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The Golden Bough

Chapter 32. The Ritual of Adonis
AT THE FESTIVALS of Adonis, which were held in Western Asia and in Greek lands,
the death of the god was annually mourned, with a bitter wailing, chiefly by women;
images of him, dressed to resemble corpses, were carried out as to burial and then thrown
into the sea or into springs; and in some places his revival was celebrated on the
following day. But at different places the ceremonies varied somewhat in the manner and
apparently also in the season of their celebration. At Alexandria images of Aphrodite and
Adonis were displayed on two couches; beside them were set ripe fruits of all kinds,
cakes, plants growing in flower-pots, and green bowers twined with anise. The marriage
of the lovers was celebrated one day, and on the morrow women attired as mourners,
with streaming hair and bared breasts, bore the image of the dead Adonis to the sea-shore
and committed it to the waves. Yet they sorrowed not without hope, for they sang that the
lost one would come back again. The date at which this Alexandrian ceremony was
observed is not expressly stated; but from the mention of the ripe fruits it has been
inferred that it took place in late summer. In the great Phoenician sanctuary of Astarte at
Byblus the death of Adonis was annually mourned, to the shrill wailing notes of the flute,
with weeping, lamentation, and beating of the breast; but next day he was believed to
come to life again and ascend up to heaven in the presence of his worshippers. The
disconsolate believers, left behind on earth, shaved their heads as the Egyptians did on
the death of the divine bull Apis; women who could not bring themselves to sacrifice
their beautiful tresses had to give themselves up to strangers on a certain day of the
festival, and to dedicate to Astarte the wages of their shame.
This Phoenician festival appears to have been a vernal one, for its date was determined by
the discoloration of the river Adonis, and this has been observed by modern travellers to
occur in spring. At that season the red earth washed down from the mountains by the rain
tinges the water of the river, and even the sea, for a great way with a blood-red hue, and
the crimson stain was believed to be the blood of Adonis, annually wounded to death by
the boar on Mount Lebanon. Again, the scarlet anemone is said to have sprung from the
blood of Adonis, or to have been stained by it; and as the anemone blooms in Syria about
Easter, this may be thought to show that the festival of Adonis, or at least one of his
festivals, was held in spring. The name of the flower is probably derived from Naaman
(darling), which seems to have been an epithet of Adonis. The Arabs still call the
anemone wounds of the Naaman. The red rose also was said to owe its hue to the same
sad occasion; for Aphrodite, hastening to her wounded lover, trod on a bush of white
roses; the cruel thorns tore her tender flesh, and her sacred blood dyed the white roses for
ever red. It would be idle, perhaps, to lay much weight on evidence drawn from the
calendar of flowers, and in particular to press an argument so fragile as the bloom of the
rose. Yet so far as it counts at all, the tale which links the damask rose with the death of
Adonis points to a summer rather than to a spring celebration of his passion. In Attica,
certainly, the festival fell at the height of summer. For the fleet which Athens fitted out
against Syracuse, and by the destruction of which her power was permanently crippled,
sailed at midsummer, and by an ominous coincidence the sombre rites of Adonis were
being celebrated at the very time. As the troops marched down to the harbour to embark,
 
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