The Social Aspect in Understanding the Meaning of the Myths

Essay details

Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.

This famous fragment is the oldest mention about Adonis, derives from the 7th century B.C.E poem of famous Greek poetess Sappho in which the choir of girls is asking Aphrodite what they can do to mourn Adonis death. Aphrodite is answering that they should beat their breast and tear their tunic. We cannot be sure if this fragment was recited during the festival by women celebrating death of Adonis at Lesbos island, but certainly it must be acknowledged in this 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 women could participate in civic life in sexually segregated society like classical Athens. As Goff notes, ancient women used ritual as tool which help them perform themselves and their desires. Religious ritual was an essential element of female culture existed in this 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 about 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 compare various scholar interpretations of the meaning of the festival, through its history, interpretation of the Adonis myth, the meaning of individual features belonged to the ritual. All this will be done to identify contrasts and similarities of different scholars’ interpretations.

Essay due? We'll write it for you!

Any subject

Min. 3-hour delivery

Pay if satisfied

Get your price

Adonis was an example of Semitic God adopted by Greeks. ‘Adon’ in West Semitic world means lord. The link between two cultures (West Semitic and Greek) is seen 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, the Aphrodite’s lover, in Babylonia, Syria and Palestine he was Tammuz, the spouse of Ishtar. Reed suggest that cult of Adonis/Tammuz originates in a 17 – 18 centuries B.C.E. The rite was performed on the roofs of the houses (something common in Semitic world). Also, the ritual of building small gardens, laments, throwing to the sea the dead plants was present in Babylonia. Burkert argues that the myth of Tammuz transformed into the myth of Adonis was transferred from Sumerian Babylonia through Semitic world to Greek culture. It could be explained by the content of the myth, showing the conflict between love and dead, the process of finding emotional respite through mourning and lamentation . The place where two worlds met up was Cyprus. First evidence of Adonia festival in pre – Hellenistic Greece dates from the late 5th century B.C.E. 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, instead they were related to the agriculture cycle. 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.

The myth – 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 made that Adonis will spend half a year with Persephone and other 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 as the spirit of the wheat and this interpretation has been the mostly influential in the literature. Frazer is relating Adonis to the life cycle of the plant. Adonis spends one third of his life in the underworld and two-thirds above. It is explained by Frazer that Adonis is the incarnation of the spirit of wheat. Being the cereal, he had long been part of the essential Greek diet. By neglecting cereal Adonis illustrates the dangers of a way of life which would seek to flee from normality, death on a lettuce patch while he could 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 completely 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. Adonis may be a personification of premature and infertile sensuality. It could be argued that structuralism drastically remodel the meaning of festival into ceremony of anti – agriculture, anti – fertility and sensual meaning in contrast with Thesmophoria organized by legitimate wives. 

Every year in late July (the hottest time in the year) private groups of women celebrated festival on the rooftops of their houses in honour of Adonis, the young lover of Aphrodite. It was organised by women; it was more like 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 was performed during the Dog Days, the moment when spices were collected. Detienne is pointing out the instrument which had been use 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 had been seeded, put on the roof and when they died, they had been 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, atmosphere was noisy, 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 and lasted at least one day and night in a noisy way. Winkler supports the argument that the festival was an informal event where friends and neighbours could meet up. All the arrangements were done by women, they have been the active side during the festival, performing dances, chants and laments on the roof tops for about eight days.

Interpretations of the festival varied. It seems very clear that the most important modern analyse of the festival was proposed by Marcel Detienne. It has caused discussions within an academic community and to this day successive generations of scholars have been polemicizing with his theses. For instance, Detienne analyse the Adonia festival through two central themes: eating practices and marriage. At the festival a sacrifice meal was provided, and spices played the key role in the process of its preparation. Sacrification of an animal was connecting human with gods, it is a distinction which separate humans from gods. In relation to Detienne marriage could be recognized as an equivalent to sacrification under the protection of Zeus and Hera, 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 an equivalent to the consumption of sacrificed meat. They both 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 the legitimized fruits from that union was a key issue in an ancient Greek marriage. Adonis could not give it to any of his lovers

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

Gardens of Adonis will never be fertile and will never gain the true maturity. Detienne believes that Adonia was celebrated mainly by courtesans and concubines who met up with their lovers, climbing to the roof tops to put there the potted gardens. All of it was done with the atmosphere of erotic seduction. In contrast Thesmophoria were dedicated to Demeter goddess of agriculture and fertility, mother of Persephone where respected matrons with their daughters celebrated 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 as 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 flourishing. Moreover, Parker asserts that gardens could indicate women teasing approach to men sexual powers and suggest that the real capability of control over life is somewhere else .

According to the myth, Aphrodite mourned and beat her breast over Adonis death and 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 official policy of aggressive patriarchy. Lamentations were carried out regardless to 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 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 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. It was provided by them 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 comedy of Aristophanes ‘Lysistrata’ from 411 B.C.E. The comedy is an example of the loudly atmosphere during the festival, the rituals were not kept in secret, men could observe and use them for their own goals. As Rhonda Simms explains men tolerated women only Adonia festival, because they recognized lament as women traditional domain, it was rather harmless and easy to control as it was 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 most convincing example of how the women felt during Adonia is the fifteenth Idyll of Theocritus form the third century B.C.E. It is describing women emotions during celebration of Adonia festival in Alexandria. They were trying to look for substitute that would help them to survive the problems of the everyday relations with their husbands. Festival was helping them to express their needs, desires and their sexuality. They were dreaming about ideal lover so different then much older, sometimes aggressive husbands with whom very often they did not have a real emotional relationship.

In summary, it can be said that 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 individual attributes. Modern researchers consider the social aspect in understanding the meaning of the myths and festivals. In case of understanding Adonia festival, it has evolved from looking at it from the perspective of agriculture, fertility and infertility to considering it from the perspection of wome. What benefits they gained by joining the festival? Scholars began to recognize the social context, the reality that women struggled with. It is possible to do it through the literary works of that era. Attempts were also made to understand the emotions of women participating in the festival. Current interpretations of the festival pay attention to the issues as 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 a freedom of movement from house to house for approximately eight days. They could cry, laugh, joke without male sovereignty. It should be emphasized that it was possible due to the fact that it was a private festival, official religious regulations did not apply here .        

Get quality help now

Prof. Carstensen

Verified writer

Proficient in: World Cultures

4.8 (459 reviews)
“ Excellent! She is very professional, meet all the requirements, fast turn around time, communicates, and an overall 100/10. ”

+75 relevant experts are online

More Greek Related Essays

banner clock
Clock is ticking and inspiration doesn't come?
We`ll do boring work for you. No plagiarism guarantee. Deadline from 3 hours.

We use cookies to offer you the best experience. By continuing, we’ll assume you agree with our Cookies policy.