Have you heard the one about the goddess and the Syrian? Perhaps it sounds unfamiliar when phrased like that, but we’re talking about the myth of Venus and Adonis, one of the great tragic love stories from classical mythology.
But what exactly is the story of Venus and Adonis? Let’s take a closer look at the myth and its meaning. But before we come to the analysis, it might be worth summarising the plot of the myth.
Venus and Adonis story: summary
Adonis was a beautiful Greek hero, though he was of Syrian origin. And his name wasn’t originally Adonis: that appellation (meaning ‘lord’) came later than his earlier names, which included Thammuz and Gauas.
He was beautiful, and Aphrodite – known as Venus to the Romans, hence our reason for referring to this as the ‘Venus and Adonis myth’ in the title of this article – looked out for the young boy when he was born. His birth was itself a rather strange affair, and it was said that he emerged from a myrrh tree after it burst.
How did Adonis get inside the myrrh tree? It was all Aphrodite’s fault in the first place. She tricked Smyrna, daughter of Theias, the King of Syria, into desiring her father and going to bed with him. When Theias discovered he’d been tricked, he decided to put his daughter to death, but the gods intervened – as they so often do in classical myth – and transformed Smyrna into a myrrh tree. Smyrna is also known by the name of Myrrha, which explains the link.
Aphrodite – as we’ll call her for now – fell in love with the young Adonis, but gave him to Persephone to look after. However, because Adonis was so beautiful, Persephone became besotted with him and refused to give him back to Aphrodite when asked.
In most versions of the myth, the dispute between Aphrodite/Venus and Persephone (or Proserpina, as she was known to the Romans) was settled by Zeus (Jupiter, to the Romans), who decreed that, in future, Adonis would spend four months of the year with Aphrodite, four months with Persephone, and the remaining four months wherever he liked.
However, Adonis seemed to prefer spending time with Aphrodite, for one year he spent eight months of the year with her, choosing to stay with her beyond the allotted four-month stay. But when he was still young, Adonis was killed by a wild boar following an attack orchestrated by Artemis, the goddess of hunting. In most accounts of the myth, his death was no mere accident: in one version of the story, Ares, the god of war (Mars to the Romans), had Adonis killed because he was jealous. As he was Aphrodite’s lover, one can see why.
However, there’s an alternative ending in which it was another god, Apollo, who ordered the death of Adonis. His motive was revenge, on Aphrodite, who had blinded Apollo’s son, Erymanthus, because he has clapped eyes on Aphrodite when she was naked. (Compare the myth of Diana and Actaeon here.)
Venus and Adonis story: analysis
The involvement of Persephone provides a clue to how we should analyse the story of Aphrodite (or Venus) and Adonis. Persephone’s own story explains the origins of the seasons, and to the ancient Greeks there were just three seasons a year, which is significant in helping us to decode and interpret the Adonis myth.
In classical Greek mythology, the Horae or Hours were three goddesses who were the offspring of Zeus and Aphrodite and represented the three seasons: Spring (Thallo), Summer (Auxo) and Autumn (Carpo). Winter didn’t get a goddess not just because the Greeks wanted to preserve the magic number of three and make the group a triad: they didn’t recognise winter as a ‘season’ at all. So Adonis’ four months with Persephone in Hades came to represent the ‘autumn season’ of the year, although probably only later on.
Classical mythology isn’t short of a few origin-stories about how certain flowers came to be: hyacinths, for instance, share their name with another youth, Hyacinth, who was killed by a discus, while the narcissus plant is named after the self-absorbed figure who died when he saw his own reflection.
But perhaps no other myth from antiquity has given birth to quite so many origin-stories as that of Venus and Adonis. For starters, there’s the ‘Just So’ story about how myrrh came about (the gods turning Smyrna into a myrrh tree); for another, there’s the explanation of red roses and how they came about.
The first red roses were said to have sprung up from the blood of the wounded Adonis as it soaked into the earth, staining the nearby white roses a deep crimson. Alternatively, it was Aphrodite’s blood which stained the white roses red, when she pricked her foot on a thorn while rushing to attend to her mortally wounded lover. This helps to explain how red roses came to be inextricably linked to romantic love (and adorn millions of Valentine’s Day cards every year): the idea is that such love transcends death and lives on beyond the lovers’ own short lives.
Even anemones, as The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Penguin Dictionary) notes, have been linked to the death of Adonis, and were said to have sprung up from his body: a poet named Bion of Phlossa said that Aphrodite’s tears watered the earth and made roses flower out of the ground, while it was Adonis’ blood that gave rise to anemones.
Adonis’ death gave rise to numerous rituals and cults throughout the ancient world: the river named after Adonis in Byblus was said to run red every year on the anniversary of his death, while the Adonia, a festival held in Alexandria, began with dancing and plenty of food and ended with a funeral ceremony, mirroring the tragic turn of the story.
This myth is normally known by its Roman name, ‘Venus and Adonis’, not least because Shakespeare went for the Roman name of the goddess in his famous narrative poem that retold the myth. Venus and Adonis was published in 1593, and it’s widely thought that Shakespeare turned to writing narrative poetry, starting with Venus and Adonis, because the playhouses were shut following an outbreak of bubonic plague in London.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.