Adonis (Tammuz, Dumuzi)

Category: Gods > Terrestrial Gods

1 Introduction

When talking about Adonis or Tammuz/Dumuzi, whose tragically young death was lamented every year for millennia across Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, two extremes have to be avoided: claims of exaggerated continuity and claims of exaggerated rupture.

The former are easier to discredit. Take the declaration that “[t]he cult of Ishtar and Tammuz still existed in Mardin as late as the eighteenth century”, which is currently found on the Wikipedia page of Dumuzid, and has no doubt spread to many other websites (not to mention minds) from there. The source for this claim is

  1. a paper by Simo Parpola, “Assyrian Identity in Ancient Times and Today”, which makes a much less specific claim: “the Assyrian religion persisted […] in Mardin even until the 18th century AD”. The source for this, in turn, is
  2. an 1856 publication in German, Daniel Chwolsohn’s Die Ssabier and der Ssabismus (vol. 1, pp. 151–156). But there, nothing is said about Assyrian religion, but rather about a community called Šamsiyyah (‘religion of the Sun’, more or less). They spoke Arabic and considered themselves a separate group from the Aramaic-speaking Syrians (i.e., Assyrians), as is made clear by Chwolsohn’s own source,
  3. the missionary Horatio Southgate (Narrative of a Tour Through Armenia, Kurdistan, Persia and Mesopotamia, 1840, vol. 2, p. 288).

So, simply by tracing back the sources, we find that there were no Assyrian pagans, let alone worshippers of Tammuz, in the 18th century CE. Indeed, there is no reason to think that these Mardin “sun-worshippers” (if that is really a fair description of them), who apparently no longer exist as a distinct community, were more ancient than the many other minority religions in Southwest Asia. That idea is built on the assumption that venerating the Sun is inherently a primitive holdover, and could not be consciously embraced in the Christian era.

Again according to Wikipedia, “[t]he same festival is mentioned in the eleventh century by Ibn Athir, who recounts that it still took place every year at the appointed time along the banks of the Tigris river.” This mixes up an 11th-century CE account of certain Turks seeing a group of men and women (implied to be jinn) lamenting, “The great King of the Jinn is dead, woe to this country!”, with a 13th century report by Ibn al-Athir, where people in Iraq made lamentations with the words, “O Umm ˤUnkūd (‘Mother of Grape-cluster’), forgive us! ˤUnkūd is dead, and we did not know.” This was not a yearly occurrence, but done in response to an epidemic, which was understood as springing from the outrage of the jinnī Umm ˤUnkūd (see, e.g., James Frazier, The Golden Bough, vol. 4, 3rd edition, p. 8.) In short, while there are some suggestive resonances, there seems to be no evidence of a festival actually devoted to Tammuz in the second millennium CE at all.

So much for hyper-continuity. The other extreme, which has a stronger basis in truth, is hyper-particularizaton or hyper-splitting, separating the Greco-Roman Adonis from the Syrian Tammuz, and Tammuz from the Sumerian Dumuzi; perhaps even making further splits based on preconceived notions of linguistic or ethnic boundaries equating to religious ones. But ‘Tammuz’ was also used in southern Iraq (what once was Sumeria), not just Syria, as it is nothing more than a different pronunciation of the ancient Sumerian name. And while an unrelated name, Adon(is), was used further West, Greek and Aramaic sources nevertheless show quite clearly that the speakers of both languages considered the names to refer to the same god.

On this page, then, I shall be treating Tammuz as one god, albeit a god of many names, and more importantly, a god whose myth was always in the process of being reworked. But I will not draw gods (such as Attis or Ešmun) and jinn (such as ˤUnkūd) who are merely similar into the discussion as if they were the same as him, except where the ancient sources themselves make such connections.

2 The god’s primary names

Dumuzi(d), spelled (𒀭)𒌉𒍣 ([ᵈ]DUMU.ZID), is the oldest, Sumerian form of the god’s name. He was believed to have been a shepherd, and an early king of Uruk, and perhaps most importantly the lover of the goddess Innin/Ištar. There are different accounts of his death and rationales for his worship, as we will see.

In Elamite, the name appears as Damusi. The variation between s and z is of no further consequence, but that of a instead of the first u is, since it is analogous to the Akkadian pronunciation Tammuz (Tammuzi?), the starting point for the other forms.

This form was borrowed into Aramaic as Tammūzā (and perhaps also Tammūzī, the form used by Ibn Waḥshiyyah in Arabic), and a late Akkadian pronunciation as Tāwuz (attested for Ḥarrān). It was also adopted as the name of a month, Tammūz, in which the lamentations over him took place. In Hebrew, both the god and the month appear under this latter form. Arabic typically follows Aramaic, with most authors using the form Tammūzā for the god.

The month Tammūz is still part of the Jewish and Assyrian calendars, and functions as the Arabic, Syriac and Turkish name of the Gregorian month of July.

