A Greek Garden Myth
The Greek myth of Aphrodite and Adonis explains the origin of three plants: the myrrh tree, the red rose and the anemone flower.
The Origin of the Myrrh Tree
I am Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and sex. The tale I have to tell you is filled with jealousy, despair, lust, regret and true love.
The story begins with Myrrha, the daughter of the King of Cyprus. She was beautiful–I will admit that much-–with long curling hair and huge amber eyes framed with long lashes. Her body was shapely and lithe.
Mortals, listen up. When the fates gift you with beauty, you should accept it with gratitude and humility. Myrrha did not.
Suitors came from far and wide. Myrrha toyed with them like a cat with an injured bird. She smiled, tossed her hair and looked at each of them with seductive eyes, but refused them all.
Her conceit annoyed me. Her use of flirtation to deride sparked my ire. But it was the words of her mother that ignited my rage.
“Oh Myrrha, with your beauty and grace, you outshine Aphrodite.”
I cursed Myrrha instantly. I cursed her with the worst taboo among mortals. I cursed Myrrha to fall in lust with her father.
At first Myrrha resisted the wild urges that filled her. She used her will to tamp down her obsessive love. She tried distractions to ignore the lust that filled her.
But as anyone who has ever tried to resist an obsession knows, willpower is soon exhausted. In despair, Myrrha attempted suicide, but her nurse stopped her in time. The nurse had known Myrrha since childhood and begged to know the cause of her rash actions.
“I have these forbidden feelings for my father. I know it is wrong. I must either act on them or kill myself–I can not go on like this,” Myrrha cried.
“Life is a gift from the gods, to take your own is an act of rebellion against the gods,” cautioned her nurse.
“I don’t care! I can not live in such torment.”
The nurse tried to reason with Myrrha, but soon realized that the girl meant to end her life if she couldn’t act on her passion. Frightened, the nurse agreed to help Myrrha seduce her father.
It was time for the Ceres’ Festival. For nine nights, worshiping women could not be touched by a man. The nurse knew that Myrrha’s mother would be at the Temple and her father would be alone. She hatched a plan.
On the first night of the Festival, the nurse approached the King. “Sire, I know of a young woman from a noble family that is deeply in love with you. She would like to be with you but her identity must remain a secret.
Intrigued, the King agreed to keep the room in absolute darkness. That night, the nurse helped Myrrha secretly enter his chamber.
The King was thrilled to have such a passionate lover and the affair continued for eight nights. But on the ninth night, he whispered, “I must know who you are.” He lit the lamp.
Horrified to see his daughter and realize what they had done, the King seized his knife and tried to kill Myrrha.
Myrrha fled the castle, and with the nurses help, escaped the island of Cyprus to the mainland of the Arabian peninsula.
In exile, she discovered that she was pregnant. She wandered for nine months–past the palms of Arabia, to the island of Panchaea in the Red Sea, and back to the peninsula until she reached Sabaea in the south.
Myrrha reached her arms up into the sky and begged the gods for a solution.
“I cry bitter tears of shame. I know I did wrong. I am afraid to die and too ashamed to live. Give me a solution and end my suffering.”
A strange feeling came over me–pity. Perhaps I had cursed Myrrha too fouly, perhaps I had given my anger too free a rein.
With compassion in my heart, I transformed Myrrha into a myrrh tree–the tree that cries.
“The myrrh tree will symbolize suffering,” I declared.
The resin that drips from the myrrh tree solidifies into yellowish tears. They are fragrant with her character–woody, warm and spicy–but have a slight astringent and bitter note to remind you of her fate. Her branches are covered in thorns to warn you of forbidden touch.
I left her, certain Artemis or someone else would appear to help her when it was time to give birth.
The Birth of Adonis
A few days later, a boar gouged the trunk with his tusks. The myrrh tree’s trunk split open and she began to give birth. Water nymphs, called the Naiads, rushed to help deliver the most beautiful boy child the world has ever seen. They named him Adonis.
