Adonis, Rebirth, and the Cycle of the Seasons

Adonis, Rebirth, and the Cycle of the Seasons
I. Symbols of Spring

“The Golden Bough” (1834) by J.M.W. Turner

The opening paragraph of Eliot’s endnotes is often declared the starting point to delve into the multifarious sources on which The Waste Land rests. Within the first sentences of the ancillary section, he writes, “To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough, I have used especially the two volumes Adonis, Attis, Osiris. Anyone who is acquainted with these works will immediately recognize in the poem certain references to vegetation ceremonies” (qtd. in North 21). There are two works in particular that Eliot isolates as powerfully influential: Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, a study of the medieval and occult lore that surrounds the holy grail, and The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer’s prodigious anthropological study of Mediterranean religions. Both books are concerned with the ubiquity of vegetation cycles among western cultures, but whereas Weston studies the ramifications of such cycles in the medieval archetype of the Fisher King, Frazer traces their connections to their earliest divine representations. By vegetation ceremonies Eliot is alluding to the preoccupation—and a justified preoccupation—of ancient peoples with the regularity of the seasons. To an urban, twentyfirst-century reader the passing of the seasons bears few more consequences than a change in wardrobe, but to a meager farmer on the ancient Greek shores the coming of the spring rain and summer harvest brought with it life to an entire civilization. The gravity of the vegetation cycle can perhaps be only fully understood by those who live off the land. Frazer observed,

  • The spectacle of the great changes which annually pass over the face of the earth has powerfully impressed the minds of men in all ages, and stirred them to meditate on the causes of transformations so vast and wonderful. Their curiosity has not been purely disinterested; for even the savage cannot fail to perceive how intimately his own life is bound up with the life of nature, and how the same processes which freeze the stream and strip the earth of vegetation menace him with extinction. (qtd. in North 33)

In order to ensure the regularity of the spring, a cycle that, to the ancients, was as incomprehensible as it was indispensable, various magical or otherworldly explanations were sought. The ceremonies and explanations of the ancients invariably involved gods, and, in the case of the seasons, gods who died in the winter and were resurrected in the spring. In these ceremonies, the duplication of a myth by actors was one of the most popular means of earning divine favor. A pageant, play, or parade might be put on and attended by a community. One such ceremony is alluded to in the poem with the inclusion of Phlebas, the drowned Phoenician sailor. In certain ancient rituals, an effigy of a sailor from Phoenicia, a seafaring civilization in ancient Canaan, was thrown into the ocean, symbolizing the end of summer and asking for the return of spring (Southam 75). Eventually, as the centuries passed and the culture changed, the power of these ceremonies dissipated, though their vestiges remain celebrations still practiced today (North 31).

Almost every mythological figure, it can be argued, has his or her roots in vegetation cycles, but the theme of resurrection is especially clear in several of these Greek myths. A passage to and return from the underworld is often enough to constitute symbolism for rebirth: one can claim that Odysseus was reborn after his journeys into the underworld to consult Tiresias. Those who are savvy of the Greek pantheon will also remember Persephone, who, on Zeus’s command, spent half the year in the underworld with Hades and the other half on earth with her mother Demeter, goddess of the harvest. When her

daughter was gone Demeter took out her anger on the earth, purging it of flora. When Persephone returned so did Demeter’s good will and the harvest began. The vacillation of Persephone between the living and the dead is often understood as an origin myth for the harvest. Dionysus, god of wine, is another god, like Demeter, who is part of harvest myths. Edith Hamilton explains their similarities and differences:

Like Persephone Dionysus died with the coming of the cold. Unlike her, his death was terrible: he was torn to pieces, in some stories by the Titans, in others by Hera’s orders. He was always brought back to life; he died and rose again. . . . the idea of terrible deeds done to him and done by men under his influence was too closely associated with him ever to be forgotten. He was more than the suffering god. He was the tragic god.” (Hamilton 75)

Indeed, many of the rebirth gods and heroes were associated with tragic ends, such as the death of Hyacinthus and his spring rebirth as the hyacinth (see “Allusions in Eliot”). One such melancholy figure, however, was especially prominent in the work of Eliot and Frazer: Adonis.

