Did the Adonia last two days?

I have been hunting around for the origins of the following statement, which I first found in the Wikipedia article on the Adonia (the festival of Adonis), and then as copied from Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, p.14:

ADOʹNIA (Ἀδώνια), a festival celebrated in honour of Aphrodite and Adonis in most of the Grecian cities, as well as in numerous places in the East. It lasted two days, and was celebrated by women exclusively. On the first day they brought into the streets statues of Adonis, which were laid out as corpses; and they observed all the rites customary at funerals, beating themselves and uttering lamentations. The second day was spent in merriment and feasting; because Adonis was allowed to return to life, and spend half of the year with Aphrodite. (Aristoph. Pax, 412, Schol. ad loc.; Plut. Alcib. 18, Nic. 13). For fuller particulars respecting the worship and festivals of Adonis, see Dict. of Biogr. s.v. Adonis.a

A Google books search on “adonis adonia two days” gives some interesting results.  In the Analytical review: or history of literature, domestic and foreign …, Volume 8 of 1790, page 292, we get this (and the plain text version given at Google was extraordinarily good, given the very old font and long-s):

‘ P. 11. ADONIA, solemn feasts in honour of Venus, and in memory of her beloved Adonis. The Adonia were observed with great solemnity by molt nations. Greeks, Phœnicians, Lycians, Syrians, Egyptians, &c. From Syria they are supposed to have passed into India. The prophet Ezekiel is understood to speak of them. They were still observed at Alexandria in the time of St. Cyril, and at Antioch in that of Julian the apostate, whose arrival there during the solemnity was taken for an ill omen. The Adonia lasted two days, on the first of which certain images of Venus and Adonis were carried with all the pomp and ceremonies practised at funerals ; the women wept, rent their hair, beat their breasts, &c. imitating the cries and lamentations of Venus for the death of her paramour. This rite called Adwniasm?, the Syrians were not contented with observing so far as respected the weeping, but also gave themselves discipline, shaved their heads, &c.—Among the Egyptians the queen herself used to bear the image of Adonis in procession. The women carried along with them shells filled with earth, in which grew several sorts of herbs, especially lettuces, in memory of Adonis having been laid out by Venus upon, a bed of lettuce. These were called khpoi, or gardens ; whence Adwnnidoj khpoi are proverbially applied to things unfruitful, or fading ; because those herbs were only sown so long before the festival as to sprout forth and be green at that time, and then were presently thrown into the water. The flutes used upon this day were called ?????, from ?????, which was the Phœnician name of Adonis. This sacrifice was termed kaqedra, probably because the days of mourning used to be called by that name. The following day was spent in every expression of mirth and joy, in memory of Venus’s having obtained the favour of Proserpina, that Adonis should return to life, and live with her one half of the year. According to Meursius, the two offices of mourning and rejoicing made two distinct feasts, which were held at different times of the year, the one six months after the other, Adonis being supposed to pass half the year with Proserpina, and the other half with Venus. St. Cyril mentions an extraordinary ceremony practised by the Alexandrians: a letter was written to the women of Byblos, to inform them that Adonis was found again : this letter was thrown into the sea, which, it was pretended, failed not to convey it to Byblos in, seven days, upon receipt of which the Byblian women ceased their mourning, sung his praises, and made rejoicings as if he were restored to life. The Egyptian Adonia are said by some, to have been held in memory of the death of Osiris ; by others, of his sickness and recovery. Bishop Patrick dates their origin, from the slaughter of the first born under Moses. The Adonia were otherwise called Salambo.

No question but this is the same narrative, but with references to Cyril of Alexandria and Julian the Apostate, and also a reference to Meursius who also turns up in the Wikipedia article.  No references, tho.  An evidently derived source is here (1816), with the extra snippet that “the Abbe Banier wrote a memoir on the subject”.  There are several early 19th century reference books, all containing the same material it seems.

