The historical circumstances invite us to an examination of the system of initiation which was practiced at Byblos, because we may may find in it something that was probably suggestive of the symbolic system of instruction which was subsequently so prominent a feature in the system of Freemasonry.
Let us examine the myth on which the Adonisiac initiation was founded. The mythological legend of Adonis is, that he was the son of Myrrha and Cinyras, King of Cyprus. Adonis was possessed of such surpassing beauty, that Venus became enamored with him, and adopted him as her favorite. Subsequently Adonis, who was a great hunter, died from a wound inflicted by a wild boar on Mount Lebanon. Venus flew to the succor of her favorite, but she came too late. Adonis was dead.
On his descent to the infernal regions, Proserpine became, like Venus, so attracted by his beauty, that, notwithstanding the entreaties of the goddess of love, she refused to restore him to earth. At length the prayers of the desponding Venus were listened to with favor by Jupiter, who reconciled the dispute between the two goddesses, and by whose decree Proserpine was compelled to consent that Adonis should spend six months of each year alternately with herself and Venus.
This is the story on which the Greek poet Bion founded his exquisite idyll entitled the Epitaph of Adonis, the beginning of which has been thus rather inefficiently "done into English."
"I and the Loves Adonis dead deplore:
The beautiful Adonis is indeed
Departed, parted from us. Sleep no more
In purple, Cypris! but in watchet weed,
All wretched! beat thy breast and all aread-
'Adonis is no more.' The Loves and I
Lament him. 'Oh! her grief to see him bleed,
Smitten by white tooth on whiter thigh,
Out-breathing life's faint sigh upon the
mountain high.' "
It is evident that Bion referred the contest of Venus and Proserpine for Adonis to a period subsequent to his death, from the concluding lines, in which he says:"The Muses, too lament the son of Cinyras, and invoke him in their song; but he does not heed them, not because he does not wish, but because Proserpine will not release him." This was indeed the favorite form of the myth, and on it was framed the symbolism of the ancient mystery.
But there are other Grecian mythologues that relate the tale of Adonis differently. According to these, he was the product of the incestuous connection of Cinyras and Myrrha. Cinyras subsequently, on discovering the crime of his daughter, pursued her witha drawn sword, intending to kill her. Myrrha entreated the Gods to make her invisible, and they changed her into a myrrha tree. Ten months after the myrrha tree opened, and the young Adonis was born. This the form of the myth that has been adopted by Ovid, who gives it with all its moral horrors in the tenth book (298-524) of his Metamorphoses.
Venus, who was delighted with the extraordinary beauty of the boy, put him in a coffer, unknown to all the gods, and gave him to Proserpine to keep and to nuture in the underworld. But Proserpine had no sooner beheld him than she became enamored with him and refused, when Venus applied for him, to surrender him to her rival. The subject was then referred to Jupiter, who decreed that Adonis should have one-third of the year to himself, should be another third with Venus, and the remainder of the time with Proserpine. Adonis gave his own portion to Venus, and lived happily with her till, having offended Diana, he was killed by a wild boar.
The mythographer Pharnutus gives a still different story, and says that Adonis was the grandson of Cinyras, and fled with his father, Ammon, into Egypt, whose people he civilized, taught them agriculture, and enacted many wise laws for their government. He subsequently passed over into Syria, and was wounded in the thigh by a wild boar while hunting on Mount Lebanon. His wife, Isis, or Astarte, and the people of Phoenicia and Egypt, supposing that the wound was mortal, profoundly deplored his death. But he afterwords recovered, and their grief was replaced by transports of joy thereon. And on these facts are founded the Adonisian mysteries which were established in his honor.
Of these mysteries we are now to speak. The mysteries of Adonis are said to said to have been first established at Babylon, and thence to have passed over Syria, their principle seat being at the city of Byblos, in that country. The legend on which the mysteries was founded contained a recital of his tragic death and subsequent restoration to life, as has just been related. The mysteries were celebrated in a vast temple at Byblos. The ceremonies commenced about the season of the year when the river Adonis began to be swollen by the floods at its source.
The Adonis, now called Nahr el Ibrahim, or Abraham's river, is a small river of Syria, which, rising in Mount Lebanon, enters the Mediterranean a few miles south of Byblos. Maundrell, the great traveler, records a fact which he himself witnessed, that after a sudden fall of rain the river, descending in floods, is tinged witha deep red by the soil of the hills in which it takes its rise, and imparts this color to the sea, which it is discharged, for a considerable distance. The worshippers of Adonis were readily led to believe that this reddish discoloration of the water of the river was a symbol of his blood. To this Milton alludes when speaking of Thammuz, which was the name given by the idolatrous Israelites to the Syrian god:
Whose annual wound in Lebanon allured
The Syrian damsels to lament his fate,
In am'rous ditties, all a summer's day;
While smooth Adonis, from his native rock,
Ran purple to the sea, suffused with blood
Of Thammuz yearly wounded." -Paradise Lost.