II. The Specter of Adonis

Although Adonis is perhaps the most culturally significant figure in The Waste Land, uniting Eliot’s generation with the ancient Greeks and everyone in between, his name never actually appears in the poem’s text. We only know his existence because of Eliot’s notes, yet those are enough to suggest how intimate and essential his role is in the poem. It might seem strange to even consider him worth investigating; however, it’s not Adonis the man who is significant but rather Adonis as a representative of the resurrected hero. The myth of Adonis and its implications form the backbone of the poem mainly because of Eliot’s readings of Frazer. The theme of renewal is repeated in different permutations and with different heroes and images, but he is the Greek grandfather whom Frazer found to be the prototype of resurrection. Adonis is a personage bound to the theme of rebirth because of his travels between hell and earth in his legend. His story is a synecdoche for all spring rebirth gods and for the spring and winter dichotomy. When we read “spring,” “winter,” or any other word referencing the seasons in the back of our mind we should know that Adonis, the rituals of the ancients, and the immense importance of the harvest are hiding behind the verse.

The first place we detect Adonis is in the poem’s memorable opening line: “April is the cruelest month.” This statement orients the beginning of The Waste Land with the opening of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a poem that commences with a waxing on the benevolent April rains. Eliot defies literary history and the readers’ expectations with this unsettling paradox: why is April, the month so famous for the flowering of vegetation and end of winter, cruel? At one level Eliot is toying with our perceptions, as he will do during the course of the poem, by giving us the opposite of what we expect. He is also reminding us of the tragedies of the fertility gods: the goring of Adonis, rape of Persephone, and death of Hyacinthus all occurred in spring. The first passage is broken into two sections: there is the unknown narrator who first speaks in the characteristic ominous tone and the second narrator, beginning at line eight, is a young girl, Marie, recalling fond memories in pastoral Germany. This seems to relate to the “memory and desire” of line two. “Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee/With a shower of rain,” (ll. 8-9) the section begins, immediately evoking the natural setting of Adonis. The memory seems to be pleasant; after all, there is chatting, coffee drinking, and sledding. There is, however, an ominous undercurrent to the passage. The Starnbergersee, a lake in Munich, Germany, is reminiscent of World War I, which had recently ended when Eliot wrote his poem. There is also a line in German, which translates as “I’m not Russian at all, I come from Lithuania, pure German,” possibly referencing the rewriting of political boundaries after the Treaty of Versailles. Eliot is injecting this innocuous spring scene with subtle undertones of war and destruction, hiding terrible historical events behind the veneer of vacationing in the countryside.

The second passage introduces the balance between water and drought, one of the most frequently occurring motifs in the poem and a stirring reminder of the necessity of spring rain. There is a connection between the shattered icon and ethical doldrums of the twentieth century and the rocky desert Eliot creates in our imagination. “You cannot say, or guess, for you know only/A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,/And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,/And the dry stone no sound of water.” Water will appear again and again. “Fear death by water,” Madame Sosostris portents. In “What the Thunder Said” there are thirty lines which juggle dryness, rock, and water back and forth: “Here is no water but only rock/ Rock and no water and the sandy road.” Water, the image of liquid of life, is either absent, resulting in sterility, or overabundant, resulting in drowning. It is The Waste Land’s ability to transform positive imagery into death imagery, to turn the good into bad, that gives the poem its characteristic despairing tone.

III. The Fisher King

As mentioned before, The Golden Bough was one of two books from which Eliot drew inspiration. Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance was the other. Weston’s book is an analysis of medieval lore through the paradigm of Frazer’s fertility rituals. Eliot read and drew liberally from the book, as he mentions in his notes: “Indeed, so deeply am I indebted, Miss Weston’s book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my notes can do; and I recommend it (apart from the great interest of the book itself) to any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble” (North 21). The book was Eliot’s source of information on the Fisher King, a monarch associated with Med

A medieval rendering of the Fisher King.