John E. Thorburn, The Facts On File companion to classical drama, p.11, gives the story again:

A Greek festival (usually lasting two days) that honored Adonis.  The first day of the festival involved mourning for Adonis’ disappearance; the second day was devoted to a search for his body by the community’s women, with whom the Adonia was quite popular.  This ritual search celebrated Adonis’ return to life and a six-month reunion with his lover, Aphrodite (compare the arrangement among Hades, Persephone and Demeter).  The festival first appears in the fifth century B.C.E. {sic} but may not have been officially sanctioned by the Athenian government during that time.  [Ancient sources: Aristophanes, Peace, 420; Plato, Phaedrus, 276b].


Detienne, M., The gardens of Adonis: spices in Greek mythology.  Translated from the French by Janet Lloyd.  Introduction by J. P. Vernant.  Hassocks.  U.K.: Harvester Press, 1977.

Simms, R. Mourning and community at the Athenian Adonia, Classical Journal 93, no. 2 (1997-8), 121-144.

Sommerstein, A. H., The comedies of Aristophanes, vol. 5. Peace, Warminster, U.K.: Aris & Philips, 1985, 152.

Well, that gives us some modern references to search for ancient sources at the very least.  A preview of Detienne is here, which apparently does not contain the words “two days”.  I have located a pirate copy of the book, which I will consult.  Let us see whether it gives us ancient sources for the claims above.  It would be nice to have the Simms article, but I don’t have access to that.

The passage in Plato is the following (full English here; Perseus here):

Phaedr. You mean the living word of knowledge which has a soul, and of which written word is properly no more than an image?

Soc. Yes, of course that is what I mean. And now may I be allowed to ask you a question: Would a husbandman, who is a man of sense, take the seeds, which he values and which he wishes to bear fruit, and in sober seriousness plant them during the heat of summer, in some garden of Adonis, that he may rejoice when he sees them in eight days appearing in beauty? at least he would do so, if at all, only for the sake of amusement and pastime. But when he is in earnest he sows in fitting soil, and practises husbandry, and is satisfied if in eight months the seeds which he has sown arrive at perfection?

Not much in this, I’m afraid.

UPDATE: The excellent Charles Anthon comes to our rescue in his A Classical Dictionary, p.18, 1869 (There seem to be several editions of this book; the earlier ones have different and less useful text).  The “two day” concept is attributed to Lucian, De dea Syria.   Here’s what he says:

ADONIA, a festival in honour of Adonis, celebrated both at Byblus in Phoenicia, and in most of the Grecian cities. Lucian (de Syria Dea. — vol. 9, p. 88, seqq., ed. Bip.) has left us an account of the manner in which it was held at Byblus. According to this writer, it lasted during two days, on the first of which every, thing wore an appearance of sorrow, and the death of the favourite of Venus was indicated by public mourning. On the following day, however, the aspect of things underwent a complete change, and the greatest joy prevailed on account of the fabled resurrection of Adonis from the dead. During this festival the priests of Byblus shaved their heads, in imitation of the priests of Isis in Egypt. In the Grecian cities, the manner of holding this festival was nearly, if not exactly, the same with that followed in Phoenicia. On the first day all the citizens put themselves in mourning; coffins were exposed at every door; the statues of Venus and Adonis were borne in procession, with certain vessels full of earth, in which the worshippers had raised com, herbs, and lettuce, and these vessels were called the gardens of Adonis (‘Adwnij kh/poi). After the ceremony was over they were thrown into the sea or some river, where they soon perished, and thus became emblems of the premature death of Adonis, who had fallen, like a young plant, in the flower of his age. (Histoire du Culte d’Adonis: Mem. Acad, des Inscrip, etc., vol. 4, p. 136, seqq.Dupuis, Origine de Cultes, vol. 4, p. 118, seqq., cd. 1822.— Valckenaer, ad Theoc. Adwniuz in Arg.) The lettuce was used among the other herbs on this occasion, because Venus was fabled to have deposited the dead body of her favourite on a bed of lettuce. In allusion to this festival, the expression ‘Adwnioj khpoi became proverbial, and was applied to whatever perished previous to the period of maturity. (Adagia Veterum, p. 410.) Plutarch relates, in his life of Nicias, that the expedition against Syracuse set sail from the harbours of Athens, at the very time when the women of that city were celebrating the mournful part of the festival of Adonis, during which there were to be seen, in every quarter of the city, images of the dead, and funeral processions, the women accompanying them with dismal lamentations. Hence an unfavourable omen was drawn of the result of the expedition, which the event but too fatally realized. Theocritus, in his beautiful Idyll entitled A)dwniazousai, has left us an account of the part of this grand anniversary spectacle termed h( eu)resij, the finding,” i. e., the resurrection of Adonis, the celebration of it having been made by order of Arsinoe, queen of Ptolemy Fhiladelphus. Boettiger (Sabina, p. 265) has a very ingenious idea in relation to the fruits exhibited on this joyful occasion. He thinks it impossible, that even so powerful a queen as Arsinoe should be able to obtain in the spring of the year, when this festival was always celebrated, fruits which had attained their full maturity (w~ria). He considers it more than probable that they were of wax. This conjecture will also furnish another, and perhaps a more satisfactory, explanation of the phrase Adwnioj khpoi, denoting things whose exterior promised fairly, while there was nothing real or substantial within. Adonis was the same deity with the Syrian Tammuz, whose festival was celebrated even by the Jews, when they degenerated into idolatry (Ezekiel, 8, 14); and Tammuz is the proper Syriac name for the Adonis of the Greeks. (Creuzer’s Symbolik, vol. ii., p. 86 ) (Vid Adonis.)

