Wednesday, 24 April 2013

The Blood of Adonis

Many a time in ancient lore did a mortal fall afoul of the gods, for offences slight or grievous. Often did the Olympians strike back with overwhelming vengeance, so as to discourage insubordination in the future, and preserve the pristine honour of Heaven. But just sometimes, that vengeance rebounded upon its creator, and gods would know the pain of mortals. The story of Adonis is one such example.

The Birth of Adonis
Painting by Marcantonio Franceschini
There was once Cinyras on the throne of Assyria, with his adoring Queen Cenchreis. The family had just one heir, their young daughter, Princess Myrrha. As they watched their daughter grew, the Royal Family and the Assyrians marvelled at her beauty. Some called it Heaven bestowed. Others good fortune. But when the time came when Myrrha came of age, Queen Cenchreis proudly boasted that her daughter's beauty surpassed even that of Venus herself. A glowing compliment for a daughter. A blasphemous offence to a goddess. High on Mount Olympus, the goddess heard her. Never had so terrible a wrath been wrought upon so innocent a crime. Such fury behind the fair face of Heaven's most beloved daughter. The goddess' righteous fury sped down from Olympus as a flash of lightning, delivering forbidden passion into the mind of the Princess. Venus condemned her, rebounding her natural passion upon her own family, and thereafter she would forever have eyes for only her father. Overcome with frenzied passion, disguised by her loyal maids, Myrrha pursued her father with all her energy, employing every trick of deception to fool him of her true identity. Dark was the hour of man when at last she caught her quarry. The following day, when King Cinyras discovered the identity of his seducer, he tore the sword from his scabbard and pursued her, devastated and outraged by her perverse corruption.

Maddened by grief and the affliction that cursed her mind, Myrrha resolved to end her life. She had just prepared the rope from which she would swing when her handmaiden stayed her hand. High on Olympus, Vengeful Venus at last knew pity, and decided to end her suffering. At the goddess' command, the Princess shifted and became a beautiful tree. Ever after mortals would call it the fairest in the grove, the most beautifully scented, the myrrh tree.

The Birth of Venus
Painting by  Nicolas Poussin
Eight months passed, and the world it seemed, lay in peace. Then, on the ninth, the tree burst asunder, revealing a baby boy who would be the envy of all men - Adonis. Pity still afflicted Venus, but when she cast her godly eye over the myrrh tree, all was forgotten when she saw the boy. Knowing immediately that he would grow to become the most handsome man who ever lived, she was at once obsessed with the boy. Fearing for harm that may come to the boy, she bound him in an adamant casket and entrusted it to Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, for there was no safer place than the Underworld, where all the bounty of the Earth ultimately hails. For many a year, young Adonis grew up and grew strong away from the light, but safe.

Adonis in glory
Painting by Benjamin West
Time soon passed, and a boy he was no more. Venus made the journey to reclaim the boy, but found trouble lay ahead. For Persephone fell immediately for Adonis' astonishing beauty, and had no intention of relinquishing her charge. But when Venus saw Adonis, man at last, she was stunned. The goddess of love felt her own power take hold of her, as Cupid's arrow struck her with irresistible force - a thing never to happen before. Profane love indeed, for Adonis was a cursed man. Conceived through incest, a violation of nature, the Fates had spun a finite thread for the fairest of all men. Both goddesses quarrelled intensively over him, until Jupiter the Thunderer, lord of Heaven and Earth, was forced to intercede. The King of the Gods ruled that for Adonis, the year would be divided three ways. Four months he would spend in the Underworld with Persephone, four with Venus, and four were to be given to him to do as he will. Both goddesses bowed at this compromise and eagerly prepared for their turn.

Venus and Adonis
Painting by Francois Lemoyne
Over time, however, it became apparent to which goddess Adonis himself preferred. Having grown up neverknowing the feel of the sun, the touch of grass nor the sound of birds singing, he could not wait to escape the world of Underland. The four precious months of his very own he therefore decided to spend with Venus too. Persephone fumed in Hades, Venus rejoiced on Earth. Many an hour did man and goddess spend together walking the pastures and forests of the Earth. A naturally athletic man, Adonis took to hunting, a noble pastime for men of the age. Soon both men and gods began to envy him. Mortal men longed for his looks and his muscles. Gods resented the affections of a goddess directed at a mortal. Jealous of Venus, Persephone revealed the affair to Mars, god of war and deeply smitten with Venus. Furious, the lord of battles and bloodshed plotted his vengeance on this upstart mortal. But far down on the Earth, Venus and Adonis were oblivious to all others, each perfect in all ways. Venus liked to watch Adonis hunt, but feared for him as his quarries grew mightier and mightier in stature. Eventually, fearing for his safety, she begged him not to hunt the wildest and most dangerous beasts. "Thus cautious Venus school'd her fav'rite boy; but youthful heat all cautions will destroy... his sprightly soul beyond grave counsels flies..."

The Death of Adonis
Painting by Luca Giordano
One hot summer's morning, Adonis awoke bright and early for the day's hunt. As the Sun rose higher in the day, the dogs caught a strange new scent, barking loudly. Adonis, eagerness peaked by the sound, seized his spear and set off on the chase into the scrub. The smell of sweat drew the hounds near, and there the object of his hunt lay. A mighty boar, powerfully built and sharply tusked, stood defiantly in the forest clearing. As soon as Adonis looked upon it, he was overcome with an urge to hunt it, claim it as the trophy of his prizes. No finer a beast had ever he seen, let alone caught. Some magic or other ill was at work that day, as thirst for glory drove the warnings of his beloved far from his mind. With a heart of valour, Adonis lifted his faithful spear, and with the strength of a hunter of prodigious skill, he hurled the metalled barb at the beast. A strange boar this war, for boar it was not. Shadow covered the glade, and in that moment the deception was laid bare. It was no common boar, nor any other beast of game, for there lay the war god himself in disguise. Terror chill gripped Adonis. Too late did he recall the words of Venus, and he turned to run. But one does not attack a god without consequence:

            " The trembling boy by flight his safety sought,
              and now recall'd the lore, which Venus taught;
              but now too late to fly the boar he strove,
              who in the groin his tusks impetuous drove,
              On the discolour'd grass Adonis lay,
              The monster trampling o'er his beauteous prey... "
                   - MARS' REVENGE

The Adonis River
Photograph taken by Adrien Valentine
A piercing scream rent the air apart and echoed through the valleys. To the godly bone it chilled Venus. Knowing all too well the voice, her heart froze. Fear gripped her fair body, an emotion few gods could say they knew, a terrible sensation at all times, yet worse when it is new. Immediately she sped to his side, as quietly Mars triumphantly stole away into the forest. Blood leaked from the tusk wound in the boy's side, and deathly was his pallor. Gentle groans emanated from his lips, tears from the eyes of Venus. The blood of Adonis ran through the nectar of the flowers, and where the droplets fell upon the earth, the anemone burst into life, brimming with colour. The river near where he lay ran red for many ages after, and to this day bears his name. So the curse of Adonis' family came to pass, and the ultimate revenge of Myrrha upon her tormentor. Ever after was Venus broken, though nine months later, she too gave birth, this time to daughter, Beroe. It is after this daughter that the city of Beirut is named...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

United States

Penguin Classics
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

Oxford World's Classics
Metamorphoses (Oxford World's Classics)
(A version which favours ease of understanding than high poetry)

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