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The Adonis Myth and a Festival Attractiveness

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He is dying, Cytherea, your tender Adonis,

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Beat your breasts, girls, tear your tunics…’

This famous fragment is the oldest evidence about mourning over Adonis death, derives from the 7thcentury B.C.E poem of Sappho. The choir of girls asks Aphrodite what they can do to mourn over Adonis death. Aphrodite answers that they should beat their breast and tear their tunic. There is uncertainty if this fragment was recited during the festival by women at Lesbos Island; however, due to its uniquity, it could not be omitted in the following paper. Ritual and religion were significantly important to Sappho and her companions, as for women of all classes in ancient Greece. Religion was the only sphere in which they could participate in civic life in a sexually segregated society of classical Athens. As Goff notes, ancient women used ritual as a device which helps them to express themselves and their desires. Religious ritual was an essential element of female culture existing in society, where women had no public rights and where patriarchy was a principle social system. Women destination was a life inside the house, procreation and taking care of the children. Aim of this paper will be to show different academic interpretations of Adonia, the woman only, non – state festival in classical Athens. The present paper will demonstrate and compare various scholar interpretations of the Adonis myth and festival. Also, will identify contrasts and similarities between them and the meaning of individual features belonging to the ritual.

Adonis was an example of Semitic God adopted by Greeks. ‘Adon’ in West Semitic world means lord. The link bet

ween two cultures (West Semitic and Greek) lies in the ritual of women whipping over a young god, the companion of the goddess of love at the beginning of the summer. For Sappho he was Adonis, Aphrodite’s lover, in Babylonia, Syria and Palestine he was Tammuz, the spouse of Ishtar. Reed suggests that cult of Adonis/Tammuz originates in a 17 – 18 B.C.E. The rite was carried out on the roofs of the houses (something common in the Semitic world). Also, the ritual of building small gardens, laments, throwing to the sea the dead plants were present in Babylonia. Burkert argues that the myth of Tammuz transformed into the myth of Adonis was transferred from Sumerian Babylonia through the Semitic world to Greek culture . Content of the myth explains the conflict between love and death and the process of finding emotional respite through mourning and lamentation. The place where two worlds met up was Cyprus. The first evidence of Adonia festival in pre – Hellenistic Greece dates from the late 5th-century B.C.E.

Moreover, in Athens, the celebration of the Adonia is the only evidence of the Adonis cult. There was no temple, no priest and no votive statue. In Greece, Adonia festival was in the hands of women since the beginning. The Attic Adonia kept some Mesopotamian extracts as summer data and the potted gardens; however, the purpose of the festival endured a radical change. In Mesopotamia, they were not private celebrations; they were related to official celebrations of the agriculture cycle instead.

The myth describes a beautiful boy killed by a boar while hunting, his tasks amputated Adonis genitals. Aphrodite was looking after him in the underworld; she asked the queen of this world Persephone to give her Adonis back. It was impossible as Persephone also fall in love with him. The deal was that Adonis would spend half a year with Persephone and another part he will be with Aphrodite in the upper world.

The most famous interpretation of the myth is that of Frazer. He argued that Adonis is presumed to be the spirit of the wheat. His interpretation has been the most influential. Frazer relates Adonis to the life cycle of the plant. Adonis spends one-third of his life in the underworld and two-thirds above. He argues that Adonis is the incarnation of the spirit of wheat. Being the cereal, he had long been an essential part of the Greek diet; however, he neglects that and prefers dangerous breakout from the normality. Death on a lettuce patch and not being able to enter the adolescence is very symbolic. Interpretation of Adonis as a fading god and the Adonia as a symbol of rising and decaying nature was changed by structuralism.

