Adonia (Greek: Ἀδώνια) or Feast of Adonis was an ancient festival mourning the death of Adonis. The date is uncertain, but may have been early Spring, or summer. It was a private, rather than a state festival, and was celebrated by women exclusively.
According to one 1875 source, the festival lasted two days. 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, in imitation of the cries of Venus for the death of her paramour. The second day was spent in merriment and feasting; because Adonis was allowed to return to life, and spend eight months of the year with Aphrodite (the other four with Persephone Queen of the Underworld). But Dillon states that the resurrection of Adonis was not celebrated, and that the only sources that mention this are all late.
According to Johannes Meursius, these two rituals 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 Proserpine, and half with Venus.
The origins of the festival are unknown, but Photius records that it came to Greece from Cyprus and Phoenicia. We do not know when the Adonia was first observed in Athens: a mid-fifth-century date has been suggested on the basis of vase-paintings. Casual remarks in Aristophanes' Lysistrata (lines 387-96) and elsewhere show the Adonia was a familiar, though disruptive, element of Athenian life in the 420s.
The date of the early summer festival of Adonia has been debated: it was tied to the cycle of the new moon on the ninth day of Hecatombion. This festival was the only celebration of Adonis at Athens: there was no temple to honour him, and he had no place in the official cults of the polis. In the masculine public culture of Athens, at least five comic poets wrote plays titled Adonis: Nikophon, Plato, Araros, Anthiphanes and Phaliskos. The official view of the Adonia is reflected in a fragment of Kratinos: "The man, who did not give a chorus to Sophocles when he asked, but to the son of Kleomachos, whom I would not think worthy to produce for me, not even for the Adonia".
During this festival, ad-hoc groups of women only — according to Plato, who disapproved of the essentially non-Greek and female cultus especially loose women, prostitutes and mistresses — gathered on the rooftops, wailing, drinking and singing. According to a fragment of the Athenian comic poet of the late fifth century, Pherecrates found in the Suda, they said "We celebrate the Adonia and we bewail Adonis". An early testimony to the Adonia, in Lesbos is provided by fragmentary lines of Sappho: "delicate Adonis is dying, Kytherea; what should we do? Beat your breasts, maidens, and rend your garments."
Literary evidence for any Adonis cult outside Athens has been thin, although in the 2nd century A.D. Lucian refers to a celebration in Syria and the 15th Idyll of Theocritus, ca. 270 BC, describes a public, state-supported Adonia at Alexandria, celebrated in the royal palace.
"The rooftop location of the Adonia was not a place for religious activity in Greece, but it was used for such purposes in the Near East, and this feature of the festival was retained in Athens" Ronda R. Simms has observed in her analysis of the Adonia.
Sir James Frazer believed that Gardens of Adonis provided sympathetic magic that encouraged fertility, growth and the vegetational death of Adonis, as a life-death-rebirth deity, as he was honoured in the Levant: see Adonis. But, Marcel Detienne, the author of Gardens of Adonis, a structuralist analysis of the practice, has a different view. By Detienne's reinterpretation, Frazer's was "destroyed beyond any hope of resuscitation", according to Ronda R. Simms 1997. Detienne pointed out that the plants in a Garden of Adonis quickly wither under the heat of the sun. The Greeks have a proverb— "more sterile than the gardens of Adonis"— and also use the phrase to indicate something superficial, immature or lightweight. Plato in Phaedrus contrasts the sensible male farmer, who would sow his seeds when it is suitable and be content to wait eight months for them to mature, and would not sow plants during eight days of summer in a Garden of Adonis. One is a serious act, the other playful; one will come to maturity, the other, according to Plato, is strictly for "the sake of sport and festival". According to a scholion on the passage, in Greek the phrase "garden of Adonis" came to mean anything out of season or short-lived. By this, Adonis, the unfruitful seducer of goddesses was the antithesis of useful agriculture and the union of marriage. The Gardens of Adonis were considered a suitable theme for a wedding vessel, nevertheless (illustration).
John Winkler found it impossible to conceive that the women of Athens, citizens and non-citizens, would celebrate their own marginality in this fashion, and found the Adonia a wry representation of the ephemeral sexual nature of Adonis— and men in general.
The Gardens of Adonis
One of the features of the holiday was the creation of "Gardens of Adonis". This involved sowing seeds of quickly-germinating plants— wheat, barley, lettuce, fennel— in shallow baskets, bowls or even in shards of clay. Tended by the women, who watered them daily, the plants grew rapidly but had shallow root systems. Images on Greek vases show the women carrying these little gardens up ladders to the rooftops, the unique site for the Adonia. At the end of eight days the pots of greenery were thrown into the ocean or a stream.
- Matthew Dillon, Girls and women in classical Greek religion, 2003. p.167: "The date of the Adonia at Athens continues to be a matter of some dispute."
- Matthew Dillon, Girls and women in classical Greek religion, 2003. p.165: "Menander makes it apparent that this was an all-women celebration...".
- William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.: A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875. Article on p.14. The sources quoted do not say this, however, unless perhaps the Scholion on Aristophanes contains this information.
- p.164: "But Adonis was in no sense an eastern dying and reborn vegetation god. The Adonis images laid out as in death, and the seed garden that never bear fruit, honour him once each year. After the Adonia, he will not make an appearance until the next celebration of the festival (i.e. his death is commemorated each year; only late sources mention a resurrection)."
- Dillon, p.164-8, probably meaning Photius Lexicon.
- Noted by Ronda R. Simms, "Mourning and Community at the Athenian Adonia" The Classical Journal 93.2 (December 1997, pp. 121-141) p 123 note.
- Quoted in Simms 1997:124 note 18.
- Suda Online, article "Adonia", accessed 15th January 2011.
- Lucian, De dea Syria 6.
- Theocritus, Idyll 15: the women at the Adonis festival.
- Simms 1997:132.
- Gina Salapata, "Τριφίλητος Ἄδωνις: An Exceptional Pair of Terra-cotta Arulae from South Italy," in Studia Varia from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Getty Publications, 2001), vol. 2, p. 35.
- Simms 1997:127.
- Winkler, The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece (New York) 1990.
- J. G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: Frazer's view of the gardens and the agricultural mythology of Adonis
- Make your own Garden plus more history at School of the Seasons. This is an excellent, short discussion of the Gardens and their history.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Smith, William, ed. (1870). "article name needed". Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities. London: John Murray.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.
- Detienne, Marcel, The Gardens of Adonis, translated by Janet Lloyd, Harvester Press 1977
- Frazer, Sir James, The New Golden Bough, abridged by Theodor H. Gaster, New American Library 1959