Compared with that of Orpheus, the myth of Venus and Adonis might seem an unpromising subject. Its central plot is blandly simple, its details blurred, breaking up into dozens of variant forms; its central male character is passive and colourless; its meaning seems elusive, shading off at the edges into dark regions of cult and ritual and metaphor. And yet this very elusiveness, the sense that the meaning of the myth lies somewhere beyond or beneath the simple events of the story, seems to be what has attracted writers like Shakespeare, Spenser, Shelley, and T.S. Eliot to make it the focus of some of the most ambitious mythological poetry in English.
The core of the story is simple. Adonis is a youth of striking beauty. (That is the one fact of the myth still popularly remembered-we still, if often ironically, call a handsome man 'an Adonis'.) Aphrodite or Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, falls in love with him, and they become lovers. Against her advice, he goes out hunting, and is gored to death by the tusks of a wild boar (or sometimes by a jealous god, Aphrodite's lover Ares/Mars, or her husband Hephaestus/Vulcan, in the form of a boar). Aphrodite mourns his death, and changes his body into a flower, the lovely but fragile anemone.
A fuller version extends the story to include Adonis's parentage and birth. He is the child of an incestuous union between a king and his daughter. Different versions give locations for the action-some in Cyprus, some in Assyria or Phoenicia or other parts of the Middle East-and different names for the characters; some of the variants are listed by the mythographer Apollodorus (A5). The most familiar version, Ovid's (A4), names them as Cinyras, king of Cyprus, and his daughter Myrrha. Myrrha is seized by an incestuous desire for her father (unexplained in Ovid, but said by others to be a punishment from Aphrodite for Myrrha's neglect of her worship or her parents' hubristic boasting about her beauty). With the help of her nurse, she smuggles herself in disguise into his bed. When Cinyras discovers the trick, he tries to kill her, but some