When I saw his beauty, I immediately went to the scene and held my hands out. The Naiads reluctantly gave him to me. I placed the newborn babe into a chest. I didn’t want him to think of me as a mother, but I wanted him to be brought up by a goddess to protect him from the dangers of the mortal world.
I delivered him to Persephone to raise. She was thrilled to have this handsome boy who grew strong and shined a light in the glum darkness of Hades.
Adonis Grows Into a Man
I watched Adonis grow up and delighted in his beauty. He grew into a man–and what a man. He had broad shoulders, a slim waist and strong thighs. His muscles were toned from athletic skill and you could see each one defined under his tan skin. He was the human equivalent of a thoroughbred racehorse–an animal that you just wanted to look at, to appreciate, to touch.
And then there was that face! His soft brown curls framing his beautiful dark brown eyes. Eyes like a puppy dog that stared into your soul with love and devotion. He had a ready smile with white straight teeth.
When he turned eighteen, I visited Persephone and told her it was time for Adonis to return to the upper world.
“Don’t worry, I will see that all his needs are met,” I said.
A flicker of jealousy crossed Persephone’s face. “I imagine that you will see that all of YOUR needs are met. You can’t have him. He belongs to me!”
Adonis looked at both of us. I could see in his eyes that he desired me as much as I desired him.
“Let’s let Adonis decide,” I suggested.
“I do love you Persephone, but…I’d like to go with Aphrodite,” he said and clasped my hand. With a thrill of victory, I turned to ascend, but Persephone’s shrill scream froze us both.
“Noooooo! I must have him. I must keep him. Adonis, please, please stay with me.”
Persephone fell to her knees and clutched at the hem of his tunic. I could see the same look of obsessive love in her eyes that I had seen in Myrrha’s.
I paused. Zeus had strict rules about goddesses fighting with each other. I’d gotten into enough trouble over that Apple of Discord with Hera and Athena–I didn’t want to wrangle with Persephone. Besides, what if her husband Hades decided to join in the fray?
“Let’s let Zeus decide who gets Adonis,” I suggested.
I uncurled Persephone’s hands from his tunic and helped her stand.
The three of us went to Zeus and–no surprise–he refused to get involved. He told us to confer with Calliope, the muse of epic poetry.
Aphrodite and Adonis
Calliope went on and on in her long winded way, but the bottom line was Adonis was to spend four months with me, four months with Persephone and the last four months were his choice.
I got him first and we fell deeply in love–no magic required. He was a generous and passionate lover. His kisses were like biting into a peach–firm, sweet and juicy. I loved to trace each of his muscles with my fingertip and feel them flex under my touch. Mortal artists have made statues of him, but believe me when I tell you that not one of them has captured his true perfection.
But it was so much more than physical love. We could talk for hours and make each other laugh with our silly stories and love games.
The first four months ended quickly. Adonis returned to Persephone and he became her lover too. I tamped down my jealousy because I knew the winner would be revealed when he chose where to spend his free months.
He picked me! I laughed and fell into his arms when I saw him running towards me. I could share him with Persephone because I ruled his heart. Our love grew and grew with each passing year–eight glorious months with him and four without. Those seven years were the happiest of my immortal life. Just the thought of him brings me back to those days of love and passion.
It is a true cliche that the right woman makes a man into a better man–that’s always been part of my power. But, with Adonis it happened to me. He made me less reactive and more compassionate.
He filled me with a love of nature.
The two of us wandered in the woods hunting, running and making love. I didn’t worry about the tangles in my hair, and wore my tunic tucked into my belt–just like Atemis. I laughed easily and felt filled with sunshine and warmth.
We lived in a cottage in the woods. I neglected my Mt. Olympus duties, I knew there would be time for them when these precious months were up. I cooked moussaka, stuffed eggplant and baked baklava for my sweet lover. I tended my garden of white roses. (Back then all roses were white.) For eight months of the year, I lived like a mortal woman deeply in love and focused only on my man’s happiness.
