Book of Myths - Jeanie Lang

The Death of Adonis

"The fairest youth that ever maiden's dream conceived."

—Lewis Morris.

The ideally beautiful woman, a subject throughout the centuries for all the greatest powers of sculptor's and painter's art, is Venus, or Aphrodite, goddess of beauty and of love. And he who shares with her an unending supremacy of perfection of form is not one of the gods, her equals, but a mortal lad, who was the son of a king.

As Aphrodite sported one day with Eros, the little god of love, by accident she wounded herself with one of his arrows. And straightway there came into her heart a strange longing and an ache such as the mortal victims of the bow of Eros knew well. While still the ache remained, she heard, in a forest of Cyprus, the baying of hounds and the shouts of those who urged them on in the chase. For her the chase possessed no charms, and she stood aside while the quarry burst through the branches and thick undergrowth of the wood, and the hounds followed in hot pursuit. But she drew her breath sharply, and her eyes opened wide in amazed gladness, when she looked on the perfect beauty of the fleet-footed hunter, who was only a little less swift than the shining spear that sped from his hand with the sureness of a bolt from the hand of Zeus. And she knew that this must be none other than Adonis, son of the king of Paphos, of whose matchless beauty she had heard not only the dwellers on earth, but the Olympians themselves speak in wonder. While gods and men were ready to pay homage to his marvellous loveliness, to Adonis himself it counted for nothing. But in the vigour of his perfect frame he rejoiced; in his fleetness of foot, in the power of that arm that Michael Angelo has modelled, in the quickness and sureness of his aim, for the boy was a mighty hunter with a passion for the chase.

Aphrodite felt that her heart was no longer her own, and knew that the wound that the arrow of Eros had dealt would never heal until she knew that Adonis loved her. No longer was she to be found by the Cytherian shores or in those places once held by her most dear, and the other gods smiled when they beheld her vying with Diana in the chase and following Adonis as he pursued the roe, the wolf, and the wild boar through the dark forest and up the mountain side. The pride of the goddess of love must often have hung its head. For her love was a thing that Adonis could not understand. He held her "Something better than his dog, a little dearer than his horse," and wondered at her whim to follow his hounds through brake and marsh and lonely forest. His reckless courage was her pride and her torture. Because he was to her so infinitely dear, his path seemed ever bestrewn with dangers. But when she spoke to him with anxious warning and begged him to beware of the fierce beasts that might one day turn on him and bring him death, the boy laughed mockingly and with scorn.

There came at last a day when she asked him what he did on the morrow, and Adonis told her with sparkling eyes that had no heed for her beauty, that he had word of a wild boar, larger, older, more fierce than any he had ever slain, and which, before the chariot of Diana next passed over the land of Cyprus, would be lying dead with a spear-wound through it.

With terrible foreboding, Aphrodite tried to dissuade him from his venture.

"O, be advised: thou know'st not what it is

With javelin's point a churlish swine to gore,

Whose tushes never sheathed he whetteth still,

Like to a mortal butcher, bent to kill.

Alas, he naught esteems that face of thine,

To which love's eyes pay tributary gazes;

Nor thy soft hands, sweet lips, and crystal eyne,

Whose full perfection all the world amazes;

But having thee at vantage—wondrous dread!—

Would root these beauties as he roots the mead."


To all her warnings, Adonis would but give smiles. Ill would it become him to slink abashed away before the fierceness of an old monster of the woods, and, laughing in the pride of a whole-hearted boy at a woman's idle fears, he sped homewards with his hounds.

With the gnawing dread of a mortal woman in her soul, Aphrodite spent the next hours. Early she sought the forest that she might again plead with Adonis, and maybe persuade him, for love of her, to give up the perilous chase because she loved him so.

But even as the rosy gates of the Dawn were opening, Adonis had begun his hunt, and from afar off the goddess could hear the baying of his hounds. Yet surely their clamour was not that of hounds in full cry, nor was it the triumphant noise that they so fiercely make as they pull down their vanquished quarry, but rather was it baying, mournful as that of the hounds of Hecate. Swift as a great bird, Aphrodite reached the spot from whence came the sound that made her tremble.

