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Venus and Adonis

Venus and Adonis


The Greeks adopted the story of Adonis from the Semites around the 8th century B.C.:

Cupid punished Princess Smyrna (Adonis’s mother) by instilling her with a passion for her own father (King Cinyras of Cyprus). She attempted to commit suicide to avoid becoming the incestuous lover of her own father, but she was discovered by her nurse before she was able to take her life, and this nurse promised her to help her.

So one dark night, when the nurse noticed that the king was drunk with wine, she told him of one who loved him truly, and later she guided Smyrna to her father's bedroom. The scene repeated several nights until the king became curious concerning the identity of the young girl.

When he learned that he had been deceived by his daughter, he pursued her with the idea of killing her and, being overtaken, she prayed to the gods that she might be invisible (another story is she prayed to the gods to be refused both life and death) so the gods in compassion turned her into the tree called smyrna (myrrh). Ten months afterwards the tree burst and Adonis was born.

The Birth of Adonis

Venus adopted him, and when he was still an infant, Venus, for the sake of his beauty, hid him in a chest unknown to the gods and entrusted it to Persephone. But when Persephone beheld him, she would not give him back.

Many years later, Venus, playing with her son Cupid, accidentally pricked herself with one of his arrows. She pushed him away, but the wound was deeper than she thought. Before it healed she beheld Adonis, and was captivated with him.

Venus by Filippo Parodi Adonis by Filippo Parodi

When the case was finally tried before Zeus (about what was to happen to Adonis), he decided the year would be divided into three parts, so that Adonis should stay by himself for one part of the year, with Persephone for one part, and with Venus for the remainder. Adonis, however, chose to spend his own time with Venus. For this reason Adonis may be counted among those who were in the Underworld and came back to be among the living.

Venus, Adonis, and Cupid

Venus and Adonis spent many hours together, as lovers do, hunting and telling tales. Venus tutored him in the arts of love. Venus told Adonis not to hunt wild beasts but to hunt only those which are safe to hunt, like hares, stags or does. "Attack not the beasts that Nature has armed with weapons.”

Venus and Adonis by Titian Venus and Adonis by François Lemoyne Venus and Adonis by Peter Paul Rubens

Having given him this warning, she mounted her chariot drawn by swans, and drove away through the air. But Adonis was too noble to heed such counsels, and as soon as Venus left him, he went hunting. Mars turned himself into a wild boar, with the purpose of killing Adonis. He wished to have Venus for himself. The dogs roused Mars from his carefully placed lair and flushed him to Adonis. The youth threw his spear and wounded the animal with a sidelong stroke. The beast rushed at Adonis, who turned and ran; but the boar overtook him, and buried his tusks in his side. He then left Adonis mortally wounded lying upon the plain, while Adonis’s hounds took chase.

Venus, in her swan-drawn chariot, had not yet reached Cyprus, when she heard coming up through mid-air the groans of her beloved, and turned the swans back to earth. She drew near and saw his body bathed in blood. She went to him and he died in her arms. After he died, Venus in her grief thereupon sprinkled the blood with nectar, transforming it into an anemone, a beautiful red flower which lives for a short time. It is said that the wind blows the blossoms open, and afterwards blows the petals away. The anemone is known as ‘windflower’ or ‘flower of the wind.’

After his death, Persephone claimed possession of Adonis, who had traveled to the Underworld (Persephone is the Queen of the Underworld).

Venus Lamenting the Death of Adonis, by Benjamin West

The swans that pulled the chariot in which Venus had departed and returned are in the right background.