Who is Adonis in Greek Mythology? - Story & Facts

Instructor: Brittney Clere

Brittney, a National Board Certified Teacher, has taught social studies at the middle school level for 15 years.

The tragic love story of Adonis is one of the most popular tales of ancient mythology. In this lesson, you will discover who Adonis was and the significance he had on ancient civilizations.

The Myth

It is not uncommon to hear someone refer to a handsome young man as an Adonis. But how did this name, that originally meant lord or ruler, become the term used to describe a man who had reached hunk status? The story of Adonis, the god of beauty and desire, has its beginnings in the ancient civilization of Phoenicia, but it was adopted by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans as well. As would be expected, the story changed slightly as it spread from one culture to the next. However, jealousy, lust, and the struggle between love and death remained key themes in all stories. What follows is perhaps the most widely accepted version that comes from the Greeks.

A painting of the Greek god Adonis.

The Birth of Adonis

According to Greek mythology, Adonis was conceived after an infatuated daughter tricked her unsuspecting father into a sexual relationship. Disgusting? Yes, but not entirely their fault. You see, The King of Assyria, Theias (or Cinyras depending on the source) boasted often about the beauty of his daughter Myrrha. One day, he even went so far as to say she was more beautiful than Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty. Well, Aphrodite was not going to sit by while her title was called into question. Instead, she had her son Eros, the god of desire and attraction, help her carry out a plan of revenge. Using his powers, Eros made Myrrha fall desperately in love with her father. As the spell took hold, Myrrha tricked her father into uniting with her. Once the king discovered he had been duped, he was enraged and threatened to kill his daughter. Afraid for her life, and for the baby she was now carrying, Myrrha begged the gods for help. To protect her, they agreed to turn her into a myrrh tree. In one version of the story, the tree simply split nine months later. In others, Theias discovered where she was and shot at the tree with a bow that caused it to split. Either way, as the tree split, Adonis was born.

The Goddess of Love versus the Goddess of the Underworld

Aphrodite was watching as the events of Adonis's birth unfolded and became amazed by the mortal boy's beauty. Wanting to keep all other goddesses away, she took Adonis and hid him away, putting Persephone, the queen of the Underworld, in charge of raising him. The plan backfired, however, because as Adonis grew older he became so attractive that Persephone could not help but to fall madly in love with him. When the day came for her to return Adonis to Aphrodite, she refused. This conflict between the goddess of love and the goddess of the underworld eventually led Zeus, the king of all gods, to step in and settle it. He ruled that Adonis would spend four months of the year with Persephone in Hades (the name given the Underworld) and four months with Aphrodite. As for the remaining four months, Adonis could stay with whomever he wished. His heart's true desire was revealed when he chose to stay with Aphrodite.

A portrait of Adonis and Aphrodite.

The Death of Adonis

The story of Adonis's death also has varying accounts, but jealousy remains the motive in all of them. In one version, Artemis, the goddess of hunting and wild animals, became jealous of Adonis's skills as a huntsman and sent a wild boar to attack him on one of his hunts. In a separate version, it was Ares, the god of war and Aphrodite's lover who was jealous of her love for the mortal. To eliminate his competition, he transformed himself into a wild boar and attacked Adonis. In both versions, Adonis falls bleeding into the arms of Aphrodite. Adonis's blood spilled from his body and flowed into a nearby river turning the water blood red. As she wept over him, she poured a magical nectar into his wounds. His blood then mixed with the nectar and fell to the ground where a blood red flower, known as the anemone, bloomed.

A picture of the anemone flower.

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