In Greek and Latin, the god was referred to as Adōn or Adōnis (or rarely Adōneus in Latin), evidently a direct adaptation of a Canaanite/Phoenician divine name ˀAdōn, ‘Lord’, or ˀAdōnī, ‘My Lord’, attested in a few Phoenician inscriptions. (…Our Lord…)

Although modern scholarship has sometimes wished to see ˀAdōn as Baˤl, also meaning ‘Lord’ (see Zeus), there seems to be no evidence for this beyond some loose similarities in their myths, whereas a significant number of ancient texts clearly identify Adonis and Tammuz (cf. …). This is so irrespective of whether ˀAdōn was originally a separate god (or even multiple gods) secondarily identified with Tammuz, or originally Tammuz who secondarily acquired a local name. Since we have no access to evidence about the “original” character of ˀAdōn, at least at this time, we are obliged to set the issue aside.

3 The name and identity of the god’s lover

In Sumer, Dumuzi was paired with the goddess 𒀭𒈹 (ᵈINNIN), pronounced Innin in Sumerian and Ištar in Akkadian. She was said to be the planet Venus.

In Aramaic dialects, this goddess was only sometimes called the equivalent of Ištar, that is, ˀEstrā (ʔstrʔ). Instead, she might be called Dilbat or Libat, originally a technical Akkadian name for the planet, as in a Mandaic text I will quote below. In Syriac, she/the planet is called either Balthī (from Akkadian Beltī, ‘My Lady’) or Aphrodite (ˀAphrōditī), the latter of course derived from Greek.

In Canaanite/Phoenician, the god’s lover was apparently ˤAštart; at any rate, Cicero says that Astarte, the Venus of Cyprus and Syria, married Adonis (On the Nature of the Gods 3.59). This would fit with the fact that ˤAštart was (a) also written as 𒀭𒈹 (ᵈINNIN) in cuneiform, and (b) sometimes translated as Aphrodite, as for instance by the Greco-Phoenician scholar Philo of Byblos.

On the other hand, Philo of Byblos distinguishes Astarte–Aphrodite from Baalthis–Dione, and one Syriac text (which I will quote below) calls Tammuz’ lover Baˤlthī and associates her with Byblos. This name, spelled bʕlty rather than blty, must come from Canaanite rather than Akkadian, and so is to be equated with Philo’s Baalthis, i.e., bˤlt gbl, the ‘Lady of Byblos’ – and hence, it would seem, not Astarte=ˤAštart.

But really, we do not need to make that choice. Philo, who distinguishes the two goddesses, does not mention Adonis or Tammuz at all, whereas Greek and Syriac writers who do discuss him do not make that differentiation. Thus, insofar as we are interested in Tammuz, we can dispense with it, and treat Dilbat (akk. Dilibat), ˀEstrā (akk. Ištar), Balthī (akk. Beltī, gr. Bēltis or Bēlthis), Baˤlthī (phoen. bˤlt, gr. Baalthis), ˤAštart (gr. Astartē), Aphrodite and Venus as functionally identical, in accordance with the practice of the ancients. That there are other contexts where these names are not all so equivalent may be taken for granted, but need not concern us here. Let us trust the 4th-century bilingual dedicatory inscription that reads “to Astarte, the greatest goddess (Astartē thea megistē)” in Greek and “to the Lady of Byblos (l-bˤlt gbl)” in Phoenician (see Zernecke, cited just below, p. 231).

(That it is nevertheless generally correct to treat the Lady of Byblos as a goddess in her own right, rather than merely a title of ˤAštart or some other goddess, is rightly argued by Anna Elise Zernecke, “The Lady of the Titles: The Lady of Byblos and the Search for her ‘True Name’”, in: Die Welt des Orients 43 (2013), pp. 226–242.)

Three additional Mesopotamian names have to be noted.

Firstly, in a few Greek and Latin sources, a goddess or daemon Salambas or Salambō is mentioned in the role of Adonis’ lover:

  • According to Hesychius (s.v. Salambō), “Aphrodite is called Salambō among the Babylonians”.
  • Orion’s Etymologicum (s.v. Salambas) explains her as a “daemon (f.), from always being carried around and being in tossing motion (salos); or because she goes around lamenting Adonis: and Anacreon (uses) sēlazein for ‘lamenting’.”
  • In the Historia Augusta, the emperor Antoninus, posthumously known as Elagabalus, is said to have “displayed (an image of?) Salambo with all the lamentation and display of Syrian worship” (Heliogabalus 7.3).

This is “universally recognized” as representing ṣalam-Baˤl, ‘the Image of Baˤl’, i.e., ˤAštart, since a similar expression, “ˤAštart the Name of Baˤl”, is attested in Phoenician (van der Toom, Becking & van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, p. 322).

