The Myth Of Venus And Adonis: From Incest To Beauty

Venus and Adonis, Greek Mythology's most beautiful couple are proof that sometimes even gods cannot save their loved ones from fate.

Mar 27, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
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The death of Adonis, Giuseppe Mazzuoli, ca 1680-1709, State Hermitage Museum; with Venus and Adonis, Paolo Veronese, 1580, Museo del Prado; and Venus and Adonis, Simon Vouet, 1642, J. Paul Getty Museum

 

After meeting each other, Venus and Adonis fell passionately in love and stayed together till death did them apart. Their myth was a story of beauty born through sinful incest and of love turning into a tragedy.

 

In this article, we will take a careful look into the Greek myth of Adonis and Venus. We will start by exploring its canonical version from Ovid’s Metamorphoses next to other classical and post-classical adaptations from ancient Orphic hymns to William Shakespeare.

 

The Myth Of Venus And Adonis

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Venus and Adonis, Titian, 1554, Museo del Prado

 

If we had to find the most poetic and complete ancient version of Venus and Adonis’ myth, then the answer could be no other than Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

 

However, Venus and Adonis’s story appears in a plethora of other ancient Greek and Roman sources. From the Orphic Hymn to Adonis, to Nonnus’ Dionysaica, Greeks and Romans alike were fascinated by the story of divine love between Venus and Adonis.

 

A Few Words About The Myth’s Protagonists

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Venus and Adonis, Paolo Veronese, 1580, Museo del Prado

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Venus in Roman or Aphrodite in Greek Mythology was one of the 12 Gods of Olympus. She was the goddess of love, beauty, and procreation. As such, she was the most beautiful amongst the gods and was almost always followed by Cupid (Eros). Venus was born from the severed genitals of God Uranus, after Cronus threw them in the sea near Cyprus. She maintained a series of romances with Greek Gods, the most famous of which were her marriage with Vulcan and her affair with Mars. Nevertheless, none of these love-stories surpassed the intensity with which Venus loved Adonis.

 

Adonis was the son of Myrrha and Cynyras, another Cypriot deity. The cult of Adonis in Greece was firmly linked with that of Venus. It seems that the Adonis’ true origin was Semitic and the name Adonis could be the Semitic title adon meaning “(my) lord.”

 

The Canaanite god Adon was just like Adonis, a god of beauty. This means that we can safely assume that Adonis is no more than Adon transferred to Greece with a Hellenisized name. There are also links between Adonis and gods from other civilizations like Osiris in Egypt, Baal in Ugarit, and Tammuz in Babylon. Civilizations from Mesopotamia to Greece all adored gods of beauty with myths similar to Adonis. On top of that in the Mesopotamian mythologies, Adonis appeared as a couple with goddess Astarte. It is evident right away that Astarte in this context can be none other than the equivalent of Venus. Truly the two goddesses have many in common such as being goddesses of fertility and renewal.

 

Myrrha Falls In Love With Her Father

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The birth of Adonis, Paolo Veronese, late 16th-early 17th century, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

 

The story begins with none other than Adonis’ mother, Myrrha. Myrrha was the daughter of Cinyras and Cenchreis, King and Queen of Cyprus. The Cypriot woman was suffering under a tremendous moral burden that tore her apart. Myrrha was in love with her father. Ovid brilliantly describes the existential angst of Myrrha, who was unlucky enough to be cursed into loving her own father. On the one hand, Myrrha curses herself for being born as Cinyras’ daughter:

 

“He is worth loving, but only as a father. – I could lie with Cinyras, if I were not Cinyras’s already. Now, he is not mine, because he is already mine, and the nearness of our relationship damns me: I would be better off as a stranger.”

 

Then she tried to banish the bad thoughts from her mind, but the thought always returned:

 

“Since you have still not committed sin in the flesh, do not conceive it in your mind, or disregard the prohibitions, of mighty nature, in vile congress! Grant that you want it: the reality itself forbids it. He is a good man, and mindful of the moral law – but, O, how I wish the same passion were in him!”

