23. Adonis


A motif from a comb found at Byblos (Dunand 6505a) shows Adonis as the shepherd with crooked staff and Pan-flute coming naked down from the air to ride the woman as a horse. Note how she has thrown her neck back in ecstasy while beating the tambourine.


“On the second day they send him op in free air”, is our translation of the crucial words in the description of Lucian (de dea syria). In our opinion the second day will celebrate that Adonis (like Bata) is transformed into another mode of existence: as a healing spirit, a repha´,  he returns to Byblos. The words of Lucian seem to suggest some kind of liberation of the grave-ceremony, just as Melqart, sleeping in the underworld, is “made energetic” from his sleep by Jolaos, and Sandan-Zeus by Kadmos. The women in Byblos had then either to prostitute themselves to strangers or sacrifice their hair. Also Isis is said to have sacrificed a lock of her hair when receiving the message of the death of her husband. The above mentioned Isidor has two times seen a lock of supernatural beauty and size swimming on the surface of the Nile. Once it measured 5 yards[1]. Isis also had to serve as a prostitute in Tyre[2]. 

The Syrian document, The cave of treasure [3], tells about Balti, who was given to Tammuz, but fell in love with Baalshamem and killed Tammuz with fire. That the god of vegetation is killed in this way by Baal and Baalat seems very authentic tradition, cf. that the wife of Bata helps to kill him, and that El Cronos/Resheph (= flame), after taking the wives of Ouranos, kills him. In Catal Hüyük we find two female goddesses supporting a younger god in his fight against the high god, the bull.

In Ugarit we find that Tr ´il “God the bull” is "the benevolent and wise", but the two goddesses tell El/´il: “Our king is Baal”. When Baalat is the beautiful, but unfaithful wife, why is Isis then the very symbol of a wife ready to journey to the end of the world to seek her dead husband? The reason for that is clear. In Egypt, Seth is originally the sacrificial bull, and Osiris is closely linked to the star cluster Orion. But because of the fact that water, the flooding of the Nile in Egypt, comes with the rise of the Dog star, and because this rising in the rest of the Middle East area is a sign of the dry, hot period approaching,  their roles in Egypt get mixed up so that Orion/Osiris becomes the shepherd and the giver of the water of life, and Seth becomes the hunter with the Seth animal as his dog. This means that the two goddesses, who, in Egypt, are not mother and daughter, but sisters, are both mourning for Osiris and giving birth to his children, although Nephtys is the wife of Seth.

What could be the reason for the forced promiscuity of the women in Byblos? In our opinion it is the chaotic-orgiastic behaviour linked to the arrival of spirits from the underworld. The centaurs must be understood as such spirits with a strong desire for women [4].

Some centaurs are pictured as masters in medical care and healing. The centaur Kiron teaches Achilleus the art of healing wounds, and one of the centaurs is called Rifonos (Nonnos XIV,189) or Rifeus (Ovid Met XII,352) from Semitic rpu´/rephaim. Also Baal in Ugarit is seen as he who raises the spirits from the underworld to come to the yearly celebration: “Just as Baal, when he gives life, prepares a feast for those who are awakened to life” (CTA 17,VI,30f). “The most important task of Ba´lu/Haddu as a healer and shepherd was to bring the spirits of the dead back to life when he returned to earth on the New Year's Festival” (J.C. de Moor [5]).

The death of Adonis is a symbol of the vegetation withering away under the strong heat of the summer storm. From this springs the custom that a fast-growing vegetation was brought to sprouting and developing in some old jars, and arranged on shelves and balconies, but after a short and intense explosion of green life, they would soon begin to wither. A sign accompanying the death of the god was that the water in the Adonis river turned red. This shift of colour is due to some fierce gales which, acc. to Birgitte Soyez´s research, normally start the dog days in July [6]. Resheph rules over the hot season. He is the god for fever and pestilence. When Adonis died, his blood gave colour to the anemone (Ovid Met X,708-39). This makes his death a parallel to the two killed by Apollo: Hyacinthos, who was also turned into a flower, and Linos, who was mourned of with the cultic cry Ai Linos acc. to Eissfeldt a possible adaptation of a Syrian cultic cry, Aij Alijan [7].