It’s quite a journey, this, in the underworld of ideas, repeated from one encyclopedia to another.  And if we look at Lucian, online here, do we find our two day festival, with Adonis alive on the second day?  We do not (* see below, tho).  And we find a great mess of syncretistic ideas, some relating to Attis and the Galli, not Adonis.

6. I saw too at Byblos a large temple, 10 sacred to the Byblian Aphrodite 11: this is the scene of the secret rites of Adonis: I mastered these. They assert that the legend about Adonis and the wild boar is true, 12 and that the facts occurred in their country, and in memory of this calamity they beat their breasts and wail every year, and perform their secret ritual amid signs of mourning through the whole countryside. When they have finished their mourning and wailing, they sacrifice in the first place to Adonis, as to one who has departed this life: after this they allege that he is alive again, and exhibit his effigy to the sky. They proceed to shave their heads, 13 too, like the Egyptians on the loss of their Apis. The women who refuse to be shaved have to submit to the following penalty, viz., to stand for the space of an entire day in readiness to expose their persons for hire. The place of hire is open to none but foreigners, and out of the proceeds of the traffic of these women a sacrifice to Aphrodite is paid. 14

A. J. M. Wedderburn, Baptism and Resurrection, (1987) pp.201-2 gives us more.  He too thinks that De dea Syria means a two day festival — reading “at the end of” as “on the day after”.  But we also learn that Cyril talks about the “resurrection” of Adonis in the Commentary on Isiah, 18.1 f. (PG 70, 441AB), and compares this with Procopius of Gaza, PG 87.2, 2140AB).  This is the most interesting reference yet.  But I must leave it for another time.

UPDATE: Andrew Eastbourne has written to correct the above:

For what it’s worth, the passage from Lucian *does* in fact explicitly say “on the next day” — the translation of De Dea Syria is faulty in that spot.  Here is the Greek of the relevant sentence (from TLG) with the words underlined:  μετὰ δὲ τῇ ἑτέρῃ ἡμέρῃ ζώειν τέ μιν μυθολογέουσι καὶ ἐς τὸν ἠέρα πέμπουσι καὶ τὰς κεφαλὰς ξύρονται ὅκως Αἰγύπτιοι ἀποθανόντος Ἄπιος.

3 thoughts on “Did the Adonia last two days?

  1. This is really interesting. I love it when you clear out the intellectual underbrush and the academic urban legends.

    The one thing that’s certain about this story is that people in the Middle East still grow little spring dish gardens that are doomed to die, but are cheerful indoors. You get “resurrection grass” or sprouts among Christians for Easter, and among Iranians/Persians of all faiths you get the little sprouts for Nouruz (the old Persian New Year in March). I’m glad they really do go back to antiquity.

Leave a Reply