 

The story almost reached its end when Myrrha attempted to commit suicide. As she was getting ready to take her own life, her nurse entered the room and stopped her. Myrrha then told the nurse about her unnatural love and proclaimed that there was only one way that she could bear living her life; to be with her father. Reluctant, the nurse agreed to help make this unholy union take place as long as Myrrha did not commit suicide.

 

““Live,” said the nurse, “possess your….” – and did not dare say: “father”. She was silent, and confirmed her promise in the sight of heaven.”

 

Myrrha’s Sin

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Myrrha and Cinyras, Virgil Solis, Wikimedia Commons

 

During the festival of Ceres, the married women of Cyprus were not allowed to see their husbands for nine days. Cinyras bed was empty as his legal wife was also taking part in the celebrations. The nurse saw this as an opportunity. She approached Cinyras and told him of a woman that truly loved him. She made up a fake name, and when the king asked how old the girl was, the nurse replied: “the same as Myrrha.”

 

The nurse arranged for the meeting of the two to take place in absolute darkness. Myrrha entered Cinyras’ apartment and “…left the room impregnated by her father, bearing impious seed in her fatal womb, carrying the guilt she had conceived.

 

The affair lasted a few days until Cinyras, curious of his lover’s identity, took a lamp and discovered his daughter’s face. He immediately reached for his sword with the intention to kill. However, Myrrha ran and escaped her father’s wrath. For nine months, she lived in exile, traveling until she reached Sabaea in the Arabian peninsula. Myrrha had traveled thousands of miles to escape the consequences of her sin. But she was not able to escape the guilt. Tired, pregnant, and scared, she prayed to the gods for mercy. Myrrha was then transformed into a tree which became known as the Myrrha tree.

 

Adonis: A Greek God Is Born

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Myrrha, being transformed into the myrrh tree, gives birth to Adonis, a follower of Luigi Garzi, 17th century, Welcome Collection

 

Myrrha may have been transformed into a tree, but her child was still residing within her. Juno found the tree, and as Lucina (protectress of childbirth), she helped a boy come out of the wooden womb. The Naiad nymphs took the boy and bathed him with the tears (myrrh) that Myrrha had dropped during childbirth. The boy was Adonis, one of the most beautiful mortals to ever walk on earth. It is rather concerning that the result of one of mythology’s most haunting incestuous unions was such a beautiful and perfect being.

 

Venus And Adonis In Love

 

According to Ovid, Venus was kissing Cupid when an arrow slipped from his quiver and injured Venus’s breast. As is known, Cupid’s arrows had the power of making people fall in love, and gods were no exception. When she got hit by the arrow, Venus caught a glimpse of Adonis, and from that point on, she fell madly in love with him.

 

Venus abandoned her previous life and lovers to completely devote herself to a life in the woods with Adonis:

 

“She even forgoes the heavens: preferring Adonis to heaven.”

 

However, Venus understood that Adonis was mortal, and while they lived in the woods hunting together, he was susceptible to wild animals. Terrified in the mere thought of losing him, Venus warned him against the mighty wild beasts of the forest.

 

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The death of Adonis, Giuseppe Mazzuoli, ca 1680-1709, State Hermitage Museum

 

Adonis did not listen to her and attempted to fight against a wild boar that attacked him. Venus’ worst fears came true as she discovered the lifeless body of her favorite Adonis. Crying and yelling, Venus mourned her lover:

 

“Adonis, there shall be an everlasting token of my grief, and every year an imitation of your death will complete a re-enactment of my mourning. But your blood will be changed into a flower. Persephone, you were allowed to alter a woman’s body, Menthe’s, to fragrant mint: shall the transformation of my hero, of the blood of Cinyras, begrudged to me?”

 

Venus then sprinkled the blood with nectar, and a flower in the color of Adonis’ blood was created. This flower was the anemone.

 

Other Classical Versions Of The Story

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Venus and Adonis, Simon Vouet, 1642, J. Paul Getty Museum

 

According to the version of Apollodorus, a Greek scholar of the 2nd CE century, Myrrha was cursed into lusting her father as retribution for not worshiping Venus. This way, a triangle of pain is formed whereby Venus curses Myrrha, who suffers from her incestuous instincts, God Adonis dies by a wild boar, and Venus is consumed by sorrow on his death. Myrrha, in Apollodorus’s version, was said to be the granddaughter of Pygmalion, the man who had fallen in love with his statue.

