Kissing the bride and the cult of Adonis

The ancient mystery cult of Adonis, was prevalent in the region of Byblos and the surrounding mountainous area of North Lebanon. So popular was the myth of Adonis, that the Greeks fully endorsed it and t became almost more synonymous with ancient Greece than its origins which were very much in Lebanon. Adonis was the eponym of mortal beauty, his cult was celebrated by women and he is another Life-death-rebirth god whose lives are tied in with seasonal change and vegetation.

With Adonis’s death comes spring and at this time in the place called Afqa, a small village in Lebanon, there is an ancient grotto where every spring the river swells and runs red with the iron from within the mountains. This natural phenomenon is associated with being the blood of Adonis, who according to the myth turned into this short lived flower, Anemone coronaria, which leave’s are blood red and originates from aroundthe Mediterranean. Adonis has his distinct similarities to a much older god of Life-death and rebirth in the form of the Sumerian god, Tammuz. The word Tammuz is reputedly translated in Phoenician as a derivitive of this word, and there is seen a continuation of a more ancient myth.

The Anemone springs up around the banks of the river Adonis whose source is the previously mentioned village of Afqa. At this time of year centuries ago the community would mourn the death of Adonis. Women who did not comply with the practice of shaving their heads in supplication and grief would be forced to prostitute themselves to passing strangers, the income they made would go to the temples that now lie in ruins at the rivers source. These temples were reputedly demolished in the furious efforts the Byzantine emperor Constantine, made whilst trying to consolidate his empire under monotheistic Christianity in approximately 400 AD.

Hitti shows that the people of Byblos, the town being five miles from the River Adonis’s source, localised this myth with the Lady of Byblos, Ishtar or Astarte. As the lover of Adonis she went into the underworld to rescue him, and with this act restored life to the world in the coming of spring. As the Goddess of fertility and Adonis the god of vegetation the union brought life to world. The act was commemorated annually in a search by local women for Adonis. The process is seen as a celebration of the sexual side of life, and women and men entered into a sort of prenuptial sacred prostitution. The right of wedding guests to kiss the bride at a wedding is suggested in the comprehensive history of the region written, by Hitti, as being a vestige of this.

The myth was adopted throughout the Phoenician colonies and further more to the Greeks. In the Greek version Adonis is slain by Aphrodite’s jealous lover Ares who takes on the form of a boar. So what perhaps begins with an ancient Uguritic Myth of the death of Tammuz spreads to Phoenicians culture, Canaanite religion and further to Greece. The life death cycle perpetually seen to be moving through cultures, and the ancient attribution of worshipping nature translating into celebrating the changing of seasons. In the even further reaches of myth the death of Osiris seems to offer the similar pattern of Life-death-rebirth.

At this time of year thousands of years ago, perhaps we could see women on their ritualised search for Adonis around Byblos. This act a celebration of the observance of spring and one of many that are acted out through the ages, the ruined temples at the grotto of Afqa can act as a glimpse of the potency of this ancient cult and its practices. Perhaps offering an insight into the development of culture around the Mediterranean and that every day symbols quite often have meaning hinged in ancient rites. Although Adonis is not revered any more although perhap in some form it does survive from the female mystery cult of Lebanon where the women would offer themselves in remembrance of Adonis to the innocent act of wedding guests kissing the bride. Whether this assertion is true or not, the pattern of cultural cross pollination brings greater profundity to tradition and perhaps shows instances of influence passing through the ages to being recieved in blissful ignorance by future generations


One comment

  1. This is a really interesting article. I like the connection of the development of a myth to the natural world around them, and it makes me wonder if this mythology has very ancient roots, maybe even going back to the Neolithic, or for as long as people lived continuously near the blood-red river. It also shows how cultural and variable attitudes to sex are. I’ve argued long in my studies against monogamy (ie only one partner for life) being inate to humans. Its also interesting how the myth has diffused over a large area, and through time.

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