Ancient History & Civilisation


Travelling Lovers

With lo or Mopsus, Europa or the fiery Chimaera we are still tracking myths which travelled to new sites through Greeks’ own inferences and flexible misunderstandings. The linguistic ‘fault of the Greeks’ seems fertile enough, whereas an informed contact with Near Eastern stories and practice seems suggestively far from their reach. There is, however, a cult which connects more closely to genuine Near Eastern details. The cult of the Greek demigod Adonis has been repeatedly studied and reinterpreted, but its initial presence in the Greek world repays a fresh study. Its forerunners in the Near East continue to be better understood through new readings of fragmentary non-Greek evidence. The relation between this Greek cult’s famous ’Orientalism’ and its real Near Eastern roots has changed focus as a result. These ‘roots’ confronted Euboean travellers in the Levant from c. 950 BC, but the first stages of the resulting Greek cult lie somewhat later, though still in the general triangle of Cyprus, Cilicia and Phoenicia. It did not become known through ‘migrant charismatics’ from the east. Its development points to a human channel of contact which was most important for Euboeans too: it also has a Christian finale in this same region, the significance of which has not been understood.

Like all Greek myths, the story of Adonis survives in various versions. The names of his parents vary too but they share two constant qualities: they are not gods or demigods and at least one of them belongs in Cyprus or the nearby coastlines. Quite often, Adonis is presented as a child who was born from incest, a story which first survives for us through the poet Panyassis (c. 500 BC). In this typical version Adonis’ mother was punished while still a girl with an intense sexual desire for her father. He mated with her unawares by night, but drove her out on learning what he had done. The gods concealed her as a myrrh- or spice-tree and when her bark split open after nine months her son Adonis was born.1

In this version Adonis’ mother was named Smyrna but then became Myrrha, the world’s first spice-girl. Her father was a ‘king of the Assyrians’ or Syrians, although others made him the king of Cyprus, Cinyras, a name known from Homer. On the fateful day of King Philip of Macedon’s murder, when Alexander became king, a tragic drama about Myrrha and Cinyras is said to have been on the programme of the celebrations at the Macedonian palace: incest was about the only missing factor in the complex polygamy of Philip’s own family at the time.2 Incest, incense and an eastern parentage were fittingly exotic origins for the exotic Adonis. Sometimes he was simply called ‘the eastern one’ (Aous), a name which later authors then tried to fix to a mountain or river of a similar name which was connected with Cyprus. Like other stories of incest his story had a lively poetic afterlife. The tales of Adonis and Smyrna–Myrrha appealed to the poet Cinna in the age of Julius Caesar, the man whom Shakespeare later represented as torn ‘for his bad verses’. Cinna, too, located Adonis in Cyprus.3

Adonis was such a handsome boy that Aphrodite fell in love with him. She hid him in a chest which she gave to Persephone for safe keeping but Persephone, too, fell in love and refused to give the boy back. Almost certainly this part of the story was also told by Panyassis. Zeus had to adjudge the dispute, and he ruled that Adonis should spend part of the year (some said eight months) with Aphrodite and the rest with Persephone. This judgement became connected in due course with a story of an accident. As Adonis grew up, he took to hunting, the beloved blood sport of Greek heroes, but was badly wounded by a wild boar, sent (some said) by Aphrodite’s jealous lover Ares. A distraught Aphrodite searched for his body and eventually discovered it in the countryside. Flowers were said to have sprouted from the tragedy, above all blood-red anemones from Adonis’ blood. Whether Adonis died out hunting or not, his fate in all stories was to move yearly between the living and the dead. As Persephone was queen of the dead, for part of the year Adonis was to stay with her in the underworld. He then returned, perhaps briefly, to Aphrodite and the world of the living. His yearly plight is best expressed in the wonderful hymn in his honour which was composed by the poet Theocritus and set in Egypt’s Alexandria in the 270s BC. ‘You come both here and to the underworld, so they say,’ Theocritus makes his expert singer tell the audience, ‘unique and alone among the demigods…’4 The setting of this hymn is one of royal Alexandrian splendour, but its theology should not be discounted as a late Egyptian variation. The singer is not Egyptian herself; she is said to be repeating a widely received muthos (‘so they say…’); Adonis, therefore, was generally believed to commute every year between the living and the dead.