Secondly, according to Ibn al-Nadīm, one of the deities of the pagans of Ḥarrān was “Rabbat al-Thall, who killed (or ‘received’?) Tammūzā”. Her name might mean ‘Lady of Killing’, according to Hämeen-Anttila, “Continuity of Pagan Religious Traditions in Tenth-Century Iraq”, pp. 101–102, fnn. 55–56. But the notice is too obscure to derive any certain conclusions about her nature. She clearly need not be the god’s lover.

Thirdly, Eutychius, the patriarch of Alexandria, refers to Tammūzā’s wife as tlbyn, which Chwolsohn plausibly interprets as a corruption of b(ʕ)ltyn, i.e., Ba(ˤ)lthīn, ‘Our Lady’ (Daniel Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus, vol. 2, p. 508; p. 811). If so, she is none other than Balthī (but the conjectured ʕ is unnecessary).

4 Cuneiform (Sumerian, Akkadian) sources

Kutscher, The Death of Dumuzi/Tammuz

(Other cuneiform names?)

richest cultic texts, also myths

5 Canaanite (Phoenician, Hebrew) sources

Hebrew Bible
Tham(m)ouz in Greek
Thamuz in Hieronymus >
no vowel ending?

Adon, Adoni, Adonen

6 Greek and Latin sources

Chronology of sources, not ideas: ‚priority‘ of non-Greek logically, but not so much in terms of our evidence.

The Adonia festival in Alexandria

Theocritus, Idyll 15
(cf. Cyprus, Wanassa, Eryx? – Before Kypris was Aphrodite)

The Lament of Bion


The temple at Byblos

Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 6-9; cf. Plutarch on Byblos?

From the commentaries on Vergil

Aen. 5.95, 7.84;761: theology
Aen. 5.72, Buc. 8.37, 10.16;18: myth

A myth about Berytos (Beirut)

Nonnus (only?)

‘Gauas’, or the two Adonises

And he shall see the strong city of unhappy Myrrha, who was delivered of the pangs of child-birth by a branching tree; and the tomb of Gauas whose death the Muses wrought – wept by the goddess of the Rushes, Arenta, the Stranger: Gauas whom the wild boar slew with white tusk.
Lycophron: Gauas, Gauantos

>Aphrodite: Bêlthis (Hesychius), Eleêmôn (Hesychius)

Pseudo-Nonnus, Philo: Astarte & Baalti-, Julian: theô Phoinikôn
Eusebius: Bêlos & Bêlt-
Lydus: „Blatta“, Astartê (4.64; only mention of Astarte and Adonis together-ish)
Φοινίκην, ἣν ἱερὰν Ἀφροδίτης φασὶ διὰ Βύβλον καὶ Λίβανον.
(!) ἐν δὲ τῇ Μεσοποταμίᾳ κεῖνται Ἥλιος μέν τις ἐν Ἄτροις, Σελήνη δέ τις ἐν Κάρραις, Ἑρμῆς ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ τις ἄνθρωπος, Ἄρης ἐν Θρᾴκῃ, Ἀφροδίτη ἐν Κύπρῳ, Ἀσκληπιὸς ἐν Ἐπιδαύρῳ
(Akraia-? Akria-? <-> Kypr-?)
Philostratus: Kyprioi
Theodoretus: Astarte; Syriac sources?
Astarte in Latin. Pseudo-Nonnus? Lydus?
Syriac accounts, Mandaic; Harran (goddess!); Arabic

Gingr-: Athenaeus, Pollux. Gingrôn?
Abôbas, Êoiê-, Itaios, Kiris, Kyris, Pygmaiôn, Phereklea: Hesychius
Abôbas, Aôios, Aôos, Aô, Kir(r)is: Etymologicum
Kiris: Aelius Herodianus
(more kiri-, kirri-, kyri-?)
Aôo- potam-
Scholia on Lycophron: Gauas (Tauas?)
PGM: Barbaritha (etc.)
Memnon?? (Chwolsohn)

Diogenianus: o de Kuprios

Byblius Adon; etc. The river Adonis.
Aphaka, Aphakiti-
Stephanus: Kypros
More Hesychius
Etymologica: karp-, etc.
Schol. Eur. Med. 264; Scholia Theocr. 1.109a; Theocr. 3, 5, 15?
Schol. Clem. Alex. p. 338? Schol. Opp. 3.403?
(!) Scholia on Dionysius Periegeta 509, 852
Scholia on Aristophanes
Scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes p.80
(!) Scholia on Lycophron
‚ouden ieron‘?

7 Aramaic (Syriac, Mandaic) and Arabic sources

Tamara Green?

Left Ginza: Tammuz

-Meliton & Theodore bar Konai
-Chwolsohn, Sabier: …
-Chwolsohn, Tammuz: …
-Biruni, Chronology
-Morony 1984: p. 397 (Yohannan bar Penkaye), p. 415 (Ginza)
+bar Penkaye, Ginza
-Last Pagans of Iraq: p. 158-161 (Ibn Wahshiyyah, Ibn al-Nadim, Biruni, al-Dimashqi), 239-245 (Ibn Washiyyah)
-Ibn al-Nadim: other sources?