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).
Phonecia.org online "Who was the Phoenician god Adon (Adonis) and how did his name become "Lord" in Hebrew?" http://phoenicia.org/adonis.html
Wikipedia: Life-death-rebirth deity: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life-death-rebirth_deity
Beauleau, David, "Christmas Holly Trees: History, Winter Solstice", online at http://landscaping.about.com/cs/winterlandscaping1/a/holly_trees.htm
Webster's New Twentieth Century Dictionary, Unabridged, Second Edition (World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1956).