With small variations this muthos is attested for us across nearly a thousand years of Greek literature from Panyassis to Christian authors. They are not ‘Christianizing’ the story and distorting it: with some detachment, rather, they report pagan rites and beliefs about Adonis which had persisted into the early fifth century AD. Like his parents, Adonis was not born a god: his story was embellished with heroic attributes and he was at best a demigod. Nonetheless we have scattered evidence for a cult of him, although it is nowhere sufficiently concentrated for us to be sure of its every detail in any one city at any one time. As it extends over so many centuries, scholars tend to beware of generalizing, with an apt warning that no cult is likely to have stayed unchanged in so many settings across a thousand years. However, despite the time-span, the changing contexts and the varied sites, there is a constant core, a ‘typical’ form which is worth bringing out.

The cult of Adonis did not belong in the calendars of public festivals in Greek cities. It was usually celebrated in households by groups of women, including courtesans, who would lament the lovely hero. They would tear their tunics and beat their bared breasts. They also engaged in some special gardening. They sowed rapidly germinating seeds of fennel, lettuce and other green herbs (but perhaps not wheat) in flowerpots or on pieces of pottery. They lamented their hero on the rooftops of houses and discarded these green pot-gardens when they marked Adonis’ yearly departure for the underworld.5 Most of our evidence is for a ritual in the heat of July, and the most vivid account of Adonis’ yearly departure is once again in Theocritus’ hymn. It describes how an image of Adonis lay on display in Alexandria for his female worshippers until they took it down to the sea and lamented, ‘topless’, his departure for the underworld.6 Images of Adonis had been important in the cult in classical Athens too but perhaps the escort down to the sea was an Alexandrian innovation. At Alexandria, Adonis’ image was perhaps thrown into the water. Elsewhere the gardens of greenery in his honour are said to have been thrown into local wells.

These female rites are remarkable, and have left a clear mark in Greek literature. We first hear a Greek lament for Adonis in verses by the poet Sappho on Lesbos c. 600 BC. ‘Delicate Adonis is dying, Aphrodite: what are we to do?’ ‘Beat your breasts, girls, and tear your garments.’ The poem’s unusual metre is matched by its unusual form, as if a choir is lamenting the delicately lovely Adonis while a singer answers them as Aphrodite. It is the first dramatization to survive in Greek literature.7 This bare-breasted mourning long remained customary, as we see from two neat epigrams by Dioscorides in Egypt c. 270 BC. He writes of two charming girls who had captivated him, one while ‘beating her breasts’ by Adonis’ coffin, the other ‘beating her milk-white breasts at Adonis’ night-festival’. He represents himself as seeing them topless and willing to die (‘no excuses’) if one of them will do the same for him on his own voyage to the underworld. The ritual was a chance for a man to spy on a half-nude lady.8

This aspect of the cult helps us to understand a famous, but hitherto elusive, reference to it in Aristophanes’ great comic drama Lysistrata (411 BC).9 His Athenian women have taken over the city’s Acropolis and a pompous, elderly Special Councillor comes to find out what is going on. He compares the trouble to women’s habitual worship of ‘Oriental’ gods. He recalls how one Damostratus had been proposing the fateful expedition to Sicily in the public assembly in 415 BC when ‘his wife’ (the likeliest meaning: otherwise just ‘the woman’) was dancing and saying ‘Woe for Adonis.’ Damostratus went on with his detailed proposals but ‘his wife’ was ‘already somewhat drunk’ and said ‘Beat yourselves for Adonis.’ Damostratus ‘urged us on forcibly’ (or ‘was under duress’: both meanings are possible) and the result, we infer, was the expedition to Sicily, a massive Athenian disaster, on the strength of his forceful speech. Damostratus’ proposals are brilliantly evoked beside the short cries of his Adonis-worshipping wife. They are a jumble of items widely separated in time and there is no reason to believe that any real worship of Adonis had coincided in fact with the Sicilian debate. The comic point, however, is that this female ‘wantonness’ had serious effects. When ‘his wife’ cried ‘Beat yourselves…’, the implication to the audience is that she and her worshippers would have ripped their clothes and beaten their breasts, ‘with the folds of their robes down to their ankles’, as Theocritus’ hymn specifies it, ‘and breasts showing’. Aristophanes means that Damostratus saw his wife and her fellow-worshippers topless on the roof. He had an ill-fated rush of excitement and ‘spoke forcibly’ (or ‘under pressure’), urging the citizens into their greatest-ever disaster.