The sacred rites of the Adonisian mysteries began with mourning, and the days which were consecrated to the celebration of the death of Adonis were passed in lugubrious cries and wailings, the celebrants often scouring themselves. On the last of the days of mourning, funeral rites were performed in honor of the god. On the following day the restoration of Adonis to life was announced, and was recieved with the most enthusiastic demonstration of joy.
Duncan, in very well written work on The Religous of Profane Antiquity, (p.350,) gives a similar description of these rites: The objects represented were the grief of Venus and the death and resurrection of Adonis. An entire week was consumed in these ceremonies; all the houses were covered with crape or black linen; funeral the processions traversed the streets; while the devotees scourged themselves, uttering frantic cries. The orgies were then commeced, in which the mystery of the death of Adonis was depicted. During the next twenty-four hours all the people fasted; at the expiration of which the time the priests announced the ressurrection of the god. Joy now prevailed, and music and dancing concluded the festival."
Movers, who is of high authority among scholars, says, in his Phonizier, (vol.i., p.200,) that "the celebration of the Adonisian mysteries began with the disappearance of Adonis, after which follows the search for him by the women. The myth represents this by the search of the goddess after beloved, which is analogous to the search of Persephone in the Eleusinia; of Harmonia at Samothrace; of Io in Antioch. In autumn, when the rains washed the red earth on its banks, the river Adonis was a blood red color, which was the signal for the inhabitants of Byblos to begin the lament. Then they said that Adonis was killed by Mars or the boar, and that his blood, running in the river, colored the water."
Julius Fermicus Maternus, an ecclesiastical writer of the fourth century, thus describes the funeral ceremonies and the resurrection of Adonis in his treatise De Errore Profanarum Religionum, dedicated to the Emperors Constantius and Constans: "On a certain night an image is laid out upon a bed and bewailed in mournful strains. At length, when all have sufficiently expressed their feigned lamentation, light is introduced, and the priest, having first annointed the lips of those who had been weeping, whispers with a gentle murmur the following formula, which in the original is in the form of a Greek distich: Have courage, ye initiates! The god having been preserved out of grief, salvation will arise to us."
The annuciation of the recovery or resurrection of Adonis was made, says Sainte-Croix, in his Mysteries du Paganisme, (t.ii., p.106,) by the inhabitants of Alexander to those of Byblos. The letter which was to carry the news was placed in an earthen vessel and intrusted to the sea, which floated it to Byblos, where Phoenician women were waiting on the shore to recieve it. Lucian says, in his treatise on The Syrian Goddess, that a head was every year transported froM Egypt to Byblos by some supernatural means. Both stories were probably apocryphal, or at least the act was, if performed at all, the result of the cunning invention of the priests.
Sainte-Croix describes, from Lucian's treatise on the Syrian Goddess, the magnificence of the temple at Hierapolis; but he certainly found no authority in that writer for stating that the mysteries of Adonis were there celebrated. The Rites practised at Hierpolis seem rather to have had some connection with arkite worship, which prevailed so exstensively in the pagan world of antiquity. The magnificent temple, which after times the Roman Crassus plundered, and the treasures of which it took severaln days to weigh and examine, was dedicated to Asarte, the goddess who presided over the elements of nature and the productive seeds of things, and who was in fact the mythological personification of the passive powers of Nature.
The mythological legend, which has been detailed in the beginning of this article, was but the exoteric story, intended for the uninitiated. There was also - as there was in all these mystical initiations of the ancients, an esoteric meaning - a sacred and secret symbolism, which constituted the arcana of the mysteries, and which was communicated only to the initiated.
Adonis which is derived from the Hebrew ADON -lord or master- was one of the titles given to the sun; and hence the worship of Adonis formed one of the modifications of that once most exstensive system of religion - sun worship. Godwyn, in his Moses and Aaron, (l. iv., c. 2) says: "Concerning Adonis whom sometimes ancient authors call Osiris, there are two things remarkable: aphanismos, the finding of him again. By the death or loss of Adonis we are to understand the departure of the sun; by his finding again we are to understand his return."
Macrobius, in his Saturnalia, more fully explains the allegory thus: "Philosophers have given the name of Venus to the superior or northern hemisphere, of which we occupy a part, and that of Proserpine to the inferior southern. Hence , among the Assyrians and Phoenicians, Venus is said to be in tears when the sun, in his annual course through the twelve signs of the zodiac, passesover to our antipodes; for of these twelve signs six are said to be superior and six inferior. When the sun is in the inferior signs, and the days are consequently short, the goddess is supposed to weep for the temporary death or privation of the sun, detained by Proserpine, whom we regard as the divinity of the southern or antipodal regions. And Adonis is said to be restored to Venus when the sun, having traversed the six inferior signs, enters those of our hemisphere, bringing with it an increase of light and lengthened days. The boar, which is supposed to have killed Adonis, is an emblem of winter; for this animal, covered with rough bristles, delights in cold wet, and miry situations, and his favorite food is acorn, a fruit which is peculiar to winter. The sun is said, too, to be wounded by winter, since at that season we lose its light and heat, which are the effects produced by death upon animated beings. Venus is represented on Mount Lebanon in an attitude of grief; her head bent and covered with a veil, is supported by her left hand near her breast, and her countenance is bathed in tears. This figure represents the earth in winter, when, being veiled in clouds and deprived of the sun, its energies have become torpid. The foundations, like the eyes of Venus, are overflowing, and the fields, divested of their flowers, present a joyless appearance. But when the sun has emerged from the southern hemisphere and passed the vernal equinox, Venus is once more rejoiced, the fields are agin embellished with flowers, the grass springs up in the meadows, and the trees recover their foliage."