 

The rest of this version agrees with the one found in Bion of Phlossa, who preceded Apollodorus by three centuries and wrote a lyric poem called Lament for Adonis. Bion’s poem was almost certainly related to Adonis’s cult and his yearly festival, the Adonia. In any case, according to Bion, when Myrrha in the form of a tree, gave birth to Adonis, Venus found the baby, and enchanted by its beauty, hid it in a chest to keep him a secret from other gods.

 

Venus then left the child under the protection of Persephone, the Queen of the Underworld. However, when Adonis grew into an adult of unparalleled beauty, Persephone fell in love with him refusing to hand him back to Venus, who asked for Zeus’ intervention. The King of the Olympian Gods decided that Adonis would have to spend a third of the year with Persephone in the Underworld, a third of the year with Venus and then, one-third by himself. However, Adonis chose to spend this last part with Venus.

 

The versions of Ovid, Apollodorus, and Bion form two, more or less, canonical storylines. However, there are so many more different versions. Everyone agrees that Adonis died by a boar, but not everyone agrees with how that happened. Nonnus wrote that the boar was Dionysus in disguise taking revenge after Aphrodite neglected him for Adonis’s love. The anonymous author of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite believed Artemis to be the boar avenging Aphrodite for the death of her beloved Hippolytus. Finally, Ptolemy Hephaestion argued that Apollo was disguised as a boar to kill the Greek God Adonis and get even with Aphrodite who had blinded his son, Erysimanthus.

 

Post-Classical Reception

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The Awakening of Adonis, John William Waterhouse, 1899-1900, private collection, via jwwaterhouse.com

 

The myth of Adonis and Venus proved very influential throughout the centuries. These post-classical adaptations of the myth were mainly inspired by Ovid’s version.

 

In 1280, Jean de Meun rewrote the story as a didactic tale inviting men to stay close to their beloved. However, most adaptations emphasized either the role of fate, like Ronsard’s 1563 version, or what was perceived as the myth’s unorthodox gender roles. Regarding this last one, many authors found a peculiar narrative drive in the fact that Venus went after Adonis, who they saw as a feminine male character. Over the years, adaptations kept emphasizing this concept leading to  Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus in 1884. There, the God Adonis was presented as a feminine male being chased by a woman working in a flower shop.

 

William Shakespeare’s Venus And Adonis

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Venus and Adonis, Cornelis van Haarlem, 1614, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Caen, via French Culture Ministry

 

Nevertheless, Adonis’ death met an interesting reception in Elizabethan England Spencer’s adaptation in Faerie Queene was published in 1590. However, the most popular adaptation of Venus and Adonis’ myth was by far that of William Shakespeare, published in 1593.

 

Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (1593) is thought to be the first publication of the famous English playwright. This adaptation was a narrative poem presenting Adonis as a rather snobbish character who refuses to talk to women. His beauty is enough to attract the interest of Venus, who visits earth in order to make Adonis hers. Adonis, however, refuses the company of the goddess, who tries desperately to get a kiss from him. After a series of events, Adonis does succumb to Venus’ charms. At that point, Venus has a vision foretelling Adonis’s death and begs him not to go hunting. Adonis goes anyway, and Venus discovers his dead body the next day. Where Adonis lay, his blood had colored the surrounding flowers while a white and purple flower had grown to the place where the young man left his last breath.

 

“By this the boy that by her side lay kill’d
Was melted like a vapour from her sight,
And in his blood that on the ground lay spill’d,
A purple flower sprung up, chequer’d with white,
Resembling well his pale cheeks, and the blood
Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood.”

Shakespeare, Venus and Adonis 1165-70

 

Like many others, this adaptation has received heavy criticism for objectifying Venus and representing her as nothing more than a lust-hungry woman. This representation stems from an ancient Greek stereotype based on which women are less able to control their sexual urges. Nevertheless, many scholars have defended Shakespeare’s poem by re-interpreting its most controversial parts.



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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.