Most remarkably, these Greek rites and stories connect with vastly older cults and stories in the Near East. ‘Adonis’ was modelled by Greeks on what they saw and heard there, but we can take evidence for it far further back than they ever knew, to songs, stories and cult in Mesopotamian society before 2000 BC. Here the ill-fated herdsman Dumuzi was loved and married by the goddess Inanna (Ishtar): the Sumerian songs of their courtship are among the oldest known love songs in the world.10 After their union the goddess went to the lands of the dead, apparently wishing to rule them. She failed, but escaped on condition that she offered a substitute. As Dumuzi had not mourned her absence, she sent demons to seize him and dispatch him to the dead in her place. Further details continue to be recovered from fragmentary tablets, but they correct the assumption that Dumuzi himself died unheeded. We now know that he was spared for half of each year while his sister went to the dead in his place. We also know that the goddess repented of her attack on him and mourned the absence which she had caused.11

The texts which survive are telling a story, not repeating the fixed version of a single ‘myth’: more surprises probably remain to be found in other versions. We know, however, from temple-texts and lists of gods in Mesopotamia that the cult of Dumuzi was not a private household affair. Parts of his story connected with processions of the statue of his goddess-lover from one Mesopotamian city-temple to another, including temples of the underworld gods.12 There was music, incense and lamentation in his honour, during which women beat their breasts. A day of noisy lament for him was one of several days in his cult, which occurred, in one known case, on several consecutive days in high summer (our late July).13 This entire Babylonian month eventually bore his name, but there is at least one hint that locally there was worship of Dumuzi in the spring too. The cult was not only for women, but women participated and once prostitutes are specifically mentioned.14

The most famous modern historian of this cult is Sir James Frazer, who made it a central subject of his Golden Bough. For him, the extraordinarily long history of this sort of worship was best explained in terms of a persistent fact of nature. It ‘explained’, he believed, to primitive minds a great ‘mystery’, the yearly renewal of green nature in springtime.15 When Dumuzi, or Adonis, returns to the land of the living, nature bursts into life. When he goes back to the land of the dead in mid-July the land becomes brown, parched and dying. Global warming has accentuated Frazer’s explanation. However, the more we have learned from Babylonian evidence the more this explanation has been contested. Dumuzi is also linked to the sick and the dead, while Frazer knew none of the story of his love and his victimization by his goddess-lover. ‘Nature’ alone does not explain the cult’s scope, but it should not be written out of the story. Dumuzi the herdsman was indeed mourned in high summer, the time when the herdsman’s pastures, too, were brown; he came and went yearly, alternating with his sister, who was herself connected with the growing of the vine. At a date which is still disputed, he came to be related (but not equated) with young Damu, a Babylonian god of vegetation.16 We still do not know precisely when or how Dumuzi returned yearly to the land. The one Babylonian text which mentions his reappearance is late (c. 700 BC), but it is almost certainly working with an earlier tradition. It assumes that Dumuzi will come again, although it does not make it clear whether he is coming only briefly during rites of lamentation or whether he is returning for a longer stay during the year.17