Only one thing marred our romance–Adonis was impetuous. A true man’s man, he had no fear. He would jump his horse recklessly, swim during lightning storms and hunt the fiercest animals.
“Adonis, I beg you–leave the lions and boars alone. Don’t hunt animals that carry their own weapons of vicious teeth, sharp claws and savage tempers. Hunt deer and rabbits. Remember, that you are mortal.”
How many times did I remind him of his mortality? I don’t think he really believed me. Afterall, he had spent his life with goddesses and naiads. He lived four months in the Underworld with Persephone and had spent his childhood there–maybe he didn’t fear death?
I feared his death enough for the two of us. I had never experienced the vulnerability of loving someone I could lose.
On the last day of his four months, I heard Adonis scream with a pain that made the ichor in my veins run cold.
Origin of the Anemone and Red Rose
I was cutting white roses in my garden. As I raced towards him, I pierced my bare foot on a rose thorn. Without stopping, I ran to his side.
I could see in an instant what had happened. He had been hunting a wild boar–against my wishes. He had speared the beast and it lay dying beside him.
“He gouged me,” Adonis gasped.
My lover’s groin was torn open and his mortal blood spurted from his artery.
I kissed his sweet face over and over, “I love you darling.”
His eyes held mine as he took his last breath, “love…” was all he could whisper.
I sobbed, cried, screamed as my love left me. I stayed with him until all the mortal heat left his body. Then, I sprinkled nectar on the puddles of his blood. The earth bubbled with translucent foam and a blood red anemone sprung from the soil. The first anemone on Earth.
“This flower is a symbol of my everlasting grief for Adonis, just like him it is beautiful and short-lived.”
I walked back to our cabin to get the burial supplies. As I passed through the rose garden, I saw that the roses on the bush that had pricked me were red. These were the first red roses on Earth.
“From this day on, red roses will symbolize passionate love and white roses the purity of true love,” I declared.
I buried my beautiful Adonis in the woods. I have never forgotten him, although centuries have passed.
Who Killed Adonis? My Suspects
I will never know for certain who killed Adonis–for surely his death was not an accident.
I have my suspicions, but I don’t voice them because what good would it do? I loved a mortal and I lost him. It was inevitable. To fight with a fellow god would only get me into trouble with Zeus.
Ares, the god of war, may have killed Adonis. A boar is the animal that Ares most often changes into. He is jealous and short tempered and has been my lover for eons. We have an open relationship–of course we do. Can you imagine eternal monogamy? But, I know he didn’t like how much I loved Adonis, he warned me of how foolish it was to love a mortal.
Artemis, the goddess of nature and hunting, may have killed Adonis. During my last four months on Mt. Olympus, she complained to anyone who would listen that I was trying to steal her goddess gig.
“She dresses like me and runs through the forest hunting–I don’t meddle in her affairs of love and beauty,” Artemis said.
Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, is my most likely suspect. She was jealous that Adonis spent his free months with me. He probably talked about me and our love life when he was down in the Underworld because he loved to gossip to me about their relationship. Adonis had told me he was thinking about refusing to go with Penelope this cycle.
Have you enjoyed my sad story? You mortals got three new plants out of it. Myrrh has served you humans well. It was used to treat mouth, throat and skin problems in the Ancient World. It was also used as incense, perfumes and embalming treatments. In addition, it was given as a gift to baby Jesus by the Three Wise Men.
You still use red roses to symbolize romantic love and white roses are a favorite at weddings. My sweet Adonis’ flower, the anemone, isn’t that popular. I think more of you should plant it in your gardens to honor my eternal grief. For those of you that are willing to honor me, anemones are planted from bulb-like corms or bare roots in the fall or in the late winter/early spring. They are fast growing and flower their first season.