Aphrodite & Adonis

Myrrha (also known as Smyrna) tricked her own father, Cinyras, king of Paphos, into sleeping with her. When Cinyras discovered what he had done he tried to kill his daughter, but the gods transformed her into a tree, which still weeps drops of myrrh. In time, the tree split open and gave birth to a boy, Adonis. When Aphrodite found him, his beauty overcame her. To hide him from the other gods she placed him in a chest, which she gave for safe-keeping to Persephone. But when Persephone opened it and saw what lay inside, she too became enamoured of Adonis and refused to return him to Aphrodite. The goddesses asked Zeus to arbitrate. He ruled that Adonis should live with each for a third of the year and spend the remaining third with whichever goddess he chose. Adonis chose Aphrodite.

Aphrodite & Adonis Photo Gallery

Obsessed with Adonis’ aching beauty, Aphrodite even accompanied him on hunting expeditions in the mountains, desperately anxious lest an animal attack and kill him Repeatedly she begged him to take care. But one day, when he was alone, his hounds surprised a sleeping boar. Triumphantly Adonis tried to skewer it with his javelin, but he only struck a glancing blow. Maddened by pain, the boar sliced Adonis’ groin.

As Adonis lay dying, Aphrodite passed overhead in her chariot drawn by swans. Unable to save him, she transformed his blood into a sea of anemones, whose life is short and whose petals fall at the slightest breath of wind. Then, tearing her hair, she laid out his body on a bed of lettuce leaves and mourned him:

Tender Adonis is dying, my Aphrodite. What are we to do? Beat your breasts, and rip your tunics! Weep for him!

When Sappho wrote these lines around the turn of the sixth century bc, Adonis’ cult was widespread across the Aegean. Indeed, despite his close association with Paphos, Adonis was probably originally a Near Eastern god of vegetation, perhaps travelling to Greece from Ugarit (in modern Syria), where his name ‘Adon’ or ‘Adonai’ meant ‘Lord’. In early summer festivals Greek women mourned his death, tending special gardens of fast-growing, fast-dying plants such as lettuce and fennel sown in shallow earthenware pots and left, on roof tops to wither in the sun. The emphasis was on death not resurrection, but his cult contained the seeds of hope: just as the infant Adonis stayed with Persephone in Hades for only a third of the year, so his spirit would return each year to lend his life-giving vitality to nature for the remaining two thirds. As Eros flutters by, a relatively demure Aphrodite places her hands on the shoulders of her reclining lover Adonis. (Attic red figure water jar, c. 450-400 BC.)

Gardens played an important role in Aphrodite’s worship, too. A garden was dedicated to her on the Athenian Acropolis, while just outside Paphos modern Yeroskipou takes its name from the ‘Hieros Kepos’ (‘Sacred Garden’), which Ovid says contained a tree with ‘gold leaves on gold branches’. It was an important staging post in the annual procession from Paphos to Aphrodite’s temple at Palaepaphos (modern Kouklia), which culminated in a festival of athletics and the Arts.

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