Most remarkably, this ancient cult and its stories have close similarities to the Greeks’ future cult of Adonis. Dumuzi, too, came and went during the year between the lands of the living and the dead; he too was loved by a goddess and was her sexual partner: his death was mourned by her and was loudly lamented by his worshippers; women were prominent, as were incense and music; precious objects, including a bed, were displayed in his honour; July was the main month of his worship. In the Babylonian evidence, so far, we lack the ‘green gardening’ which is so famous in the Greeks’ worship of Adonis. It was not, however, from direct contact with Babylon, let alone with these songs and worship far back inc. 2000–1100 BC, that the Greeks’ cult took shape. It was formed later through an accessible intermediary, the Levantine Phoenician cities, places with which travelling Euboeans were familiar from c. 950 BC onwards.

Dumuzi’s presence in these cities has to be inferred indirectly, from the Hebrew Scriptures, whose authors refer to contemporary ‘heathen’ practices. It is here that the green gardening is first detectable (although the reference is not undisputed). The biblical book of Isaiah (c. 710 BC) refers obliquely in a prophecy to what is convincingly translated as ‘the planting of gardens for the lovely one’ (Na ‘amin) and the ‘setting out of shoots for the foreign one’ (Isaiah 17: 10–11). The ‘lovely one’ refers to the beloved Dumuzi, whom the Hebrew writers know as Tammuz (the West Semitic form of his name).18 The prophet Ezekiel (c. 580 BC) refers with disgust to women lamenting for Tammuz by a gate of the Temple in Jerusalem. This heathen lament was the third of the ‘abominations’ which he claimed to have seen there in a vision.19

Through the Bible, Tammuz remained famous and became a resonant presence in the first book of Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the eighth to sixth centuries BC these Hebrew references were of wider relevance. What was known as heathen practice in Jerusalem was also being practised in the Levant, especially in the coastal cities of Phoenicia. Notoriously, evidence for such cults is extremely late and is mostly concerned with worship of Adonis when the Phoenician cities had been widely exposed to Greek culture. The great city of Byblos was ‘sacred to Adonis’, we are told, but only by the geographer Strabo (c. 20 BC). Even at Byblos the existence of a pre-Greek cult has been disputed and a non-Greek recipient of it has been doubted. But we have just enough earlier evidence to refute scepticism.20

The most suggestive piece was first published in 1977, a Phoenician inscription on stone, found about 6 miles south of Byblos and written in a script whose form suggests a date c. 920–900 BC.21 One line of it refers to the Lady of Byblos, who is known even in the Greek-speaking age as ‘Balti’: we also know that she was equated with the goddess Astarte–Ishtar. The previous line of the inscription refers to ‘the lord’ (adon), followed by a break in the text. The obvious supplement is Tammuz, the lord (adon) and loved one of Lady Astarte. The site of this recent discovery, as we shall see, is significant.

When Alexander the Great arrived and a new Greek era began, worship of the pre-Greek Tammuz was certainly rooted already in the city. It was at Byblos that a near-contemporary Greek historian located the story of Myrrha and her father, plainly because their pre-Greek models were already well known in Byblos.22 For more details, we have to cross another five hundred years to an artful and complex Greek text, Lucian’s On the Syrian Goddess (written in the mid-second century AD, perhaps in the early 160s).23Lucian claims to have learned by enquiry about the city’s rites for Adonis. He also claims an eyewitness knowledge of the ‘great temple’ of Aphrodite in Byblos and another temple to her which was inland in the mountains.