A stele, now in the Torino Museum, but found at Thebes in Egypt shows two typical Canaanite gods: the stark naked Qudshu and Resheph, and an Egyptian god Min. Qudshu is standing between the two giving her left hand with a raised snake to Resheph and her right hand with lotus flowers to Min. I hope it cannot be seen in the picture, but Min has an erect penis and is dressed like a mummy. The Stele is from the time of Ramses II (13.cent.B.C.), and Min is not Adonis, but it could just as well be an illustration of the beautiful goddess standing between the two rivals, both hoping for her love, especially the mummy, who has the dead spirit's strong desire for sex. On a similar stele from Brit.Mus. (ANEP, No.478) he cannot stand by himself, but is held erect by a stick supporting his neck. Behind him is a high building with some plants growing on its flat roof – a “garden of Adonis”? – or at least a forerunner of this phenomenon. In Egypt the Lotus is the mystical flower, and Osiris is seen sitting in the land of the dead looking into it. The raised snake has a more sinister mystical meaning, it is the raising of the kundalini snake. In tantra every naked woman is an incarnation of the great female principle [8].

I.Cornelius, a young pupil of O.Keel, has published a book on The Iconography of the Canaanite Gods Reshef and Ba´al, 1994. It brings out very carefully the supposed difference between Resheph and Ba´al. But Resheph in Byblos is also called Ba´al! On the front cover he brings a small Egyptian scarab (1150-900 B.C.). In his opinion it shows the winged Baal-Seth standing on a lion and following Resheph standing on a horned animal. But why should Resheph be chased by Baal? On another scarab the man on the horned animal is being shot at by a bow man and chased by a lion or by a lion and a dog (the last mentioned is from Byblos, Dunand, pl.CC:8474, 15-1100 B.C.). Dunand 6456 shows Resheph, the hunter, hunting bull and goat with a dog and a lion as his helpers. Most interesting is the seal Dunand 1168 showing a capricorn chased by lion, snake, dog, and an enormous scorpion, a man riding a donkey and above all Resheph in person with bow, tiara and dog. Apart from the donkey it is the same animals which accompany Mithras in his hunt on the divine bull.  Once again we have here the holy hunt on the highgod. A seal from Hama shows a bull chased by a hunter with a long spear closely followed by a lion and a scorpion (O.E.Ravn, Oriental Cylinder Seals,1960,no.112,p.95,3rd mill. BC).

       Some pictures of Aphrodite show small Erotes coming out of her smegmatotec. They are followers of Adonis, cf. that Adonis was born from the myrrh tree. It is in the smell from the aromates that the king of vegetation and the paradise garden makes his presence known. He comes together with his erotes, who are the Hellenistic version of the rephaim, and like them they are thought to be small winged creatures arriving through the air. Also in the Song of Songs, the epiphany of the king of spring is accompanied by strong smell of myrrh, 3,6 & 5,5: his short presence by the door has left such an outpouring of myrrh that the fingers of the girl are dripping when she has touched the handle where his hand has been, cf. 1,3 & 8,14: the “balsam mountain” is the paradise mountain. The picture is from E.Langlotz, Aphrodite in der Gärten,1954,t.2,6 from Tarentum:

Langlotz has gathered quite a valuable material to shed light upon the cult of “Aphrodite in the gardens”. The material is mostly pictures on vases [9]: a woman is adorned to play the role of the goddess A. and the queen of the feast. A box is brought from which erotes are ascending. Eros is seen kissing, caressing A., sucking her breast, and sitting on her lap.

The fact that so many vases with Aphrodite-motifs are used as grave-gifts, makes Langlotz suggest that it must have been some conviction of the folk religion that the dead celebrated some kind of wedding with the Lord of the Underworld [10]. And this is the reason for the cult: on the vases the women are seen washing themselves, making their hairdo look beautiful, and making themselves pretty to groom Eros or Adonis, who is experienced as present during the celebration and is even seen helping to wash some of the naked girls. The girls giving themselves to the spirits of life is the point of all this. The name “Aphrodite in the gardens” should be seen in connection with the words “my garden” in the Song of Songs and the “Venus-gardens” often mentioned in the literature of the Roman-Hellenistic period: at Paphos in Cyprus she had a “holy orchard” (kêpos), in Tamasos an apple garden, in Syria a kepos hyper orgion ("secret rites, orgies"). Langlotz even mentions the medieval legend about the “Venus Mountain” with all its exuberant temptations [11].