Amidst the trampled brake, where many a hound lay stiff and dead, while others, disembowelled by the tusks of the boar, howled aloud in mortal agony, lay Adonis. As he lay, he "knew the strange, slow chill which, stealing, tells the young that it is death."

And as, in extremis, he thought of past things, manhood came to Adonis and he knew something of the meaning of the love of Aphrodite—a love stronger than life, than time, than death itself. His hounds and his spear seemed but playthings now. Only the eternities remained—bright Life, and black-robed Death.

Very still he lay, as though he slept; marble-white, and beautiful as a statue wrought by the hand of a god. But from the cruel wound in the white thigh, ripped open by the boar's profaning tusk, the red blood dripped, in rhythmic flow, crimsoning the green moss under him. With a moan of unutterable anguish, Aphrodite threw herself beside him, and pillowed his dear head in her tender arms. Then, for a little while, life's embers flickered up, his cold lips tried to form themselves into a smile of understanding and held themselves up to hers. And, while they kissed, the soul of Adonis passed away.

"A cruel, cruel wound on his thigh hath Adonis, but a deeper wound in her heart doth Cytherea bear. About him his dear hounds are loudly baying, and the nymphs of the wild woods wail him; but Aphrodite with unbound locks through the glades goes wandering—wretched, with hair unbraided, with feet unsandalled, and the thorns as she passes wound her and pluck the blossom of her sacred blood. Shrill she wails as down the woodland she is borne. . . . And the rivers bewail the sorrows of Aphrodite, and the wells are weeping Adonis on the mountains. The flowers flush red for anguish, and Cytherea through all the mountain-knees, through every dell doth utter piteous dirge:

"'Woe, woe for Cytherea, he hath perished, the lovely Adonis!'"

Passionately the god besought Zeus to give her back her lost love, and when there was no answer to her prayers, she cried in bitterness: "Yet shall I keep a memorial of Adonis that shall be to all everlasting!" And, as she spoke, her tears and his blood, mingling together, were turned into flowers.

"A tear the Paphian sheds for each blood-drop of Adonis, and tears and blood on the earth are turned to flowers. The blood brings forth the roses, the tears, the wind-flower."

Yet, even then, the grief of Aphrodite knew no abatement. And when Zeus, wearied with her crying, heard her, to his amazement, beg to be allowed to go down to the Shades that she might there endure eternal twilight with the one of her heart, his soul was softened.

"Never can it be that the Queen of Love and of Beauty leaves Olympus and the pleasant earth to tread for evermore the dark Cocytus valley," he said. "Nay, rather shall I permit the beauteous youth of thy love to return for half of each year from the Underworld that thou and he may together know the joy of a love that hath reached fruition."

Thus did it come to pass that when dark winter's gloom was past, Adonis returned to the earth and to the arms of her who loved him.

"But even in death, so strong is love,

I could not wholly die; and year by year,

When the bright springtime comes, and the earth lives,

Love opens these dread gates, and calls me forth

Across the gulf. Not here, indeed, she comes,

Being a goddess and in heaven, but smooths

My path to the old earth, where still I know

Once more the sweet lost days, and once again

Blossom on that soft breast, and am again

A youth, and rapt in love; and yet not all

As careless as of yore; but seem to know

The early spring of passion, tamed by time

And suffering, to a calmer, fuller flow,

Less fitful, but more strong."

—Lewis Morris.

And when the time of the singing of birds has come, and the flowers have thrown off their white snow pall, and the brown earth grows radiant in its adornments of green blade and of fragrant blossom, we know that Adonis has returned from his exile, and trace his footprints by the fragile flower that is his very own, the white flower with the golden heart, that trembles in the wind as once the white hands of a grief-stricken goddess shook for sorrow.

"The flower of Death" is the name that the Chinese give to the wind-flower—the wood-anemone. Yet surely the flower that was born of tears and of blood tells us of a life that is beyond the grave—of a love which is unending.

The cruel tusk of a rough, remorseless winter still yearly slays the "lovely Adonis" and drives him down to the Shades. Yet we know that Spring, with its Sursum Corda, will return as long as the earth shall endure; even as the sun must rise each day so long as time shall last, to make

"Le ciel tout en fleur semble une immense rose

Qu'un Adonis cÚleste a teinte de son sang."

—De Heredia.