Who was the Phoenician god Adon (Adonis) and how did his name become "Lord" in Hebrew?
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The Myth and Cult of Adonis

Adon, Adonis or Adonai and Hebrew

When Jews encounter the consonants of "Yahweh' (YHWH) in prayer, they pronounce it "Adonai." They might be shocked to learn that this substitution word is related to the Phoenician "Adon" and "Adonis." Further, Muslims, Jews and Arabic-speaking or Aramaic/Syriac-speaking Christians might be shocked also to learn that their words for God come from the Phoenician god's name of "El" as in "Elah," "Allah," "Elahona," "Eloh," "Elohaino," "Eli," "Eloi," "Elohak"...etc .

The Myth and Cult of Adonis

Adonis (Eshmun)

Adonis is a young fertility god, a comely youth beloved by Astarte, and represents death and rebirth in an oriental vegetation cult. He is also known as the agricultural divinity named Eshmun.

Adonis is derived from the Canaanite title, Adon. It is the Semitic word for master or ‘lord’ and i means ‘my’, therefore Adonai (Adonis is the Hellenized version of the same) translates as ‘my lord’; similarly the meaning of Baal, with whom he shares traits, is also ‘lord’ or ‘master’.

The myth of Adonis suffers from a lot of confusion. This study will show that he had two origins, several fathers and mothers, in some ways. His mother was Greek Aphrodite, the equivalent of Phoenician Astarte and Roman Venus. However, his lover was also Astarte and Venus; while his fathers were several kings and gods.

The Greeks knew the cult of Adonis in the sixth century BC, unquestionably through contact with Cyprus. In the same period Ezekiel (8:4) notes his existence in Jerusalem under the Babylonian name of Tammuz, who saw the women of Jerusalem weeping for him at the north gate of the temple. Adonis parallels the eastern companion god Dumuzi/Tammuz and the Hittite Telipinu. He is a Semitic immigrant to the Greek pantheon and is therefore not counted among the greater gods. His cult was established in Greece by 600 BC and his worship was known to Sappho and her circle.

Adonis has two origins: Cyprus and Byblos. On Cyprus, his father is either Canaanite/Phoenician king Theias or Cinyras, king of Paphos, or Pygmalion; his mother was Myrrha, the king's daughter. At Byblos, it is Phoinix, father of the Phoenicians. Paphos sees him linked to the goddess Aphrodite, with whom a tie has already been established. The worship of Adonis, a cult especially popular with women, was celebrated on flat rooftops by the planting of plants and the offering of incenses. It also involved lamentations for the dead god. The incense and wailing of women are identical practices to those found in Baal worship. In Greece, the goddess Persephone fulfills much of his role. In Phoenicia, his worship supplanted that of Aleyin, a vegetation god and son of Baal, who was killed by Mot.

According to legend the king of Canaan, Theias, had a daughter named Myrrha or Smyrna who was cursed by Aphrodite. She was forced to commit incest with her father when she was twelve; with the complicity of here nurse she succeeded in deceiving him for eleven nights, but on the twelfth night Theias discovered whom she really was and prepared to kill her. Myrrha fled, and the gods taking pity on her, turned her into a tree, the myrrh tree. Ten months later the bark peeled off and an infant emerged and was named Adonis. Aphrodite was very moved by the beauty of the child, placed him into a coffin and she gave him to Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, to bring up. Becoming infatuated with the beautiful child Persephone refused to give him back. When Aphrodite returned to retrieve the coffin she discovered that Persephone had opened it and claimed the handsome child for herself. Zeus became the arbitrator in settling the dispute between the two goddesses, and it was decided that Adonis should live one-third of the year with Aphrodite on earth, one-third with Persephone in the Underworld, and the final third with whichever he pleased. Adonis chose to spend two-thirds of the year with Aphrodite and one-third with Persephone in the Underworld.

Adonis was an avid hunter. Astarte fell deeply in love with him. She tried to persuade him to give up the dangerous sport. Adonis refused. The story goes that while out hunting, Adonis was killed by a wild boar. The Phoenician goddess Astarte tried to save him but she was too late. And so it is the blood of Adonis that each spring turns to red the torrential river, the Adonis River (modern Nahr Ibrahim in Lebanon) . Afqa is the sacred source where the waters of the river emerge from a huge grotto in a cliff 200 meters high. It is there that the myth of Astarte (Venus) and Adonis was born. 

Across from the grotto are the remains of the Roman Temple of Venus. The temple was destroyed by the Christian Emperor Constantine (285 - 337 AD), it was later rebuilt by Julian the Apostle (362 - 363). His most important temples were at Byblos and Paphos. The temple of Astarte, in Byblos, celebrated the annual death and resurrection of Adonis.