Persephone w. Adonis, W.Atallah, Adonis, 1966


In the myth about Adonis there is a strange "descensus ad inferos" motif: Aphrodite turns Adonis over to Persephone hidden in a box, but Persephone wants to keep him. The quarrel is solved by a compromise. Part of the year Adonis has to stay with Persephone in the underworld, part of the year with Aphrodite. The divine child in a holy box is a motif also known from the Arrhephoria-feast in Athens. From the temple for “Aphrodite in the Gardens” a child, Erechthonios (”Ere from the underworld”) hidden in a box is carried deep down into a cleft in the Acropolis mountain. He is described as half boy, half snake, his lower parts being the tail of a snake.

Theocritus writes: “Sing for the divine child, who ascends from Acheron (realm of death) … after 12 months returns” (Idylls). He is called the rejuvenating, cf Psyche´s last task (in the fairytale about Amor and Psyche by Apuleius): to go down to Persephone and bring up a box of rejuvenating cream for Venus, who has felt totally worn out. Rejuvenating Venus/Aphrodite is rejuvenating fertility. The mystic box contains the precious myrrh cream which is a symbol of the nature of Adonis, a scent from the land of paradise, drawn out of the trees of paradise growing close to the sun in the deep south. The myrrh is part of the rejuvenating symbolism connected with the notion of paradise (and was widely used as medicine).

The Eros-temple found at Acropolis must have been identical with the temple for "Aphrodite in the Gardens", and Eros and Adonis, both said to come from Cyprus, must be the same god. Eros is said to come from Cyprus with the "flowers of spring"Theognis.1275. The Eros feast in Athens is the 4.Mounichion (for 415 B.C. the13th of april [12]). In my opinion Eros is an oriental god, Dod, "the beloved". Eros was, acc. to Plato Symposion (203b), bred by Poros in a garden while he was drunk. That Plato is not joking, but is building on an Orphic tradition, is stressed by J-P.Vernant [13].  We know a Near Eastern feast of spring celebrated in the open from the Cant. 1,16: "…our couch is green". 5,1: "I come into my garden". Plato also describes how Eros is barefooted and homeless. He is lying on the bare ground sleeping in the open by the doors and in the streets. He is a lover of wisdom and a wizard. This description shows that he is a spirit, a spirit the women unite with when they go out in spring to celebrate the blossoming nature and dance in the vineyards. A motif among the many mosaics from Antioch shows a Psyche trying to steal the bow of an Amor sleeping under a tree. Roaming in sprouting nature, the women seek the young god, who "was born under the pomegranate tree", Cant. 8,5. He is strongly connected to the different aromatic smells which are all seen as a fragrance from paradise: "Your name is an outpouring of unction". "Fly my lover and be like a gazelle like the young stag on the balsam mountains",8,14. The pictures show the holy union on the "couch" between Bel and Atargatis in Palmyra (du Mesnil du Buisson, Tess.,p.576), and Amor and Psyche. Note the fishmeal in front of Eros and Psyche.




"Witnessing an old cult of Adonis" is to J.Lewy [14] the name of the father of Barak Abinoam, Judg. 4,6 = "My Father is the beautiful/pleasant one", Ahinoam 1.Sam. 25,43 = "My brother/friend is the beautiful one". Lewy also finds the name of Adonis in Haram in Naphtali, Akkadian: harmu = "lover", and perhaps even in the name of the Aramaeans, originally the name of the people living by the river Orontes (Akkadian: Araantu, obviously named after the hunter Ara, here identified with Adonis who, in death, was changed to the river Adonis).