In contrast, Detienne spells out the structural meaning of the Adonis myth. He sees Adonis as a god who links heaven and earth together and is a product of incest between father and daughter. Adonis destiny was not to cross adolescence to become a man, possibly a warrior or a husband to be fully accepted by society . He is a personification of premature and infertile sensuality. It could be argued that structuralism drastically remodelled the interpretation of the festival into a ceremony with anti-agriculture and antifertility meaning. All in contrast with official Thesmophoria organised by legitimate wives.

Every year in late July (the hottest time in the year) private groups of women celebrated the festival on the rooftops of their houses in honour of Adonis, the young lover of Aphrodite. Women organise it, and it was more like an informal meeting of friends and neighbours. They planted seeds of lettuce, fennel, barley and wheat in the pots and when they grew, they have been left on the roofs to die and then thrown to the sea. Women had been dancing, chanting and lamenting for one or more nights . Adonia performed during the Dog Days, the moment when spices were collected. Detienne is pointing out the instrument which had used during the celebrations – the ladder leaning towards the top of the building. Women were climbing on the roofs to place their small potted gardens there. Plants such as lettuce, fennel, wheat and barley were seeded, put on the roof, and when died, they were symbolically buried in the sea.Detienne insists that the participants of that festival were perfumed concubines and courtesans who feast and dance with their lovers. The atmosphere was noisy and improper. Drinking and sexual intercourses were present. As opposite Simms argues that the festival was celebrated by all women: citizens and noncitizen, friends, relatives, neighbours. It was noisy and lasted at least one day and night. Winkler supports the argument that the festival was an informal event where friends and neighbours could meet up. Women made all the arrangements; they have been the active side during the festival, performing dances, chants and laments on the rooftops for about eight days.

Interpretations of the festival varied. It seems very clear that Marcel Detienne proposed the most important modern analyse of the festival. It has caused discussions within an academic community, and to this day, successive generations of scholars have been polemicising with his theses. For instance, Detienne analyses the Adonia festival through two central themes: eating practices and marriage. At the festival, a sacrifice meal was provided, and spices played a key role in the process of its preparation. Sacrification of an animal was connecting human with gods; it is a distinction which separates humans from gods. Concerning Detienne, marriage could be recognised as an equivalent to sacrification under the protection of Zeus and Hera, the union of two families as well as union between man and woman. Detienne argues that sexual consummation (resulting in giving life to future generations) is equivalent to the consumption of sacrificed meat. Eating practice and marriage preserve the continuity for a human race. Marriage for Detienne was a form of ploughing, where a man was a labourer, and a woman was a furrow where his seeds might grow. Producing legitimised fruits from that union was a key issue in an ancient Greek marriage. Adonis could not give it to any of his lovers .

Parker suggests that God was defined in three crucial elements essential to celebrate the festival: little images, gardens and laments. Significantly, in Athens, the ritual had been centred on the death of Adonis. Older interpretations of the gardens were symbolising the fertility, rebirth as the annual rebirth of plants. But as Parker suggests, the interpretation could be wider. The annual planting could be the symbol of Adonis annual return; however, after only eight days, they were disposed of. It could be suggested that they represent his quick death (before becoming a respected man), their brief emotional fantasy about a young lover . Additionally, Simms suggests that gardens were associated with death and planted for convenience as they could be used as portable funerary coffins for the small Adonis figures. Detienne states that Adonia festival was the opposite of Thesmophoria. The first one meant the non-productive sex and impossibility to gain true in contrast to the hard physical work needed for plants to grow and survive.

Detienne believes that Adonia was celebrated mainly by courtesans and concubines who met up with their lovers, climbing to the rooftops to put there the potted gardens. It was done with the atmosphere of erotic seduction. In contrast, Thesmophoria was dedicated to Demeter goddess of agriculture and fertility, mother of Persephone, where respected matrons with their daughters celebrated grievous rituals hoping for a promise of good harvest . Nevertheless, Winkler states that if we remove erotic elements from Detienne’s account, then we could see the other picture of the festival. Namely, men’s duty was to plough and plant the seeds, women’s role was to take care of it, bring it to life and turn it into something substantial, for instant flour, bread, next generations. It could be argued that the eight days gardens symbolising the marginal role men played in the agriculture and reproduction the next generations.