According to Lucian, Adonis was honoured in Byblos by lamentation and breast-beating, followed by his ‘sending into the air’, presumably the escorting of his statue out into the open. ‘On this day they tell the story that he is alive.’ The women of Byblos had to shave off their hair and if they refused, according at least to Lucian, they had to stand in public for a day and have sex for a fee with strangers.24 The ‘coming alive’ has been more controversial among scholars than the compulsory sex. Many scholars have seen it as a very late addition to the cult of Adonis and his forerunners, contesting the views of Frazer and The Golden Bough, which implicitly saw Adonis as an ancient precursor of the Christian stories of resurrection. But the oldest Sumerian stories of Dumuzi, we now know, made him commute between the lands of the living and the dead. Like Theocritus in his hymn (c. 270s BC), Lucian is not innovating when he reports the worshippers’ claim that Adonis had ‘come alive’.25

There was also vivid evidence in the landscape. Just to the south of Byblos runs the modern Nahr Ibrahim river, which the ancients called the ‘Adonis’. Every year, Lucian tells us, its waters ran red from the mountains, signifying that Adonis had been wounded there and that the lamentation was now due. Indeed this river runs red, agitated by winds and the rain which washes red soil into its course. Travellers have often observed this staining, which occurs when the river gains water in spring. The mourning, then, was a spring event at Byblos.26 The inscription to the Lady goddess and ‘the lord’ (Tammuz?) was discovered right beside this river, suggesting that its connection with them both may be as old as the tenth century BC.

Further inland, in the mountains, Lucian saw yet another ancient shrine of Aphrodite, one which we can also place exactly. At modern Afqa, the ancient Aphaca, we have the remains of ancient temples, including a shrine of Aphrodite which was rebuilt in the Roman era. The place itself has an obvious halo of sanctity, as the Nahr Ibrahim river plunges from an adjoining cliff, encouraging a green fringe of vegetation along its face and falling into a ravine below the cave. ‘There is something delicious, almost intoxicating,’ wrote Frazer, although he had never been there, ‘in the freshness of these tumbling waters, in the sweetness and purity of the mountain air, in the vivid green of the vegetation.’27 Two streams of water meet, one from a cave in the cliff, the other from the open mountain-face: together they flow past a levelled stone platform, the site of the main temple.

For the relevance of this site we have to look even further ahead, to Christian authors. They identify it as the very place where Tammuz died and even (less plausibly) as the place where the Lady goddess died too in her grief for him. Probably she mourned him, having ‘found’ him at Afqa; the site, we shall see, was indeed connected with Adonis’ death and return to life. It was certainly a major centre for worshippers and it was readily integrated into Tammuz’ story. The reddening of the river signified his wound; the green of Afqa, even in high summer, was the place of his ‘finding’ and, arguably, was a promise of his coming back to life. In Byblos the laments began in spring, but they must have culminated in a procession to this ‘extramural’ sanctuary, as elsewhere in the ancient world. The myth then became sited at this rare green pocket in the brown summer hinterland and, according to later Christian sources, men at Aphaca wore female clothing and women, even married women, had indiscriminate sex at the site. These practices, if true, had a symbolic value too, at least for modern interpreters. They reversed ‘normal time’ in transgressions which marked the occasion as a festival-suspension of everyday life.28 Later Greek sources link the festival with the appearance of a special flaming star, as if the goddess herself was present. As elsewhere in Syria, the worship for Tammuz–Adonis at Afqa may have occurred in the heat of July.29

When our Euboean travellers visited the Levant in the tenth to eighth centuries BC, this weeping for Tammuz certainly confronted them, nearly a thousand years before Lucian’s claim to have seen it. Yet it was not from Byblos that Tammuz became the Greek Adonis and spread into the Aegean. His heartland, rather, was a different point in our eastern triangle: Cyprus. Again, the surviving evidence is late, no earlier (it so happens) than the Roman period, but once again our first attestation is not the proof of a practice’s origin. By c. 800 BC, after all, Phoenicians had settled on the south-east coast of the island at their ‘New Town’ of Kition (Larnaca). They (and their women) would have brought the cult of Tammuz and Astarte with them and as they spread inland from Larnaca to Idalion, over the plain of the Mesorea and westwards towards the copper mines of Tamassos, they would have found local gods presiding over the brilliant vegetation of the Cypriot spring. At Idalion there was later to be a shrine of Adonis, based, perhaps, on a previous Phoenician cult of Tammuz. Twelve miles further east, we then find sites which became the home constituency of Adonis:30 they can best be explained as sites attended by Greek-speaking Cypriots, adapting the cult of Tammuz which the nearby Phoenicians had brought with them.