Important for the understanding of the myth of Adonis is: a) that he is born of the myrrh-tree as the spirit of vegetation, b) the stress laid on his bleeding: when wounded by the tusks of the boar, his blood rushed foaming out of the wound and the goddess poured nectar over it, and of this mixture of blood and divine life-giving nectar, the anemones sprouted (like Hyacinthos from whose blood the hyacinth grew). His blood rushed out in such a quantity that it was turned into a river, the river Adonis, cf. how the Nile is thought to flow from the limbs and body fluids of the dead Osiris. He is the god of the life-giving water. Like Jesus in the gospel of John 4 & 8 and its continuation in the Revelations, whose final chapter offers the water of life to him who thirsts.

But the resurrection of Adonis is very different from the resurrection of Jesus. Only once a year he is called up as a fertilising spirit in whose honour the women have to give themselves to strangers. Eternal life in the religious world of Byblos was not resurrection, but transformation to a new mode of existence as a spirit, one of the erotes and psychai following the great hunter.

In the Hellenistic period Adonis has become a strange mixture of the hunter and the suffering god of vegetation. Because he was also seen as a great hunter, he had an enormous Bethel-stone standing in the courtyard of the temple of the goddess, if we have to trust the coins from Byblos, just as Resheph had his many obelisks standing in the courtyard of his temple. The standing stones are erected as a housing for the spirit of a deceased. The deceased does not have his grave underneath, perhaps not even nearby. His dwelling is in the transcendent mountain of the gods, but his presence is secured by the model of this cosmic mountain, the obelisk.

Resheph is not the god standing on the horned animal (Keel,Cornelius). His having the head of an antelope in his mitre as a “third eye” is a sign of him being a kundalini-mystic. He is an ecstatic lute player, having had and hunted the mystic vision of the sacred antelope, the stag from the “balsam mountain”. The cylinder seal (Dunand 1168) shows an ibex being hunted by a lion, a snake, a dog, a scorpion, a man riding a donkey, and a bird, and among all these animals, Resheph himself with bow and hunting dog and his characteristic high mitre. These are also the animals of Mithra's hunt for the holy bull: snake, lion, raven, dog (but not donkey). The origin of the Roman mysteries of Mithras has to be sought in the cult of Theos Hypsistos in Anatolia, and has come to Rumania and the Roman soldiers along the limes, perhaps via the mysteries of Theos Hypsistos on the Crimean peninsula as shown by P.Beskow [15]

The cult of Adonis was spread over most of the Middle East and the church father Hieronimus says in a letter (Ep.49 ad Paulin) that even where the Saviour wept in his manger was heard the weeping for Tammuz. (In this area Adonis is identified with the Mesopotamian Tammuz). The weeping for the early death of Adonis was a wailing over the transitory character of human life, which is like the “grass that stands today and tomorrow is cast into the oven”. Like the delicate sprouts of the spring withering under the hot wind of the desert, so is the life of man, even in its utmost glory. Ps. 103,15 & 90,5f. & 32,7, Is. 37,27. In the Old Testament we meet with a worldview very similar to what was expressed by the Adonis gardens. Their rapid sprouting and early death was a symbol of the shortness of life, the transitory character of all its joys [16]. The great beauty of Adonis reflects the extraordinary beauty of short-lived nature.

[1] ap.Photios,VI,242§93

[2] Epiphanius, Ancorat.104

[3] ed. C. Bezold,1883

[4] L.Malten, "Das Pferd im Totenglauben", Jahrbuch.d.K.Deut. Arch.Inst. 1914, p.176.

[5] ZAW 88,1976 p.329

[6] Byblos..pp.50ff.

[7] Kleine Schriften II,1963,pp.150-9.

[8] M.Eliade, Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, Bollingen series LVI,p.259,261n204

[9] fig.1-6,t.1-7

[10] p.33.

[11] p.34.

[12] B.D.Meritt, Hesperia 4,1935.

[13] M.Detienne & Vernant Les Ruses de l´Intelligence,1974, p.141.

[14] Tabor, Tibar, Atabyrios", HUCA 23,I. 1950-1,pp.360f. & 368-71

[15] Religion och Bibel,1978.

[16] Movers, Die Phönizier I, pp.200f., 216f.