Study Guide

Venus and Adonis Analysis

  • Context

    The myth of "Venus and Adonis" is one of those stories that has been around, in one form or another, since the most ancient times. The tale has its roots in the myths of humanity's earliest civilizations – ones that came even before Greece and Rome had their heydays. Check our section on "Similar Myths Across Cultures" for more on the myth's roots in these ancient cultures.

    Many later Europeans knew the story mainly through the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses (the myth appears in Book 10). Ovid's version inspired many other famous artists over the years. Shakespeare's first major published poem was called Venus and Adonis. The erotic poem was a smash hit and helped put Shakespeare on the map as a poet. (Hey, sex sells.)

    Shakespeare isn't the only artist to put his own spin on the tale. It was turned into operas by John Blow, Henri Desmarets, Hans Verner Henz, and others. The tragic couple has also been the subject of tons of visual artists. Peter Paul Reubens, Jose be Ribera, and Cornelius van Haarlem, are only a few of the artists to put their own stamp on the subject. Head over to "Photos" to see some famous paintings inspired by the famous mythological lovers.

    There you go – "Venus and Adonis" through the ages, and it just keeps going. We don't know of any modern movies that have come out with the same exact title, but the basic plot is all over the place: Amazingly beautiful girl loves incredibly sexy guy. He dies. She's sad. Titanic and tons of other movies all riff on the same basic idea. Love and tragic death? People just can't get enough.

  • Setting

    The myth of "Venus and Adonis" is set mostly in the woods. In lots of stories, the woods are a place of freedom from the civilized world That's true of this story, for sure, because Adonis' mom, Myrrha, heads to the woods to escape from her father an the people who would judge her for her incestuous love. The woods are also often a place to have a bit of romance. (If you've read many Shakespeare comedies, like A Midsummer Night's Dream or As You Like It, you know this is true.)

    However, forests are also often associated with danger. The woods are full of wild animals, as we know from stories like "Little Red Riding Hood." The story of "Venus and Adonis" is no different: vicious, wild boars roam the woods, and one kills Adonis.

  • Older Versions of Venus and Adonis

    We based our summary on the Roman poet Ovid's version of the tale (from Book 10 of The Metamorphoses), but in earlier Greek versions, Persephone, queen of the underworld, is also really into baby Adonis. Persephone and Aphrodite (a.k.a. Venus) argue over who gets to raise the beautiful boy. (Is this creepy to anyone else?)

    Eventually, Zeus steps in to broker peace between the two feuding goddesses. The verdict: Adonis has to spend four months out of the year with Persephone in the underworld, four with Aphrodite, and four months alone.

    The legend goes that Adonis spends his "four months alone" with Aphrodite as well – that is, until he is killed by a wild boar and ends up with Persephone full time. In some versions, Adonis is actually allowed to come back from the underworld for a few months out of the year to be with Aphrodite (source).

    This idea of Adonis being a figure who dies (goes to the underworld) and comes back again seems to be directly inspired by the ancient Mesopotamian myths that the Greeks based their version on. From ancient times, Adonis (under different names) was known as a god of regeneration; his death and rebirth represented the coming and going of vegetation over the course of the year.

    Both Adonis and Aphrodite came to Greece (via the Phoenicians) from the Middle East. These two divine lovers had lots of different names over the years. Astarte and Adon, Inanna and Dumuzzi, Ishtar and Tummuz, all were names for similar deities. Some say that the Egyptian deities Isis and Osiris were also derived from the same roots. The myths surrounding these two lovers had many different spins over the years. Check out a few here and here.

  • Cupid's Arrow

    Cupid's arrow is one of the most widely recognized symbols there is. Cupid and his arrows are all over sappy, cheesy Valentine's Day cards, and we all know that when Cupid strikes with his golden bolts, a person falls instantly hopelessly in love. You could say that the arrows represent love itself.

    Oftentimes in stories, Cupid's arrows strike totally out of the blue, and they almost always cause tons of trouble. This, of course, represents how wild passionate desire can seemingly come from nowhere and really disrupt the order of a person's life. If you've ever fallen in love, we're guessing you know exactly what we're talking about. If you haven't ever been in love, watch out – Cupid may be taking aim at you this very minute.

    In the story of "Venus and Adonis," we see what happens when Cupid's own mother gets a taste of his magic arrow.

  • Anemone Flower

    After Adonis is killed by the wild boar, Venus creates the anemone flower from his blood. To some, this flower has come to represent the goddess's short-lived lover.

    This particular flower seems like a good choice to represent the fallen Adonis for a couple of reasons:

    1. The blossoms of the flower can be bright red – the color of blood;
    2. Its blooms only last for a short while before the wind blows them away, reminding some of Adonis's short but beautiful life.
  • Adonis

    Adonis, himself, has become a symbol of male attractiveness. We talk all about this in "Characters: Adonis."