Front panel of sarcophagus with a myth of Aphrodite and Adonis.
Parian marble. Late 2nd century A.D., Mantua, Ducal Palace.
The Greek myth of Aphrodite and Adonis is an interesting myth of love, lust and rejection, peppered with revenge and jealousy. It’s a classic love saga with layers of symbolism. Let us first understand the birth of the main characters in the myth.
Aphrodite was born from the place where the genitals of Cronos were thrown after he was castrated by his son, Zeus. In art, Aphrodite is generally shown as a beautiful young woman standing on a scallop shell. Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of beauty, love and carnal pleasures. Though she was married to Hephaestus, she was known to be having affairs with many other gods, Ares, the god of war being one of them (Read “Aphrodite’s Infidelity” http://utkarshspeak.blogspot.in/2013/05/aphrodites-infidelity.html ) and mortals like Adonis amongst others.
The birth of Adonis is a bit scandalous and different. It has many variations, but let’s refer to the most common version here. Adonis’s mother was the beautiful Myrrha, the daughter of King Cinyras. Myrrha’s mother would boast that Myrrha was the most beautiful of all and that her beauty surpassed that of even Aphrodite. This angered Aphrodite and she cursed Myrrha to fall in love with her own father, King Cinyras. Accordingly, Myrrha fell in love with her father, and without knowing what was at play, one night in the cover of darkness, Myrrha managed to seduce her father to sleep with her, after getting him drunk.
When the father discovered that he was tricked by his own daughter and that she was expecting his child, he chased her with a sword to kill her. The
gods however took pity on the girl and changed
her into a tree, better known as the myrrh tree, a tree which produces resin.
Later, the goddess of birth enabled her to deliver a baby and Adonis, the baby
was found near the myrrh tree. Aphrodite took pity on the baby and gave it to
Persephone, the wife of Hades, the god of the underworld, managing to hide the
baby from others, as it was a sinful birth out of incestuous relationship. Adonis
was a child whose mother was also his sister and whose father was also his
Baby Adonis grew up to be a very handsome man,which made both Persephone and Aphrodite fall in love with him! Soon a fight broke up between the two as to who should keep the handsome young man. Zeus had to intervene, and it was decided that Adonis would spend one third of the year with Persephone, one third with Aphrodite and the remaining would be left on Adonis to decide. Adonis decided to spend the rest with Aphrodite, as he preferred to be on earth. However, Aphrodite was still not happy with the arrangement, as she wanted Adonis completely to herself. It is said that Aphrodite had seduced Adonis, into lazing around when at Hades, and enjoying him for the rest of the year, leaving Persephone fuming.
|Venus and Adonis, 1794, |
Antonio Canova (1757-1822), *
Soon Adonis started spending more time with Aphrodite, however, popular versions say, that he wasn't quite in love with Aphrodite. Adonis loved hunting instead. Aphrodite had a premonition of hunting leading Adonis to some trouble. She kept warning him against hunting. She had an uncanny fear that some animal would want to take revenge on her by harming Adonis, especially lions, as she had cursed two lovers to become lions since she was upset with them over something (which is another story). To further dissuade him, she had warned not to challenge animals which charged back or came back at him, or were not scared of him.
Once, when Aphrodite left for some place, Adonis
charged into the forest for hunting. Soon he came across a wild boar,
which had long tusks and started to chase it. The boar surprisingly could not
be scared away and the hunt changed sides. The boar ended up chasing Adonis,
and before long the boar plunged its tusks deep into his groin and killed him.
Later it was found that the boar was no ordinary boar, but Ares, one of the
lovers of Aphrodite, who was jealous of Adonis for taking so much of Aphrodite’s,
attention and affection. Some versions say that it was Persephone, who had told
Ares about the relationship, as she was jealous of Aphrodite! In a severely
wounded state Adonis called out for Aphrodite, who turned back to the forest to
find Adonis breathing his last.
|The Death of Adonis, |
by Giuseppe Mazzuoli, 1709
The place where the drops of Adonis’s blood fell,gave birth to beautiful red anemones, a flower found during the spring in the Mediterranean, and the rest of the blood flowed into a river, which today flows as the river Nahr Ibrahim in Lebanon, also known as the Adonis River.
Adonis, after his death went to the underworld, where he was greeted by Persephone. The very idea of Adonis being in the company of Persephone forever, made Aphrodite uneasy and she landed at the doors of the underworld, leading to another confrontation. Once again Zeus, had to intervene, and it was resolved that Adonis would now spend half year with each of them.
As mentioned earlier, the myth has layers of meaning. The story symbolises many things.
Adonis’s six month term can be seen in two ways. The first one is symbolic of man’s spending half his life with his mother and the other with his wife, the former being symbolised by Adonis being brought up by Persephone and the latter by Adonis spending his youth with Aphrodite. The other symbolism is the change in seasons. When Adonis spent time with Persephone, it was winter and when he came back to Aphrodite, he brought with him spring and summer, a time for love and romance, his relationship with Aphrodite. The struggle for Adonis was the perennial struggle for love (as life) and death. An important aspect of the myth was the death and resurrection of Adonis, which represented the perishing and the revival of the plants annually.
Adonis was the symbol of masculinity and good looks. Adonis, though born out of an incestuous relationship, which was out of jealousy of Aphrodite, ensured that Aphrodite, who brought disgrace to his mother, did not find love herself. Aphrodite was known for having many lovers, but never loved her own husband. Though she loved Adonis, Adonis loved hunting. The anemone flowers are a reminder to Aphrodite’s frustrated love. It is said, that the flowers, have a short span of life. No sooner they bloom, the wind pulls them down, as the flowers have weak and slender stems and cannot withstand slightest of the breeze!
The theme of incest, though provoked by Aphrodite out of sheer jealousy, gets the disdain that the society understands or should. The incestuous relationship between the father and daughter, receives poetic justice, by Adonis avenging the trauma and pain that her mother underwent, in causing similar grief in Aphrodite, after his own death.
All in all an interesting Greek myth of tragic and unfulfilled love and lust.
* Aphrodite was referred to as Venus in Roman Mythology