Ancient Greek art and culture glorified the beauty of young men. They were considered by most to be even more graceful and attractive than women of the same age.
The epitome of the handsome Greek youth was Adonis. He was so beautiful that his name is still used to describe a perfectly attractive male.
In Greek mythology, Adonis was attractive enough that gods and goddesses fought for his favor. Two of these goddesses argued so much over who he belonged with that Zeus himself was forced to intervene to maintain peace.
Adonis ended up being most closely associated with the goddess of love and beauty. He spent all the time he could with Aphrodite until his untimely death.
This story of Adonis illustrated the Greek ideal of youthful good looks, but historians have long believed that its origins might lay in another culture altogether.
According to most versions of the legend, Adonis was the son of Myrrha. She was also sometimes known as Smyrna.
Myrrha was a princess of Cyprus who, breaking one of society’s greatest taboos, fell in love with her own father.
Some writers claimed that Aphrodite caused this to happen because Myrrha had offended her. Ovid, however, said that Cupid (Eros) could not bear responsibility for such a terrible crime.
Myrrha disguised herself to trick her father into letting her into his bedroom. When he discovered her true identity, he was horrified.
King Cinyras chased after his daughter with a sword, making her flee for her life. In some versions of the tale, he pursued her for nine months before she found herself in Arabia.
Exhausted and filled with shame, Myrrah cried out to the gods for mercy. Myrrha was spared further shame by being turned into a myrrh tree. The tree’s fragrance came from her tears.
Myrrha gave birth to a son after her transformation into a tree. Aphrodite found the infant and named him Adonis.
Aphrodite did not raise the child herself, however. Instead she sent him to the Underworld to be fostered by Persephone, who as the wife of the god of death never had children of her own.
After several years, Aphrodite returned to reclaim her foster son. She planned to take him back to the world of men and find a suitable position for him.
When she saw Adonis as a young man, however, she was immediately struck by his good looks. Myrrha’s son had grown into the most beautiful person she had ever seen. She decided that, as the goddess of beauty, he belonged with her.
Aphrodite loved Adonis, but she was not alone. Persephone, too, had fallen in love with the handsome young man and wished to keep him in the Underworld.
The two goddesses argued over who had more claim to Adonis. Without Aphrodite he would not have been born, but Persephone had been the one to raise him since he was an infant.
Zeus eventually stepped in to settle the dispute, keeping the goddesses from fighting more. He declared that Adonis should divide his time between the two, but should also have some choice of his own.
Adonis would spend one-third of the year on earth with Aphrodite and one-third in the Underworld with Persephone. Zeus allowed him to decide for himself how to spend the other four months, giving him the freedom to choose how to spend his time.
Adonis chose to remain with Aphrodite. Persephone was disappointed, but could not contradict Zeus’s decree.
Adonis and Aphrodite were constantly together. For two-thirds of the year they were virtually inseparable.
Aphrodite even accompanied him while he was hunting, something the goddess of femininity and beauty did not otherwise do. Ovid claimed that she even wore short skirts and ran through the forest in the boyish manner favored by Artemis.
While they were in the forest one day, a wild boar attacked the young man. Adonis was gored and fatally wounded.
Aphrodite held her young lover in her arms as he bled to death. According to some sources, she laid him in a bed of lettuce as he died and the plant was sacred to her from that day on.
Aphrodite wept when Adonis died. Where her tears mixed with his blood, white and red anemone flowers, known for being short-lived, bloomed.
Most writers believed that the boar’s attack was not a spontaneous disaster, though.
The goddess of love foresaw that hunting wild animals would be dangerous for her young lover. She warned him to only hunt animals like rabbits and birds that were not dangerous, but he failed to heed her warning.
The most common version of the story said that Ares sent the boar after Adonis. The Greek god of war was jealous that Aphrodite was spending all her time with a young human instead of with him.
Some claimed, thought, that Artemis had sent the boar instead. The forests were her domain and she did not approve of the way Adonis and Aphrodite behaved while hunting together.
Another version of the story, however, said that Apollo was responsible for the attack.
Erymanthos, son of Apollon, was punished because he had seen Aphrodite after her union with Adonis and Apollon, irritated, changed himself into a wild boar and killed Adonis by striking through his defenses.
-Ptolemy Hephaestion, New History Book 1
It was said that Aphrodite never stopped mourning for Adonis. Her love for him was so great that she was forever affected by the loss.
Apollo may have had another reason to be angry with Aphrodite, however. Many sources claimed that Persephone was not the only one who vied with the goddess of beauty for the love of Adonis.
Adonis was so beautiful that many Greek gods and goddesses were attracted to him. He chose Aphrodite, but that did not prevent jealousy from the others.
In addition to Persephone, some of the deities who were said to have loved Adonis were:
- Apollo – Many writers said that Apollo was in love with Adonis as well. Some claimed that Adonis shared this love, and Artemis had him killed because she did not approve of her brother’s affair with a human.
- Heracles – According to one source, Heracles vied for Adonis’s love. In revenge, Aphrodite told the centaur Nessus how to trick Heracles’ wife into killing him.
- Eris – Ovid claimed that Adonis was so beautiful that even the goddess of envy was taken with him.
- Dionysus – In some stories, Dionysus vied for Aphrodite and Adonis’ daughter Beroe. Others, however, implied that he was also in love with Beroe’s father.
Even the Greek gods who did not want Adonis for themselves recognized his beauty.
When competing with Dionysus for Beroe’s favor, Poseidon said that Adonis was blessed several times over. Not only did he have a beautiful daughter and the love of Aphrodite, but his own good looks were beyond comparison.
