11 February 2011

Adonis – the Image of Masculine Beauty



“The fairest thing I leave behind is sunlight
then shining stars and the full moon's face,
and also ripe cucumbers, and apples, and pears"

(“Hymn to Adonis”, Praxilla of Sicyon, ca.5th century BC)


With Valentine's Day fast approaching and our attentions being encouraged to turn towards love and beauty, I thought I would share part of an article that I wrote for "Insight" magazine either last February or even February 2009.



We are told that our devotion to our partners is measured in the number of long stemmed red roses we buy, whose price almost miraculously skyrockets around the 14th of this month. Aside from roses, when we consider love and beauty, it is the Greek Goddess of love, Aphrodite, (or her Roman counterpart Venus) who quickly comes to mind. For the purpose of this article, however, I would like to focus on another Deity, one whose extraordinary beauty even had Aphrodite herself distracted by feelings of passion, that being the beautiful youth, Adonis.

According to Apollodorus of Damascus, this beautiful Phoenician God was conceived after his mother, Smyrna, was filled with incestuous passion and tricked her father Theias into bedding her. Upon realising her deception, Theias pursued his daughter with a knife. However, when she was about to be caught, Smyrna called upon the Gods to help her. Out of compassion, they turned her into a myrrh tree and, some ten months later, burst open and Adonis was born.

When the beautiful Aphrodite came across the infant Adonis, she decided to hide him in a chest that she entrusted to Persephone, the Goddess of the Underworld, for safekeeping until he came of age. However, before Aphrodite could retrieve the chest, and the beauty it contained, Persephone had opened it and was so overcome by Adonis that she would not return either the chest or the infant. Eventually the matter was settled by Zeus, the chief God of the Greek pantheon, who determined that during Spring and Summer, the time of fertility and fruitfulness, Adonis would spend this time above ground with Aphrodite; and therefore, during Autumn and Winter, the barren part of the year, he would spend this time below ground with Persephone.

Adonis as he appeared in Startrek
During his time with Aphrodite, it is said that the two became lovers and spent their time hunting and telling stories to each other. Despite being told not to hunt wild beasts, to hunt only those which posed no danger to him such as hares or does, eventually Adonis was killed by a boar. Aphrodite then was said to have laid the body of her lover down upon a bed made from lettuces. She also mixed some of his blood with nectar and then sprinkled this upon the ground in order to create the short-lived anemone, being blood red in colour.

The Babylonian Tammuz, according to Sir James Frazer, is believed to be a forerunner to Adonis as he also appeared as the youthful lover, this time to the great Babylonian Mother Goddess, Ishtar. Every year, Frazer wrote, Tammuz would die and pass into the gloomy subterranean world into which Ishtar then journeyed to retrieve and resurrect him again. To the Greeks, the subterranean world belonged to Persephone.

The ancient Greeks were believed to commemorate the death of Adonis by holding an annual festival known as “Adonia”. During this festival, wax or terracotta images of the young God were placed before the entrance or on the terraces of houses, to be later taken around the town by the women who wailed and beat their breasts with signs of deepest grief. Again, this seems to echo a similar annual rite of mourning preferred by the Babylonian people who chanted dirges over effigies of their God that were washed, anointed with oil and even dressed in a special red robe.

The name “Adonis” itself is said to be the Hellenised form of the Semitic word “Adon” meaning “my Lord, my Master”, which was said to have been repeated by the women in their lamentations during the festival of “Adonia”.

Whilst the Greeks associated Adonis with youthful beauty, to the Phoenicians he was an agriculture deity and also a vegetation spirit that manifested in the seed of corn. These associations connected him with similar such deities from the surrounding regions that were also associated with rebirth and vegetation. Aside from the Babylonian Tammuz (mentioned earlier), other such Gods included the Egyptian Osiris, the Phrygian Attis and the Canaanite Ba’al Hadad.

Over the centuries, the story of Adonis has been honoured by many poetic words, from William Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis” to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Elegy on the Death of John Keats”. Even today, his name lives on as the allusion for extreme physical attractiveness of young men, albeit particularly those who denote a level of vanity.



Resources:
“New Larousee Encyclopedia of Mythology”
"The Golden Bough” by Sir James Frazer
“The Greek Myths” by Robert Graves

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