloured by her blood. Anemones too were said to be born of the blood of the wounded Adonis. The idyllic poet Bion tells that the goddess shed as many tears as Adonis shed drops of blood; from each tear sprang a rose and from each drop of blood an anemone.

In honour of her friend, Aphrodite established a funeral feast, celebrated each spring by the Syrian women. Vessels and boxes were planted with seeds, which were watered with warm water to make them grow very quickly, and they were called gardens of Adonis. Plants thus brought on unnaturally quickly, died soon after they appeared above the surface, thus symbolizing the fate of Adonis, and the women uttered ritual laments over the fate of the youth beloved of Aphrodite.

The Semitic roots of this legend are plain to see, even the name of the god can be traced back to the Hebrew word meaning 'lord'. Adonis is found depicted on Etruscan mirrors, and his cult spread throughout the Mediterranean world in the Hellenistic period.


Table of Sources:
- Apollod. Bibl. 3, 14, 4
- Hyg. Fab. 58; 271
- Serv. on Virgil, Ecl. 10, 18
- Ovid, Met. 10, 345ff.
- Serv. on Virgil, Aen. 5, 72
- Hyg. Fab. 248
- Theocr. 1, 109; 3, 46 with schol.
- Prop. 3, 5, 38
- Lucian, Dea Syra 8
- Strabo 16, 2, 18-19, p. 755
- Paus. 6, 24, 7
- Bion, 1, 72
- Theocr. 15, 102; 136ff.
- Orphic Hymns 56, 9
- Ausonius, Epit. in Glauc.; Cupido crucif. 57f
- Clem. Alex. Protrep. 2, 33, 8f

Syrian poet, now living in Lebanon.

but staying still.
0, sun,
how do I attain the skill
of your footsteps?

Adonis (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar) is considered by many as being one of the most influential modern Arab poets. His works combine the traditional Arabic poetic style with a new manner of expressing modern sentiments.

Born in Kassabia in 1930, Adonis was strongly influenced by classical Shi'i poets, but in his twenties he begun to experiment with the prose poem, giving it density, tension, metaphors and rhythm. He also broke the strict diction and style of traditional poems, and introduced a new and powerful syntax structure. He often uses myths from religions other than Islam, especially the resurrecting gods Tammuz, Adonis and Phoenix, all central symbols of his poetry. His other interests include European surrealism (which exerted a great influence on his more recent works) and contemporary political theories both in Europe and the Middle East.

Like most Arab poets, Adonis often employs the technique of 'tarab'. 'Tarab' aims at a sort of ecstasy reached when the musicality of the verse corresponds with the visions and thoughts expressed in the poem. This mastery of a difficult technique might account for the oft-repeated praise: "Adonis has a thing for voices". As with many of his writings, he employs human characters to voice out his thoughts and ideas. The words of the poems are not just written on the page, they're meant to be spoken aloud. This poetic tactic, if you will, accentuates his writing. The voices add depth to the written word, making the spoken words seem more believable, more human. According to his admirers, Adonis has mastered this art of putting onto page what is spoken between people.

During his life, Adonis has played many roles: at various times, he has been a philosopher (a degree from Damascus University), a political prisoner, a refugee, a journalist and most recently, a university professor in Lebanon. His name Adonis was given to him by the leader of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, Antun Saada.


0, Phoenix, I pray
that you remain in the ashes,
that you don't glimpse the light or rise.
We've neither experienced your night
nor sailed across the darkness.
0, Phoenix, I pray
that the magic die,
that our rendezvous be in
the fire and the ashes.
0, Phoenix, I pray
that madness be our guide.


1961: Songs of Mihyar, the Damascene
1971: Introduction of Arab Poetry
1978: The Shock of Modernity
1980: Manifesto of Modernity
Nicholson: A Literary History of the Arabs (Cambridge, 1969).

Adonis, the dying and resurrected god

Mother Nature loves her cycles: the sun slips below the western horizon in the evening only to reappear in the east with the coming of dawn; plants sprout, grow, bear fruit, and ultimately die; rivers flood and recede; even rocks are eventually worn away into sand. Early humans had an intuitive feel for, and a very fundamental respect for these patterns.