His Cult

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 travelers 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. The blood-red hue and the crimson stain were believed to be the blood of Adonis. Again, the scarlet anemone is said to have sprung from the blood of Adonis, or to have been stained by it. The anemone blooms in Canaan/Phoenicia may be thought to show that the festival of Adonis, or at least one of his festivals, was held in spring.

His death appears to have been annually mourned, to the shrill music of flutes, by men and women about midsummer in the month named after him, the month of Tammuz (July). The dirges were seemingly chanted over an effigy of the dead god, which was washed with pure water, anointed with oil, and clad in a red robe. At the same time the fumes of incense rose into the air, as if to stir his dormant senses by their pungent fragrance and wake him from the sleep of death. Women bewail him, because his lord slew him so cruelly, ground his bones in a mill, and then scattered them to the wind. The women (during this festival) eat nothing which has been ground in a mill, but limit their diet to steeped wheat, sweet vetches, dates, raisins, and the like. 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. The red anemone marked his reappearance on earth.

Laments for the death of Adonis is contained in several hymns, which liken him to plants that quickly fade.

"A tamarisk that in the garden has drunk no water,
Whose crown in the field has brought forth no blossom.
A willow that rejoiced not by the watercourse,
A willow whose roots were torn up.
A herb that in the garden had drunk no water."

The voices of the singers chanting the sad refrain and to catch, like far-away music, the wailing notes of the flutes:

"At his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
‘Oh my child!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament;
‘My Damu!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament.
‘My enchanter and priest!’ at his vanishing away she lifts up a lament,
At the shining cedar, rooted in a spacious place,
In Eanna, above and below, she lifts up a lament.
Like the lament that a house lifts up for its master, lifts she up a lament,
Like the lament that a city lifts up for its lord, lifts she up a lament.
Her lament is the lament for an herb that grows not in the bed;
Her lament is the lament for the corn that grows not in the ear. Her chamber is a possession that brings not forth a possession,
A weary woman, a weary child, forspent.
Her lament is for a great river, where no willows grow;
Her lament is for a field, where corn and herbs grow not.
Her lament is for a pool, where fishes grow not.
Her lament is for a thickest of reeds, where no reeds grow.
Her lament is for woods, where tamarisks grow not.
Her lament is for a wilderness where no cypresses (?) grow.
Her lament is for the depth of a garden of trees, where honey and wine grow not.
Her lament is for meadows, where no plants grow.
Her lament is for a palace, where length of life grows not."   

Source: Frazer, Sir James George. "The Golden Bough." Ch. 29. The Myth of Adonis, New York, 1922.

In the great Phoenician sanctuary of Astarte at Byblos, the death of Adonis was annually mourned, to the shrill wailing notes of the flute, with weeping, lamentation, and beating of the breast. On the 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.  In Phoenician temples women prostituted themselves for hire in the service of religion, anyway, believing that by this conduct they propitiated the goddess and won her favor. "It was a law of the Amorites, that she who was about to marry should sit in fornication seven days by the gate."

In Cyprus it appears that before marriage all women were formerly obliged by custom to prostitute themselves to strangers at the sanctuary of the goddess and to dedicate to the goddess the wages earned by this sanctified harlotry. The sacred precinct was crowded with women waiting to observe the custom. Some of them had to wait there for years. At Paphos the custom of religious prostitution is said to have been instituted by King Cinyras, and to have been practiced by his daughters, the sisters of Adonis, who, having incurred the wrath of Aphrodite, mated with strangers and ended their days in Egypt. In this form of the tradition the wrath of Aphrodite is probably a feature added by a later authority, who could only regard conduct which shocked his own moral sense as a punishment inflicted by the goddess instead of as a sacrifice regularly enjoined by her on all her devotees. At all events the story indicates that the princesses of Paphos had to conform to the custom as well as women of humble birth.

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 flowerpots, 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 did not mourn without hope, because 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. 

There were continuous classical and patristic proofs that existed throughout the Mediterranean world of this touching cult, in which the joy of Adonis' and Astarte's reunion was succeeded by the grief of his sudden death and the women's funeral lament. Ephemeral gardens symbolized the grace and prompt decline of the deity.

The Adonis-Astarte fertility rite continued in Lebanon into the 5th century AD.

