According to Apollodorus1 a son of Cinyras and Metharme, according to Hesiod2 a son of Phoenix and Alphesiboea, and according to the cyclic poet Panyasis3 a son of Theias, king of Assyria, who begot him by his own daughter Smyrna (Myrrha).
The ancient story ran thus: Smyrna had neglected the worship of Aphrodite, and was punished by the goddess with an unnatural love for her father. With the assistance of her nurse she contrived to share her father's bed without being known to him. When he discovered the crime he wished to kill her; but she fled, and on being nearly overtaken, prayed to the gods to make her invisible. They were moved to pity and changed her into a tree called σμύρνα (smyrna). After the lapse of nine months the tree burst, and Adonis was born.
Aphrodite was so much charmed with the beauty of the infant, that she concealed it in a chest which she entrusted to Persephone; but when the latter discovered the treasure she had in her keeping, she refused to give it up. The case was brought before Zeus, who decided the dispute by declaring that during four months of every year Adonis should be left to himself, during four months he should belong to Persephone, and during the remaining four to Aphrodite. Adonis however, preferring to live with Aphrodite, also spent with her the four months over which he had control. Afterwards Adonis died of a wound which he received from a boar during the chase.
Thus far the story of Adonis was related by Panyassis. Later writers furnish various alterations and additions to it.
According to Hyginus,4 Smyrna was punished with the love for her father, because her mother Cenchreis had provoked the anger of Aphrodite by extolling the beauty of her daughter above that of the goddess. Smyrna after the discovery of her crime fled into a forest, where she was changed into a tree from which Adonis came forth, when her father split it with his sword. The dispute between Aphrodite and Persephone was according to some accounts settled by Calliope, whom Zeus appointed as mediator between them.5
Ovid6 adds the following features: Myrrha's love of her father was excited by the Erinyes; Lucina assisted her when she gave birth to Adonis, and the naiades anointed him with the tears of his mother, i.e. with the fluid which trickled from the tree. Adonis grew up a most beautiful youth, and Aphrodite loved him and shared with him the pleasures of the chase, though she always cautioned him against the wild beasts. At last he wounded a boar which killed him in its fury. According to some traditions Ares, or, according to others, Apollo assumed the form of a boar and thus killed Adonis.7 A third story related that Dionysus carried off Adonis.8 When Aphrodite was informed of her beloved being wounded, she hastened to the spot and sprinkled nectar into his blood, from which immediately flowers sprang up.
Various other modifications of the story may be read in Hyginus,9 Theocritus,10 Bion,11 and in the Scholiast on Lycophron.12 From the double marriage of Aphrodite with Ares and Adonis sprang Priapus.13 Besides him Golgos and Beroë are likewise called children of Adonis and Aphrodite.14 On his death Adonis was obliged to descend into the lower world, but he was allowed to spend six months out of every year with his beloved Aphrodite in the upper world.15
The worship of Adonis, which in later times was spread over nearly all the countries round the Mediterranean, was, as the story itself sufficiently indicates, of Asiatic, or more especially of Phoenician origin.16 Thence it was transferred to Assyria, Egypt, Greece, and even to Italy, though of course with various modifications.
In the Homeric poems no trace of it occurs, and the later Greek poets changed the original symbolic account of Adonis into a poetical story. In the Asiatic religions Aphrodite was the fructifying principle of nature, and Adonis appears to have reference to the death of nature in winter and its revival in spring — hence he spends six months in the lower and six in the upper world. His death and his return to life were celebrated in annual festivals called Adonia (Ἀδωνία) at Byblos, Alexandria in Egypt, Athens, and other places.
The oldest depiction of Adonis is found on an Etruscan mirror, but he also appears on vases, such as Aphrodite and Persephone at the bier of Adonis on an Apulian vase. The Statue of Adonis from Capua (fourth century BCE) is believed to have been made by the Greek sculptor Euphranor. Adonis is portrayed on many murals at Pompeii, such as at the Casa di Adone, and on Roman sarcophagi. More recent are Adonis' departure at the hunt, and Aphrodite's mourning over her dead lover, painted by Rubens and Tiziano. Sculptures of Adonis have been made by Canova, De Rossi, De Vries, Thorwaldsen, and others.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 14.3.
- ap. Pseudo-Apollodorus, iii, 14.4.
- ap. Pseudo-Apollodorus, l.c.
- Fabulae, 58, 164, 251, 271.
- Hyginus. Poetical Astronomy ii, 7.
- Metamorphoses x, 300 ff.
- Servius on Virgil's Eclogues x, 18; Ptolemaeus Hephaestus, i, 306.
- Phanocles ap. Plutarch. Symposiacs iv, 5.
- Poetical Astronomy ii, 7.
- Idylls xv.
- Idylls, i.
- 839 ff.
- Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, i, 9, 32.
- Scholiast on Theocritus, xv, 100; Nonnus. Dionysiaca xli, 55.
- Orphic Hymn 55, 10.
- Lucian. De dea Syria c, 6.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.