Such is supposed by mythologist in general to have been the esoteric doctrine of Adonisian initiation, hence said to be a branch of that worship of the sun that at one time so universally prevailed over the world. And at this allegory, when thus interpreted, must have been founded on the fact that the solar orb disappeared for several months of winter, it followed that the allegory must have been invented by some hyperborean people, to whom only such an astromical phenomenon could be familiar. This is the view taken by the learned M. Baille in his Histoire de l'Astronomie Ancienne, who founds on it his favorite theory that all learning and civilization originally came from the cumpolar regions.
This tendency to symbolize the changing seasons and the decaying and renewed strength of the sun was common first to the mythology of the old Aryan race, and then to that of every nation which descended from it. In Greece, especially, we have myths of Linus, whose melancholy fate was bewailed at the season of the grape picking, and whose history, although confused by various statements, still makes him the analogue of Adonis; so that what is said of one might very properly be applied to the other. On this subject the following remarks of O.K. Muller, in his History of Greek Literature, (p. 23,) will be found interesting: "This Linus," he says, "evidently belongs to a class of deities or demigods of which many instances occur in the religions of Greece and Asia Minor - boys of extraordinary beauty and in the flower of youth, who are supposed to have been drowned, or devoured by raging dogs, or destroyed by wild beast, and whose death is lamented in the harvest or other periods of the hot season. The real object of lamentation was the tender beauty of spring destroyed by the summer heat, and other phenomena of the same kind, which the imagination of these early times invested with apersonal form, and represented as gods or beings of a divine nature." It would not be difficult to apply all this to the myth of Adonis, who, like Linus, was supposed to be a symbol of the dying and of the resuscitating sun.(NATURE - REINCARNATION)
But, on the other hand, as Payne Knight observes, this notion of the mourning for Adonis being a testimony of grief for the absence of the sun during the winter, is not to be acquiesced in. Thus Lobeck, in his Aglaophamus, very pertinently inquires why those nations whose winter was the mildest and shortest should so bitterly bewail the regular changes of the seasons as to suppose that even a god was slain; and he observes, with a great appearance of reason, that even were this the case, the mournful and the joyful parts of the festival should have been celebrated at different periods of the year: the former at the coming on of winter, and the latter at the approach of summer. It is not, perhaps, easy to answer these objections.
Of all the mytholgers, the Abbe Banier is the only one who has approximated to what appears to be the true interpretation of the myth. In his erudite work entitled La Mythologie et les Fables expliquees par l'Histoire, he discusses the myth of Adonis at great length. He denies the plausibility of the solar theory, which makes Adonis, in his death and resurrection, the symbol of the sun's setting and rising, or of his disappearance in winter and his return in summer; he thinks the alternate mourning and joy which characterized the celebration of the mytseries may be explained as referring to the severe but not fatal wound of Adonis, and his subsequent recovery through the skill of the physician Cocytus; or, if this explantion be rejected, he then offers another interpretation, which is I think, much nearer to the truth:
"But if any be tenacious of the opinion that Adonis died of his wound, I shall account for that joy which succeeded the mourning on the last day of the festival by saying it imported that he was promoted to divine honors, and that room was no longer left for sorrow; but that, having mourned for his death, they were now to rejoice at his deification. The priests, who would not have been in favor of a tradition which taught that the god whom they had served was subject to death, sought to conceal it from the people, and invented the allegorical explication which I have been refuting." (Tom. iii., liv. vii., ch. x.)
While, therefore, we may grant the possibility that there was originally some connection between the Sabean worship of the sun and the celebration of the Adonisian festival, we cannot forget that these mysteries, in common with all the other sacred initiations of the ancient world, had been originally established to promulgate among the initiates the once hidden doctrine of a future life. The myth of Adonisin Syria, like that of Osiris in Egypt, of Atys in Samothrace, or of Dionysus in Greece, presented symbolically, the great ideas of decay and restoration: sometimes figured as darkness and light, sometimes as winter and summer, sometimes as death and life, but always maintaining, no matter what the framework of the allegory, the inseparable ideas of something that was lost and afterwards recovered, as its interpretation, and so teaching, as does Freemasonry at this day , by a similar system of allegorizing, that after the death of the body comes eternal life of the soul. The inquiring Freemason will thus readily see the analogy in the symbolism that exists between Adonis in the mysteries of the Giblemites at Byblos and Hiram the Builder in his own instituiton.
An Encyclopedia of Freemasonry