At Golgoi, the Greek Adonis was said to have been born: one ‘Golgos’ was even said to have been his child from Aphrodite. At Golgoi a shrine of Aphrodite is amply attested by statuary made from the local limestone, by figurines and by the mentions of ‘Aphrodite Golgaia’ in inscriptions found nearby.31 Eight miles north-east of Golgoi lies a second sanctuary, known by its modern name of Arsos. It too attracted dedications by its priestesses. Their figurines and statues match those which were found at Golgoi and although one of Arsos’s local gods was Apollo, Aphrodite was plainly honoured at Arsos too, as we know from inscriptions on the site and from the types of the sanctuary’s sculptures.32

One curious ancient text locates Aphrodite’s behaviour after Adonis’ death: it occurs in a collection of mythical details which was compiled from uncertain sources in the first century BC. It is remarkably specific and its underlying source has an authority that isgreater than its own late date. Like other unhappy lovers, Aphrodite’s first impulse, it tells us, had been to jump from the ‘White Rock’, but she was dissuaded by the news that her Adonis was to be found lying at the shrine of Apollo Erithios ‘in Argos, a town on Cyprus’. This Argos has remained one of ancient Cyprus’s unlocated sites, but the obvious answer is that it is our modern Arsos, whose name obliquely reflects its past.33 Arsos has a sanctuary of Apollo and a very strong cult-link with Aphrodite. She was Golgoi’s Aphrodite, honoured by her very same priestesses. Her worshippers, I suggest, would process out from Golgoi, Adonis’ cult-centre, to ‘find him’ at Argos–Arsos in the shrine of Apollo, just as the goddess Aphrodite had once found him there in green nature. Just as worshippers in the Levant processed from Byblos to Tammuz’ find-spot at Aphaca, so on Cyprus worshippers processed from Golgoi to nearby Argos–Arsos to ‘find’ Adonis, their goddess’s beloved one.

There is no direct ancient evidence for this Cypriot processional route, but there is a most attractive connection. In the 270s Theocritus gives us the poetic hymn, or lament, for Adonis which is sung at his rich festival in Alexandria by a fine female singer, the unnamed ‘daughter of a woman from Argos’.34 In Greece, the ancient Argos had a place of cult for Adonis, like many other cities, but it was not at all a famous cult-centre and it had no natural connection with Egypt’s Alexandria.35 Theocritus’ festival was patronized and greatly enriched by Queen Arsinoë, the wife (and sister) of the reigning king Ptolemy II. Arsinoe’s strong connections with Cyprus are abundantly attested: on the island itself we have inscriptions in her honour, including some from the Mesorea plain and even from Golgoi, Adonis’ legendary ‘home’.36 The expert female singer came, I suggest, from Cyprus, from the very Argos–Arsos where Adonis had been found lying. She was exactly the right accompaniment for an Adonis-festival patronized by a queen who had such close connections with the island. She sings the lament, the Greek ‘Ialemos’: Theocritus is presenting a Cypriot expert who has come from the heartland of Adonis’ cult and lamentations. ‘Lady [Aphrodite]’, her song begins aptly, ‘you who loved Golgoi and Idalion…’.

If the cult’s heartland lay here on Cyprus, it was not through Euboean travellers that it spread from the Levant through the Greek Aegean. The cult of Tammuz had confronted them on the coast, but it first passed from the Levant to Cyprus with Phoenician settlers. Their Greek-speaking Cypriot neighbours then developed a parallel cult of their own, partly by observation, partly from contact and intermarriage with Levantine women on the island, the mainstays of Tammuz. They then spread it, no doubt with their own women and daughters, through Cyprus and other Aegean islands, where we find it on Samos and on Sappho’s Lesbos, like the figurines and local limestone sculptures which also spread out from Arsos and Golgoi to these places, beginning c. 600 BC.37

