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A Greek mythological hero, Adonis was one of the most complex figures in classical times. He had multiple roles and there has been much scholarship over the centuries of his meaning and purpose in the Greek religious beliefs. His Semitic counterpart is Tammuz. His Etruscan counterpart was Atunis. He is an annually-renewed, ever-youthful vegetation god, a life-death-rebirth deity whose nature is tied to the calendar.

Adonis was almost certainly based in large part on Tammuz. His name is Semitic, a variation on the word meaning "lord" and also used, as "Adonai", to refer to Yahweh in the Old Testament. When the Hebrews first arrived in Canaan, they were opposed by the king of the Jebusites, Adonizedek, whose name means "lord of Zedek" (Jerusalem). As "Lord" Adonis was the youthful consort of the ageless Goddess, who might take various identities according to which aspect of annual renewal is being emphasized.

Adonis' birth is shrouded in confusion. Multiple versions exist.

  1. The most commonly accepted version is that Aphrodite urged Myrrha or Smyrna to commit incest with her father, Theias, the King of Assyria, which confirms the area of Adonis' origins. Myrrha's nurse helped with the scheme. When Theias discovered this, he flew into a rage, chasing his daughter with a knife. The gods turned her into a myrrh tree and Adonis eventually sprung from this tree, confirming his nature as a vegetation god.
  2. It was also said that Myrrha fled from her father and Aphrodite turned her into a tree. Adonis was then born when Theias shot an arrow into the tree or when a boar used its tusks to tear the tree's bark off.
  3. Apollodorus considered Adonis to be the son of Cinyras and Metharme.
  4. Hesiod believes he is the son of Phoenix and Aephesiboea

Once Adonis was born, Aphrodite took him under her wing, seducing him with the help of Helene, her friend, and was entranced by his unearthly beauty. She gave him to Persephone to watch over, but Persephone was also amazed at his beauty and refused to give him back. The argument between the two goddesses was settled either by Zeus or Calliope, with Adonis spending four months with Aphrodite, four months with Persephone and four months of the years with whomever he chose. He always chose Aphrodite because Persephone was the cold, unfeeling goddess of the underworld.

He died at the tusks of a wild boar, sent by either Artemis or Aphrodite's lover, Ares, who was jealous of Adonis' beauty. Each drop of Adonis' blood turned into a blood-red anemone.

Adonis was often worshipped in mystery religions. Women in Athens would plant "gardens of Adonis" quick-growing herbs that sprang up from seed and died. The Festival of Adonis was celebrated by women at midsummer by sowing fennel and lettuce, and grains of wheat and barley. The plants sprang up soon, and withered quickly, and women mourned for the untimely death of the vegetation god.

His name is frequently used as an allusion to an extremely attractive, youthful male, often with a connotation of immature vanity: "the office Adonis."


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