by Pierce Nahigyan
Of Adonis, who is called Thammuz, this tale is often told. The goddess of passion Aphrodite, spying Adonis as a babe in Araby, was so entranced by his beauty that she locked him in a cedar chest and gave it to Persephone, who dwells with Hades. But upon opening the chest the lonely Persephone so loved the boy that she refused to return her to Aphrodite. The ire of a goddess is a fearsome thing, and these were two of the most powerful, vengeful love and summer’s death. If they were not reconciled, such calamity would befall the world of men that not even the Titans locked deep beneath the earth would be spared destruction.
Zeus at last descended from on high to settle the goddesses’ dispute. He decreed that for one third of the year Adonis would dwell with Aphrodite, for one third Persephone, and for one third he would be left to himself. It was during this final third that the boy was fatally wounded by a wild boar.
There is another tale, one long forgotten, which Adonis told himself to the boar that wounded him. That the boar could tell no other of what he knew was not his sin, for he was slain soon after by a lion. As he died between the lion’s jaws he spoke the words of Adonis, and thereafter lions told it to each other. But lions, proud, deigned not to tell their tale to lesser creatures. And believing no mortal creature to be greater than themselves, the story was lost when the final Grecian lion was slain by Heracles.
But this tale survives in fragments stolen by birds and crocodiles. That Adonis was beautiful from birth is quite true. His beauty was as great as the tragedy that bore him. His mother Myrrha, who was called Smyrna in ancient times, was bewitched by Aphrodite. The girl, in her youthful vanity, decreed that her golden hair was the rival of the goddess’s. Looking upon herself in the mirror she proudly combed her flowing tresses and boasted that were Aphrodite beside her, she would be the fairer. And so Aphrodite, enraged at hearing this slander, struck Myrrha with an indelible curse. She would love her father and her father alone, madly and without reservation.
“She would consider herself immortal,” the goddess was heard to remark. “Let her live as an immortal, without the bounds of mortals’ morals. Let her lay beside her lord and lover, her monarch, her patriarch, until her lust is consummate with her vanity.”
Disguising herself as one of her father’s slaves, Smyrna plied her father with wine until he was senseless and then lay with him for twelve days and twelve nights in the darkness of his royal chamber. On the twelfth night, when the spell was broken and Smyrna was with child, her father roused from his intoxication. Still aching with desire for the exuberant and anonymous slave, the king brushed the golden hair from his lover’s sleeping face. Yet he could not spy her features in the shadow. By Aphrodite’s hand, the moonlight opened the window and slid softly between man and woman, revealing, to the king’s horror, his own daughter beside him. Taking up his sword, he pursued Smyrna, intent on ending her life and her irrevocable shame.
He chased the girl to the lake beyond his bedchamber and Smyrna, naked and weeping, cried out to the gods. She prayed neither for forgiveness nor for escape. She prayed to be nowhere, to be neither alive nor dead, to be nothing at all. It is not known which god answered her prayer. Some say it was Zeus himself, others Hermes, the god of thieves. Some say it was Aphrodite who took pity on the girl, but this is absurd. Aphrodite delighted in the girl’s naked flight and even more in her abyssal shame. Just as her father caught Smyrna to plunge his sword into her breast, the girl was transformed into a tree. The king stabbed into her bark and released a spicy sap that is today known as myrrh, Myrrha’s tears.
Adonis was the sole fruit of that tree, born from her topmost branches. Aphrodite, who often looked down upon the tree in pleasure, was curious to discover this new and bawling ornament. Plucking the child from its branch, she cleaned its face of tears and sap and gazed, awestruck, at what she knew would be her future lover. No mortal had ever been born with such fine features. It was as if the beauty and sorrow of his mother had been distilled from the unbearable weight of her execration. Aphrodite hid the boy in the Underworld, for such was his innate goodness and outward fairness that those who did not rally to him upon the earth would surely seek to destroy him. She well knew the minds of her sister goddesses also, and how they would desire the boy for their own. Aphrodite surmised that Persephone alone would remain faithful to her husband, cold and exacting Hades. Persephone alone, warmed only by the fires of the damned and denied the sun that she adored and the soft embrace of her mother, goddess of the harvest, would care for the boy.
Little did Aphrodite suspect that the first thing Persephone would tell Adonis was the secret of his birth, and how his mother had come to her woeful end at the hand of the goddess of passion.
In time Adonis grew to manhood. He escaped the Underworld, how it has never been told, though it is whispered that Hades was jealous of how Persephone would dote on the boy and revealed the exit from Hell disguised as a flock of crimson bats. When the boy gazed upon the grandeur of the mortal world, its sun bright, its grasses golden, he wept with joy. In that moment animals bowed their heads and the river parted for him as he ran, eager to taste and experience all the loveliness of life.
One morning as he bathed in a pool, Aphrodite came to him, and he did indeed lay with her, for in her ultimate aspect no mortal man can deny her. Thus it has ever been. But after waking beside the goddess, Adonis knew her for what she was. He leapt to his feet and fled. He fled her over hills and through shadowed glens. And always she found him. The boy was in the springtime of his youth, a passionate man gentle of soul but firm in body and overruled by those desires as have captivated all young men, from the dawn unto the dusk of time. She came to him disguised as a nubile maid of the mountain shining in the rays of morning dew. She appeared to him as a meek shepherdess tending a pleasant cooking fire. She pursued him as the fiery widow of a celebrated carpenter. She claimed him in the midnights and the noons of days spent running, coming again and again, drawn by his spicy sweat and roiling passion. Aphrodite was sated and yet not sated, for though she joined to Adonis and offered such pleasures as no man had known before, ever was she denied, ever was she rebuked, ever was she abandoned.
Adonis could not escape her, but he could not love her, never truly love her, the seed of his inception, the murderer of his deathless, lifeless mother. And so he fled through Greece, never wearying throughout the years, growing strong of leg and swift of cunning. Aphrodite was vexed. And when Persephone mocked her for her infatuation with a mortal, the goddess struck Adonis down. She smote the boar he was hunting with a blinding delirium, turning it back on the hunter. And where Adonis was slashed, there upon the ground sprang red anemones.
The young man died, telling his tale to the boar. He died amidst a bed of flowers, a single tear of myrrh fallen from either eye, his mother’s name upon his lips.
Where Adonis resides in Hades is unknown to gods and men. It is said Persephone hid the boy from Aphrodite’s gaze for all time, though where such peace is to be had in its infinite gloom is a mystery, even to the Lord of Hell.