The agricultural god Eshmun was called by the title Adon or Adonai ('lord' and 'my lord' respectively) by the Semitic-speaking Canaanites, and the Greeks Hellenized the title to Adonis when they added their own coat of paint to his story. This beautiful youth was repeatedly seduced by Aphrodite and Persephone in a sort of sexy tug of war (some gods have all the breaks) and eventually ended up spending the spring with the fertility goddess and the rest of the year (particularly the fallow seasons) with the Lady of the Underworld.

The young lord's story would have been a familiar one to the people of the Mediterranean region. Tales of a beautiful young god who died, went to the land of the dead (often imagined to be in the west, where the sun sets, or deep beneath the earth) and who was then allowed to return to the land of the living each year, were not uncommon in the myths of European and Middle Eastern peoples. In Egypt, the story was told of Osiris, a fertility god (representing the annual flooding of the Nile) who was murdered by his jealous brother, Set (a sterility god who represented the bleak desert) and was subsequently brought back to life by his loving wife, Isis (a mother nature figure who also represented the tenets of civilisation). Nearby, the stories of the dying god Baal (whose name also means 'Lord') and his faithful wife Anat echo these myths. The Phrygian god Attis was castrated, died and came back from the dead. The Sumerian-Babylonian Dumuzi (aka Tammuz) had to live in the underworld with his wife's sister Ereshkigal for a portion of the year.

Each spring, the river Nahr Ibrahim (in modern-day Lebanon) flows red with iron-rich soil; this river was once named the Adonis and its first rusty floods were said to mark the anniversary of the young god's death. Lovely carpets of red anemone flowers in the spring were said to be the blood of the dying youth. This anniversary would be attended with a huge festival called the Adonia, particularly at Byblos, the centre of his cult. Greek writer Lucan visited that city in the second century CE and told of these ecstatic festivals commemorating the god's death and rebirth.

These tales are a recounting of the cycle of fertility. During the cold of winter, the fields are barren, their potential bounty hidden safely beneath the ground. As the sun begins to warm the earth, fertility returns, baby animals are born and the nourishing gifts of mother earth return. Many cultures celebrated the return of fertility in myths and rituals. The Celtic people of Britain told of the battle between the Oak and Holly kings—twin brothers who representing summer and winter respectively. At the solstices, rituals would be performed, commemorating the shift in power between one brother and the other. Such deities carried the promise of the rebirth of nature after the winter, and a hopeful promise of life after death.

When life itself depends on the harvest, the first green shoots appearing from the once-barren earth must have been a very reassuring sight, and the dying and resurrected young gods' mysteries echo this cycle.

Because of his season-stopping good looks, the god's name was also came to mean an attractive young man: Old Gus assured us that he had been quite an Adonis in his younger days. This also leads to the peculiar (and mercifully rare) word adonize, a (transitive) verb which means to primp or preen, to beautify. That word is used exclusively of men, when it is used, for reasons that are doubtless apparent. It is not to be confused with the word anodize, a process which makes metal objects more attractive.

Much of this information has been gleaned from a (self-published) book on mythology I have written and am constanly in the process of revising.
Cotterell, Arthur and Storm, Rachel, The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (Hermes House, London, 1999).
Jordon, Michael, "Encyclopedia of Gods" (Facts on File, New York, 1993). online "Who was the Phoenician god Adon (Adonis) and how did his name become "Lord" in Hebrew?"
Wikipedia: Life-death-rebirth deity:
Beauleau, David, "Christmas Holly Trees: History, Winter Solstice", online at
Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition (World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1956).

A*do"nis (#), n. [L., gr. Gr. .]

1. Gr. Myth.

A youth beloved by Venus for his beauty. He was killed in the chase by a wild boar.


A preeminently beautiful young man; a dandy.

3. Bot.

A genus of plants of the family Ranunculaceae, containing the pheasaut's eye (Adonis autumnalis); -- named from Adonis, whose blood was fabled to have stained the flower.


© Webster 1913.

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