Zeus also acknowledged Adonis’ beauty when Aphrodite and Persophone came to him with their dispute.
Some gods, however, were less pleased with Adonis and his charms.
Artemis was sometimes said to have been particularly disgusted by the beautiful young man.
As a chaste virgin goddess, Artemis disapproved of the way the other Olympians behaved around Adonis. This was especially true since Adonis loved hunting, so many of their dalliances occurred in the domain of the hunting goddess.
Many historians believe that the legend of Adonis was not an original myth in the ancient Greek religion. Even some late antique writers commented on the most likely source of the story.
Cicero, for example, mentioned that Aphrodite was called Astarte in the East. Other Mesopotamian names for this goddess, who had likely inspired the character of Aphrodite rather than the other way around, were Inanna and Ishtar.
In Babylon, Sumeria, and Ur, she was the goddess of love and beauty. She was the chief goddess of the pantheon and closely linked to concepts of fertility.
Her consort was Tammuz, who was also called Dumuzid. He was a god of fertility, shepherds, and the countryside.
While the Greek legend of Persephone explained the seasons and the cycle of life and death, in Mesopotamia it was Tammuz who filled this role.
According to the Mesopotamian legends, Astarte/Inanna was taken to the Underworld. She escaped, but the demons of the Underworld insisted that someone else must take her place.
Several other gods were suggested, but Astarte gave reasons for them all to be spared. When her husband Tammuz was named, she allowed him to go to the Underworld because he had not properly mourned for her.
Tammuz had a twin sister, however, who was bereft at his loss. She convinced Astarte to mourn for him as well, and together the two set off to find him in the Underworld.
Astarte was able to convince the demons to give her husband back, but they could not allow him to return forever. Tammuz, the god of fertility, had to divide his year between the world of the living and the land of the dead.
This myth was likely the source of the legend of Adonis. While the Greek myth of Persephone explained the return of spring each year, the Adonis legend retained his third of the year in the land of the dead.
While early Greek writers do not mention the story of Adonis, some historians believe that the parallels to Tammuz show that he was adopted into Greek mythology early on.
Aphrodite was not a native Greek goddess. She function, symbolism, and even some of her myths were taken directly from those of the Phoenician version of Astarte.
As her consort, Adonis may have been brought to Greece along with the goddess. Her mythology changed enough to make him a more minor character, but Adonis’ legend may have existed for as long as Aphrodite’s.
Further evidence for this is shown in the fact that the beautiful young man did not have a Greek name either.
The name Adonis did not come from Greek, but for the Canaanite word ‘adon, or “lord.” This name may indicate that he was a more prominent character in the Near East, and is related to the modern Hebrew epithet for God, Adonai.
Some of the earliest record of Adonis in Greece comes not from a retelling of his story, but from a mention of his festival.
According to Greek sources, Aphrodite established the festival of Adonia in his honor. It was already being celebrated, at least on the island of Lesbos, when Sappho wrote in the middle of the 5th century BC.
The Adonia was held in midsummer and primarily celebrated by women. It was a day to both celebrate love and mourn its loss.
Part of the festival honored not only the plants associated with Adonis’ myth, but also his likely origins as a fertility god.
Women planted vegetables that grew quickly, such as lettuce, in shallow pots or broken pottery shards which were left out in the sun. When the heat caused them to wither and die, they mourned for their plants as if they were a dead loved one.
These “Gardens of Adonis” were seen as wasteful by some, but to the women who celebrated the Adonia they were a symbol of love and beauty. Although cherished, it was short-lived and vulnerable.
Together with statuettes of Adonis, the failed “gardens” were carried in a funeral procession. In Athens, this parade went to the coast and the icons and dead plants were thrown into the sea from which Aphrodite had come.
In other places, women held singing contests. They sang mourning songs in honor of Aphrodite’s dead lover.
Mystery cults had their own ways of celebrating Adonis. With their focus on learning about the Underworld, the human who had split his time between the realms was an appealing figure.
One of the unique aspects of the Adonia in much of Greece was that all women were welcomed to celebrate. While other religious festivals were limited to those of certain ages or social classes, young women, prostitutes, and married noble women celebrated the festival of Adonis in equal measure.
Adonis was not a Greek god, but his story was closely tied to them.
His mother Myrrha was cursed with love for her own father. She disguised herself to seduce him, but he attempted to murder her when he learned the truth.
The gods spared Myrrha by turning her into a tree. From the wood was born a son, Adonis.
Aphrodite took the baby to Persephone to be fostered, but the two soon disagreed over him. He grew to be so handsome that both wanted him to stay with them.
Zeus intervened and declared that Adonis should spend a third of the year with each. The final third was his to do as he wished, but he chose to spend it with Aphrodite.
The two goddesses were not the only ones to love the most beautiful young man in Greece. Adonis attracted many gods, many of whom exhibited jealousy.
Adonis was eventually killed while on a hunting trip with Aphrodite. Many gods were blamed for sending the boar that gored him, with the most common story being that Ares did so out of jealousy.
Aphrodite established the Adonia, a women’s festival of love and mourning, in his honor. It was open to all women to pay tribute to the fleeting nature of beauty and passion.
The story of Adonis glorified the Greek ideal of youthful male beauty, but it likely originated outside of Greece. Much of Adonis’ myth is based on that of the Near Eastern god Tammuz, a fertility god who was the consort of Aphrodite’s Eastern counterpart.
Adonis is remembered today as the archetype of a beautiful youth. He was so beautiful that he inspired the gods to jealousy and was mourned by women throughout Greece each year.