In Greek mythology Adonis (pronounced uh-DON-is) was an extremely handsome young man who died and was reborn. Like many other mythological figures who are resurrected, or brought back to life, Adonis became associated with the annual cycle of the seasons in which plants die in the fall and grow back again in the spring. Adonis’s counterpart in Akkadian mythology was the god Tammuz (pronounced TAH mooz).
According to tradition, Adonis was the son of Myrrha (pronounced MERuh) and her father, Theias (pronounced THEE-us), the king of Assyria. So attractive was the infant Adonis that the goddess Aphrodite fell in love with him. She hid the baby in a box and gave himto Persephone, goddess of the underworld, for safe keeping. When Persephone saw Adonis, however, she also fell in love with him and refused to return him to Aphrodite. Zeus, the supreme ruler of the gods who lived on Mount Olympus, settled the argument by ordering Adonis to divide his time between the two goddesses. During spring and summer, the time of fertility and fruitfulness, Adonis stayed with Aphrodite. He spent fall and winter, the period of barrenness and death, with Persephone.
Adonis adored hunting. While out on a chase one day during his time with Aphrodite, he was killed by a wild boar. Some stories say that the boar was Hephaestus (pronounced hi-FES-tuhs), Aphrodite’s husband, in disguise, or perhaps it was Ares (pronounced AIR-eez), the god of war and Aphrodite’s jealous lover. Both stories maintain that beautiful red flowers called anemones (pronounced uh-NEM-uh-neez) grew and bloomed where Adonis’s blood fell on the soil.
Adonis in Context
In ancient Greece, as in many ancient societies, the changing of the seasons was a mystery. For this reason, seasons were often seen as evidence of the gods at work. Since Adonis was considered a god of plants and vegetation, his months-long stay in the underworld explained why flowers and other greenery failed to grow during winter. Each year in ancient Greece, Adonis worshippers, who tended to be mostly women, mourned his death by wailing and beating their breasts, and also celebrated his rebirth by planting “gardens of Adonis” for festivals held in his honor.
Key Themes and Symbols
As a god of vegetation, Adonis is a symbol of fertility and growth. Because he spent half of each year in the world of the living and half in the world of the dead, he is closely identified with the seasons of the year. He is also often identified with seasonal plants that sprout and die in a short period of time. The god has become a symbol of male beauty, and in modern times a handsome young man is sometimes called an “Adonis.”
Adonis in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Because of his famous beauty and rather tragic love affairs with goddesses, Adonis has been the subject of many works of art. He is often paired with Aphrodite, called Venus in Roman mythology, as in the painting Venus and Adonis, created around 1555 by Titian. The story of the couple is also the subject of Shakespeare’s 1593 poem “Venus and Adonis,” as well as the John Blow opera of the same name, omposed in
the 1680s. While use of the term “Adonis” to refer to an attractive young man is common, the mythological Adonis appears only rarely in contemporary art. Adonis was featured in an episode of the animated Disney series Hercules in 1998.
U.X.L Encyclopedia of World Mythology