Adon, Adonis or Adonai and Hebrew

The Phoenicians settled in Cyprus around 900 B.C. They conquered Cypriot Idalion, and brought their cultic practices to it. In Phoenician the two words that mean "Lord": Ba'al and Adon, as indicated earlier. Ba'al had a very specific identity for Phoenicians -- including the Phoenician Cypriot community at Kition -- as the primary male deity. Thus Ba'al was not available as an appellation for the native Cypriot deity encountered by Phoenician traders at Idalion. Since the local Cypriots called their god the Wanax -- that is, the Lord -- the Phoenicians likely called this native god by their other word for "Lord": Adon.

The name "Adon" appears in a number of Phoenician inscriptions in Cyprus, including one from Idalion. The title "Adon" must have been used to designate the local deity by Phoenician visitors who happened to worship in this shrine.

The Greeks took over the administration of Idalion from the Phoenicians around 300 B.C. The primary language when the Greeks arrived was Phoenician. So it would have been natural for the Greeks to assume that "Adon" was the name of the local deity rather than a title. The name "Adon" was then Hellenized by adding the Greek ending "IS" -- Creating the familiar "Adonis."

Later, after the Romans conquered Cyprus in the first century B.C., a number of poets cited lovely Idalion as the place where Venus had her fabled affair with Adon or Adonis.

In the Bible the Israelite god Yahweh is sometimes referred to as Adon, though the term is used as a title, not as the personal name of Yahweh. Eventually, the appellation "Adonai" (my Lord) became a substitution name for pronouncing in prayer the unutterable name Yahweh, which by the early rabbinical period (first and second centuries A.D.) had become too sacred to pronounce. To this day, when Jews encounter the consonants of "Yahweh' (YHWH) in prayer, they pronounce it "Adonai." They might be shocked to learn that this substitution word is related to the Phoenician "Adon" and the Greek Cypriot "Adonis." Further, Muslim, Jews and Arabic-speaking, Aramaic/Syriac-speaking Christians might be shocked also to learn that their words for God come from the Phoenician god's name of "El" as in "Elah," "Allah," "Elahona,""Eloh," "Elohaino," "Eli," "Eloi," "Elohak"...etc .

Aniconism (the prohibition against graven images) and the use of a standing stone (massabah in Hebrew) -- are characteristic of Israelite cultic practices. Therefore, if is there a connection between worship in ancient Cyprus and worship in ancient Israel, the link is the Phoenicians. Popular religion among the Israelites as opposed to the "official" religion promoted in the Hebrew Bible, especially the Book of Deuteronomy-was similar to Phoenician religion. The Bible presents a purified, elite monotheism devoted exclusively to the worship of Yahweh. The orthodox, nationalistic parties that produced the Hebrew Bible proscribed the worship of Ba'al and suppressed all but the faintest traces of a theology that included a consort of Yahweh. But both Ba'al and this female goddess continued to live on in Israelite popular religious practices as well as in Phoenician (formerly Canaanite) practice.

The local Cypriot god the Wanax, or the Lord, was worshiped by the Phoenicians as Adon and then later by the Greeks as Adonis. This god had a female consort, much like the Phoenician Asherah -- a goddess whom the official Israelite religion had much difficulty in suppressing.

For information about other Phoenician gods, please see the assay in this website entitle "Phoenician Canaanite Religion -- Pagan."

Sources:

  1. Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 94, 132
  2. Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1980, p. 23 
  3. Frazer, James George The Golden Bough, 1922
  4. "The History of Ancient Idalion in the Light of Recent Excavations," in Paul Wallace, ed., Visitors, Immigrants, and Invaders in Cyprus (Albany: State Univ. of New York, Albany Press, 1995), pp. 32-39.
  5. See, for example, inscription nos. 31, 32, 39, 40. 41 and 43 in H. Donner and W. Rollig, Kanaanaische and Aramaische Inschrifien, vol. 1, Texte (Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1971), pp. 4-10. Inscription no. 39 (p. 8) is the bilingual inscription from the Adonis temenos at Idalion. Both Adon and Reshef Mikal appear in this inscription. Inscriptions 33-37 are from Kition and mention Ba'al.
  6. For example Propertius 2.13.51.
  7. See Donner and Rollig, Kanaanaische and Aramaische Inschrifien, pp. 7-8. Inscriptions 32-37 are from Kition.
  8. For the evidence, see Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of Religion in Israel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 28-35; and William G. Dever, "Asherah, Consort of Yahweh? New Evidence from Kuntillet 'Ajrud," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 255 (1984), pp. 28-29 and references there.
  9. See Dever, "Asherah, Consort of Yahweh?"
  10. See Ruth Hestrin, "The Lachish Ewer and the Tree 'Asherah,"' Israel Exploration Journal 37 (1987), pp. 212-223, and "Understanding Asherah- Exploring Semitic Iconography," Biblical Archaeology Review (September/October 1991), pp. 50-59; and S.M. Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

 

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