Why, though, was the Greeks’ cult one of ‘Adonis’, not of Tammuz? His Phoenician worshippers called on their Tammuz as ‘Adon’ and ‘Adonai’, names meaning ‘Lord’ and ‘My Lord’, during the days of lamentation. Greeks heard them and as ‘Tammuz’ in Greek would sound most curious (‘Thamouth’), the Phoenicians’ Adon became the neat Greek Adonis.38 His stories then took on elements of purely Greek style: the hunting, the romance, the bargain between the two goddess-lovers. But the cult retained much which we can match in non-Greek evidence: the female lamentation, the ‘green gardening’, the incense, the music, the central notion of commuting yearly between the dead and the living. Between three cultures and across two thousand years the cult would not have remained static, but the basic imprint was still unusually clear. From Greek Egypt, we have a Greek papyrus-list of a householder’s expenses (c. 250 BC) which have been brilliantly explained as incurred for the worship of Adonis. Some of them are for a ‘display’, deikterion: the Greek word and the practice have been matched exactly to the similar ‘display’ for Dumuzi, held centuries earlier in his old Babylonian cult.39

This core of cult passed to the Greeks because they observed it and learned it from participants. The choice of the name ‘Adonis’ was not the choice of ignorant outsiders. Their obvious informants were women, the cult’s most prominent celebrants. From watching, listening and (no doubt) from sex and intermarriage with Levantines, Cypriot Greeks developed an Adonis-cult of their own. It spread from its Cypriot heartland through the rest of Cyprus, to Amathus and the great cult-centre of Aphrodite at Paphos.40 It then appeared in due course in the west, where we now know of it at the port of Gravisca on the Etruscan–Italian coast. Here, Greeks from the east Aegean may have been its carriers: a cult-building on the site is argued to have been a special Adonis-shrine by c. 400BC, whose courtyard, portico and (possibly) garden were required by the cult. There may have been similar Adonis-cults in other coastal settlements in the west, at Pyrgi or even Locri in south Italy where Aphrodite’s cult was important.41 On Sicily, the cult followed the Phoenicians’ presence in the north-west sector of the island where it met and enhanced existing cults of a local Sicilian nature-hero, Daphnis. We may even have visual evidence of it. At Eryx, a Phoenician temple-city, local silver coins of the mid-fifth century BC show on one side a leaf, on the other a flower of what has been identified, optimistically, as a form of anemone, Adonis’ flower. On another of the local coin-types a youth is shown before a seated lady, perhaps Adonis before his Aphrodite.42 If this interpretation is correct, these coin-types are evidence that Adonis was worshipped here too, encouraged by the presence of Eryx’s famous shrine to Astarte–Aphrodite, Adonis–Tammuz’ loving goddess.

What was the great attraction in Adonis’ cult which caused it to spread and persist so far and so long? As Frazer argued, it had a reference to the fertility of the natural world: the ‘green gardening’, above all, suggests as much. The quickly grown gardens were not left to wither as symbols of sterility. They were thrown away when Adonis returned to the dead but, as they were still green and healthy when discarded, they symbolized the fresh green growth of his brief phase among the living.43 Eventually ancient authors give us a view of what Adonis meant but it survives only from the third century AD onwards when his cult had been explained allegorically by pagan thinkers. Without exception they present his rites as celebrations of fertility: they are a symbol, they tell us, of the fully grown fruits of the earth, in contrast to the fading flowers of spring. They do not even consider interpretations which have occurred to modern scholars, as if Adonis’ women-worshippers were ‘play-acting the failure of planting in order to ensure by contrast its success in reality’, or even, supposedly, expressing a mocking female attitude to male sexual performance. Here, Frazer’s connection with fresh growth and fertility is still relevant.44

Nonetheless, it does not exhaust the rites’ range of meanings. They were also pre-eminently women’s rites. They were not just a response to the ‘special situation of Greek women seeking relief from intensive everyday pressures’.45 They and their accompanying stories specifically presented an idealized youthful lover, to be mourned by women who lived with mundane reality: prosaic, ageing husbands of their own. Theocritus’ poem, our best source, exploits exactly this contrast between the young, perfect Adonis, brightly visible, and the humdrum husbands to whom his female spectators must return.46 Tragic love, a yearly presence and absence and a young beauty were an idealized focus for the emotions: Adonis combined an appeal to ‘desperate housewives’ with a relation to the growth and summer death of the green natural world.

