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N.S. Gill

Myth Monday - Even the Boar Wanted to Kiss Adonis

By June 11, 2012

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Image ID: 1664529  Art Exhibits - Masterpieces of Art Exhibit - Venus and Adonis (Titian)
Image ID: 1664529 Art Exhibits - Masterpieces of Art Exhibit - Venus and Adonis (Titian)
© NYPL Digital Gallery
"[3.14.4] And Adonis, while still a boy, was wounded and killed in hunting by a boar through the anger of Artemis."
Pseudo Apollodorus, translated by J.G. Frazer
As told by Pseudo-Apollodorus, the story of Adonis, the mortal love interest of Aphrodite whose death came as a result of a boar's tusk, contains elements more or less familiar from other myths. Reed [citation below] says the Adonia, a Greek cult of Adonis that was practiced by women during the dog days of summer, is an adaptation of a Mesopotamian summer festival. The Mesopotamians honored the love goddess Ishtar (Inanna) when she lamented the lost of her consort, the agricultural god Tammus or Dumuzi. Greek women celebrated Aphrodite's lament for Adonis on their rooftops for an unknown number of days and with potted, wilting plants, perhaps representing the summer period of no growth with which the loss of the Mesopotamian god was associated.

The most familiar version of the birth of Adonis is connected with a metamorphosis. When his mother, here given as Myrrha or Smyrna (both meaning myrrh), became pregnant, she was transformed into the myrrh tree. Adonis was born from her trunk. This part of the myth probably deserves a place on the Strangest Births in Ancient Myths.

Pseudo-Apollodorus says that in the Myrrha/Smyrna version of the birth story, Smyrna had failed to honor Aphrodite, so the goddess punished the woman by making her fall for her own father. This wasn't the only time Aphrodite took revenge on those who failed to honor her. When Theseus' son Hippolytus did so, she punished him by making his step-mother take a fancy to him, with predictably dire consequences. See Aphrodite Meddles in Mortal Affairs.

"In consequence of the wrath of Aphrodite, for she did not honor the goddess, this Smyrna conceived a passion for her father, and with the complicity of her nurse she shared her father's bed without his knowledge for twelve nights. But when he was aware of it, he drew his sword and pursued her, and being overtaken she prayed to the gods that she might be invisible; so the gods in compassion turned her into the tree which they call smyrna (myrrh)."
Pseudo Apollodorus, translated by J.G. Frazer
The baby was beautiful. Aphrodite, who appears to have been present at the eruption of the tree trunk, hid him away in a chest. You may remember that Danae and her newborn son, the future Greek hero Perseus, were sent adrift in a chest. In another instance of a newborn needing concealment (in addition to stories of babies hidden on river banks in baskets), when Zeus was born, his mother, Rhea, hid him away from his father because Cronos had previously swallowed all Rhea's earlier offspring at birth. Aphrodite entrusted the chest containing the infant to Persephone. Later in the mythological timeline, in the story of Cupid and Psyche, Aphrodite sends the mortal heroine to Persephone in the Underworld to fetch a jar of beauty ointment. Evidently Aphrodite entrusted things of value to Hades' queen, but in the case of Adonis, such trust was badly placed, since Persephone also loved the beautiful human male and wouldn't give him back.

Now, Persephone is herself best known for being taken by Hades, brought to the Underworld, and tricked into staying there part of the year. Persephone's grieving mother wanted her daughter back and prevailed on Zeus to do what he could. Zeus sent Hermes, one of the gods who regularly and freely visits the Underworld and Mt. Olympus, to Hades to ask for Persephone, but before Persephone could be returned intact and permanently, Hades persuaded her to have a celebratory bite to eat, thereby compelling her to remain in the Underworld. A compromise was reached, however, and Persephone was allowed into the world of the living for part of the year. The other part of the year, she spent below.

"Those who, by permission of the Parcae [Moirai, Fates], returned from the lower world ... Adonis, son of Cinyras and Zmyrna, by wish of Venus [Aphrodite]."
Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 251:

Zeus makes a similar arrangement for disposing with Adonis, but Persephone appears not to have been too happy. It makes one wonder if it wasn't the Underworld queen who sent the boar after Adonis, since, once he was dead, Persephone might have expected to keep him.

"Ten months afterwards the tree burst and Adonis, as he is called, was born, whom for the sake of his beauty, while he was still an infant, Aphrodite hid in a chest unknown to the gods and entrusted to Persephone. But when Persephone beheld him, she would not give him back. The case being tried before Zeus, the year was divided into three parts, and the god ordained that Adonis should stay by himself for one part of the year, with Persephone for one part, and with Aphrodite for the remainder. However Adonis made over to Aphrodite his own share in addition; but afterwards in hunting he was gored and killed by a boar."
Adonis was loved by more than just the two rival goddesses. Even the boar laments his actions -- according to a different (non-Pseudo-Apollodorus) source -- explaining he was just trying to kiss the lovely youth:
"When the Cytherean saw Adonis dead, his hair dishevelled and his cheeks wan and place, she bade the Loves go fetch her the boar, and they forthwith flew away and scoured the woods till they found the sullen boar. Then they shacked him both before and behind, and one did put a noose about the prisoner's neck and so drag him, and another belaboured him with his bow and so did drive, and the craven beast went along in abject dread of the Cytherean. Then upspake Aphrodite saying, "Vilest of all beasts, can it be thou that didst despite to this fair thigh, and thou that didst strike my husband?" To which the beast "I swear to thee, Cytherean," answered he, "by thyself and by thy husband, and by these my bonds and these thy huntsmen, never would I have smitten thy pretty husband but that I saw him there beautiful as a statue, and could not withstand the burning mad desire to give his naked thigh a kiss. And now I pray thee make good havoc of me; pray take and cut off these tusks, pray take and punish them - for why should I possess teeth so passionate? And if they suffice thee not, then take my chaps also - for why durst they kiss?" Then had Cypris compassion and bade the Loves loose his bonds; and he went not to the woods, but from that day forth followed her, and more, went to the fire and burnt away those his tusks away."
The Greek Bucolic Poets. Translated by Edmonds, J M. Loeb Classical Library Volume 28. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. 1912.

Related:

  • "The Sexuality of Adonis," by Joseph D. Reed; Classical Antiquity, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Oct., 1995), pp. 317-347.

Previous 2012 Myth Mondays:

  1. Hercules Hurls His Guest
  2. Scylla
  3. Olympics Origins II: Myrtilos
  4. Hercules the Giant-Killer
  5. The First Tyrant
  6. The King and the Harpies
  7. The Dawn Goddess Loves a Mortal
  8. Vediovis
  9. Even a Boar Wishes to Kiss Adonis
  10. Hero and Leander
  11. Who Were the Argonauts?
  12. The Chimera
  13. Narcissus and Echo
  14. How Perseus Fits In
  15. Hesiod and the Bestiary
  16. The First Olympics Origins I
  17. Dionysus and the Return of Hephaestus
  18. Zeus, the Recent Victor of the Titanomachy, Wins Once More in Hesiod's 'Theogony'
  19. Atlas, the Titan Who Didn't Shrug
  20. Troilus and ... Polyxena
  21. Who Is the Virgo?

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