ieval Grail legends and a parallel to the impotent rulers requiring revival in The Golden Bough. The Fisher King is a ruler of a barren, infertile domain—a wasteland—and is as impotent and unhealthy as his kingdom. According to Weston, the land and the king are inextricably bound; the life of one depends on the life of the other. The only way he and the land can be rescued from their malaise is through the bravery of a knight, often Gawain or Perceval, wielding the Holy Grail, retrieved from a haunted chapel, “Chapel Perilous.” Weston’s argument is that we can trace the origins of the Fisher King back to figures such as Adonis. They are both heroes, more than men but less than gods, who share the fate of the land. The Fisher King waits, sick and powerless, for the coming of a knight who will restore his vigor. Adonis waits for the coming of spring to bring vitality back to the earth. They are both existing in a sort of life-in-death and the people who worship them depend on their resurrection for their own survival.

Just as spring imagery calls to mind Adonis, manifestations of the Fisher King amongst the lines also evoke rebirth and the tragedy of the seasons. The Fisher King, however, is much more lucidly illustrated in the poem than the invisible Adonis. We know he appears in Madame Sosostris’s Tarot pack because of Eliot’s notes: “The Man with Three Staves (an authentic member of the Tarot pack) I associate, quite arbitrarily, with the Fisher King himself” (qtd. in North 22). Chapel Perilous, a landmark of Fisher King lore, also reveals itself at the climax of the poem: “In this decayed hole among the mountains/In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing/Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel/There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home” (ll. 385-388). Chapel Perilous is the supposed resting place of the Holy Grail, the cup that would bring salvation to the Fisher King. Perhaps Eliot is also attempting to sneak the Fisher King into other scenes when the narrator is depicted as fishing: “A rat crept softly through the vegetation/Dragging its slimy belly on the bank/ While I was fishing in the dull canal/ On a winter evening. . . .” (ll. 187-190); “I sat upon the shore/ Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/Shall I at least set my lands in order?” (ll. 423-425). The rat in the first quotation is a symbol frequently used by Eliot’s to represent despair and life-in-death (cf. “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.); the rat’s unwelcome presence corrupts the vegetation. The second quotation comes from the end of the poem, after the speaking of the thunder, and is paired with a line from the prophet Isaiah. It is a supplication asking for the arrival time of death (and thus rebirth). The emergence of Chapel Perilous and an ending saturated with penitent language from ancient Hindu religious books intimate that the Grail could have been retrieved from the chapel and the Fisher King restored to health, just as the coming of the rains during the chapel passage (“In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust/Bringing rain”[ll. 393-394]) may be the return of spring rains to summon Adonis back to the earth.

IV. Easter, the Crucifixion, and Resurrection

In 1927, Eliot converted to the Church of England, and his poetry noticeably took on the air of religious solemnity, but even before then Biblical imagery was a prominent feature of his work. One of Eliot’s most frequently invoked sources of allusion is the Bible. He cites Ezekiel and Ecclesiastes in his notes, the title of part one is taken from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and he borrows from St. Augustine in part three. There are several places in the poem where the crucifixion is alluded to in a similar manner as the classical resurrection myths. April, the month in which the poem opens and a symbol of fertility gods, is often the month in which Easter falls, the Christian holiday recognizing the resurrection of Jesus. Just as rituals for Adonis honored spring and represented the humbling of the people to their deity, so does Easter. The poem layers these holidays and their religious importance over each other, from the Greeks through the early Christians, to the modern day. A brief retelling of the events leading up to the crucifixion appears in the first stanza of Part Five as the narrative takes us from the Garden of Gethsemane to Golgotha:

Jesus, it can be argued, is heir to the spring resurrection mythology.

After the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience. (ll. 321-330)

By plucking this scene from the Bible and placing it at the beginning of the final section of the poem, Eliot is bringing the setting of the poem to Israel, conjuring a tone of dejection and betrayal, and connecting the inhabitants of his wasteland with the executioners of Jesus. This passage implies that the mountains and desert of the subsequent lines are the Holy Land, and, after Jesus’ death, the earth becomes sterile. Within a few lines, though, the poem takes us to Chapel Perilous. Eliot’s head note to this section reads, “In the first part of Part V three themes are employed: the journey to Emmaus, the approach to the Chapel Perilous (see Miss Weston’s book) and the present decay of eastern Europe” (qtd. in North 25), so we know that when he refers to an “empty chapel” (l. 388) he is referring to Chapel Perilous. The recovery of the holy grail and the coming of the rain at line 394 both correspond with Jesus’ resurrection and spiritual salvation.