In the early Christian period this cult of Adonis took on a new, under-emphasized significance. It came to a head in the 320s, when Constantine, the first Christian emperor, gave orders for the destruction of pagan temples at four particular places of cult in the Near East. One was in Jerusalem, on what was believed to be the site of Jesus’ tomb; another was beside an ancient oak-tree at Mamre in Palestine; a third was at the harbour-town of Aigai on the Cilician coast; the fourth was at a pagan shrine in the mountainous heartland of Phoenicia.47

This surviving list might seem capricious, or perhaps only a small part of a wider whole, but for Christians it had a recognizable logic. ‘Jesus’ tomb’ in Jerusalem was an obvious site for clearance. As for the oak-tree at Mamre, it was here in the book of Genesis that Abraham was said to have entertained the visiting angels. They seemed eerily to be ‘now one, now three’, and so Christians interpreted them as their holy Trinity, who had visited Mamre in the pre-Christian past.48 The temple at Aigai also had a rich significance. It had recently been the residence of the pagan holy man Apollonius of Tyana, who was known for stories of his wonder-working: pagan polemicists, writing and speaking shortly before the reign of Constantine, had exalted his miracles as greater than those of Jesus.49 As for the Phoenician shrine, Eusebius describes in a magnificent burst of rhetoric how Constantine’s ‘eagle eye’ spied it from afar, a site off the beaten track where effeminate men dressed as women, where there was lawless concourse of the sexes, ‘marriage-stealing’ destruction and unmentionable practices. The site, we can see, was Aphaca where worshippers came out yearly from Byblos to honour Adonis and their Lady goddess in rites of ‘social reversal’.

We can also now see the logic of Constantine’s orders. At Mamre, he cleared the place where the Holy Trinity first visited mankind. In Jerusalem, he cleared the site of Jesus’ tomb. At Aigai and Aphaca he attacked two sites which were central to contemporary anti-Christian polemic: the temple at Aigai where Apollonius’ miracles were said to exceed Jesus’ and the temple at Aphaca where Adonis’ death and return countered Christian claims to a unique Resurrection. The cult of Adonis had already been used by pagans as an anti-Christian counterweight in a highly significant place. A sacred grove for ‘Venus and her lover’ Adonis had been planted at Bethlehem by the very cave which was supposed to have been the cave of Christ’s Nativity. ‘Unique and alone among the demigods’, Adonis came ‘both to the underworld and to the land of the living’. He had become a favourite symbol in contemporary pagan funerary art, no doubt because of his ability to return from the dead. He had not enjoyed a full resurrection because ‘the fact that he had to return to some form of existence was merely necessary for creating a new opportunity to die again’.50 But pagans, shortly before Constantine, had anticipated Sir James Frazer. By c. 300 they had been using Adonis as a counter to Christian claims of a unique triumph over death.

Armed intervention cannot eradicate a belief which extends over two thousand years. Worship at Aphaca survived Constantine, and within a hundred years Christians had to try to stop it again. The divinity of the place survived nonetheless, and Muslim visitors still leave their prayers and offerings beside the water below its cliff. Nothing, meanwhile, not even a Christian task-force, can stop the anemones on the hillsides. They flower each spring, blood-red as if from Adonis’ wound, in the hills round Aphaca and the wilder parts of Cyprus. ‘There yet, some say, in secret he does lie’, so Spenser suggests in The Faerie Queene,

Lapped in flowers and precious spicery,

By her hid from the world, and from the skill

Of Stygian gods, which do her love envy;

But she herself, whenever that she will,

Possesseth him, and of his sweetness takes her fill…

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