Furthermore, Simms disagree with Detienne’s interpretation of lettuce as an anaphrodisiac; she argues that the plant was used for convenience as a quickly sprouted . Reed also disputes with Detienne’s view that gardens were a symbol of impotence. For instance, many seeds were planted in the middle of the summer and die quickly; however, artistic evidence shows that in the moment of lamentation, the gardens were alive and were even flourished.  Moreover, Parker asserts that gardens could indicate women’s teasing approach to men sexual powers and suggests that the real capability of control over life is somewhere else.

According to the myth, Aphrodite mourned and beat her breast over Adonis death, this gesture was repeated by women during the festival. Adonis death was expressed by the small statues of the god. By doing that women celebrated sexual relations and possibly the potency, indicated the difference with the official policy of aggressive patriarchy . Lamentations were carried out regardless of the cheering atmosphere of the festival. It could be argued that they were showing females power over the dead as laments were the essential part of the funeral rite . Simms argues that lament was the most attractive to women during the festival. It was giving them comfort and was a natural extension of the role they played at the funeral while they performed to the dead members of their families . Lament required gestures as raising the hands, beating the breasts in the company of other women. Simms provides a trustworthy explanation that Adonia festival attractiveness was due to the possibility of taking part in mutual lamenting. This activity was very natural and soothing for females in that period. They provide it at the funerals for dead family members. Furthermore, it was especially attractive after Solon’s reforms in Athens, where women mourning role during the funerals was legally restrained .

Adonia festival is present in the literature; the earliest example is the comedy of Aristophanes ‘Lysistrata’ from 411 B.C.E. It confirms the loud atmosphere during the festival, the rituals were not kept in secret, men could observe and use them for their own goals. Rhonda Simms explains that men tolerated women-only Adonia festival because they recognised lament as women traditional domain; it was rather harmless and easy to control as performed in the private space. Another comedy ‘Samia’ from approximately 308 B.C.E is a good example of it. The main character Moskhion and his girlfriend are having sexual intercourse during the festival taking advantage of the boisterous atmosphere. The example of how women felt during Adonia is the fifteenth Idyll of Theocritus from the third century B.C.E. It describes women emotions during the celebration of Adonia festival in Alexandria. They were trying to look for a substitute that would help them to survive the problems of everyday relations with their husbands. Festival was helping them to express their needs, desires and sexuality. They dreamt about ideal lover so different than much older, sometimes aggressive husband with whom very often they did not have a real emotional relationship.

Understanding of the myth and festival evolved over the years. In the nineteenth century, Frazer’s perspective has dominated, but over the years, it has evolved. Development of structuralism allowed a better understanding of the myth, the meaning of the festival and its attributes. Modern researchers consider the social aspect of understanding the meaning of myths and festivals. In case of understanding Adonia festival, it has evolved from looking at it from the perspective of agriculture, fertility or infertility to considering it from the women point of view. What benefits did they gain by joining the festival? Scholars began to recognise the social context, the reality of women from that era through the literary works of that period. Attempts were also made to understand the emotions of women participating in the festival. Current interpretations of the festival pay attention to the issues like the importance of lament, a sense of community, understanding female’s reality, their difficulties and emotions. Surely, participation in collective lamentation over the dead young lover was the most powerful emotional experience during the festival. Often, women were experiencing relief from patriarchal reality, and metaphorically each woman annually was able to undergo Aphrodite experience. 

James Fredal believes that Adonia festival was recovering female strength by their participation in religious and social life in a world dominated by men. Participation in the ritual gave women freedom of movement from house to house for approximately eight days. They could cry, laugh, a joke without male sovereignty. It was possible since it was a private festival; official religious regulations did not apply there.         

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