One of Frazer’s most stirring claims in The Golden Bough is that Jesus is a fertility god in the lineage of Adonis. He writes, “When we reflect how often the Church has skilfully contrived to plant the seeds of the new faith on the old stock of paganism, we may surmise that the Easter celebration of the dead and risen Christ was grafted upon a similar celebration of the dead and risen Adonis” (qtd. in North 34). The resurrection of Jesus three days after his crucifixion, celebrated on Easter, and its signification as the point at which salvation is opened to all Christians is the Biblical analogue to the coming of the spring rains for the ancients. It also represents a shift of attention from earth to the next world: from temporal to eternal. The extravagant ceremonies and lavish celebrations of Paganism seem to be in direct opposition to strict Christian doctrine, yet both were essentially seeking the same end: life for their followers. The Greeks and Italians were seeking worldly life through a successive harvest and the Christians were striving for an afterlife in heaven. By combining Greek and Christian allusions, the poem unites these impulses into a drive that will take us to the end of the poem and the search for peace amidst the rubble.

V. All-seeing, All-knowing Tiresias

Of Tiresias, Eliot writes, “although a mere spectator and not indeed a ‘character,’ [he] is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest” (qtd. in North 23). Like Adonis, who is never explicitly mentioned in the poem, Tiresias is an elusive yet integral figure, acting as the keystone for the poem’s other characters. Tiresias unites not only the poem’s tertiary characters, such as Stetson and Mr. Eugenides, but the mythological archetypes indelible from Western tradition: the Fisher King and Jesus. Tiresias, the blind prophet, was an apt symbol for the amalgamation of resurrection heroes because of his mythological qualities. Having lived as a man and a woman, consciously on earth and also in the underworld, and given the gift of prophecy–living in the present and the future–he is the closest any mortal could come to omniscience. Tiresias’s inclusion is also thematically appropriate because of his appearance in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, in which the city of Thebes is beset by a terrible plague: another urban wasteland. His life in the underworld, where he met heroes such as Ulysses and Aeneas, makes him an embodiment of earth and hell, just like Adonis and the other figures that coalesce around him. To consult Tiresias is to tap into the gamut of human experience. Tiresias is at the center of a network of characters and themes that circulate inside the poem. Adonis may be the origin of the themes of The Waste Land, but Tiresias is the adhesive that holds the various personae together.

Our introduction to Tiresias comes in part three, “The Fire Sermon.” He is a voyeur (never mind that he’s blind) of the passionless, mechanized sex between “the young man carbuncular” and his lover the typist. This scene establishes the unhealthy modern relationship motif more powerfully than it any previous couple in the poem, such as the man and woman in “A Game of Chess” or the absent adolescent lovers at the being of “The Fire Sermon.” However, this is no mere unfortunate couple. They are the crux of Eliot’s critique on twentieth-century sexuality and a foil to the ceremonial orgies of the Greeks. Sexual vitality, according to Frazer, is bound to the fertility of the land: “Accordingly we may assume with a high degree of probability. . .that in the opinion of those who performed [the vegetation ceremonies] the marriage of trees and plants could not be fertile without the real union of the human sexes.” (qtd. in North 30). If this is true we can look at “sick” couples such as this as one explanation for the decay of the land. The relationship is described as cold and perfunctory: “Exploring hands encounter no defence;/His vanity requires no response,/And makes a welcome of indifference.” The typist is even less human. Her only thoughts are, “‘Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.'” As Northrop Frye points out, “Fertility means food and drink, bread and wine, body and blood, the union of male and female” (Frye 193). It should be no surprise that such a frigid romantic environment is represented in a physical wasteland.

Tiresias is witness to this act not only to give us an outside perspective but because, just as he is one with Adonis, the Fisher King, and Jesus, he is united with the couple. “And I Tiresias,” he admits in an aside, “have foresuffered all,/Enacted on this same divan or bed.” (ll. 243-244). Just as the couple is linked to sexual virility, the health of the Fisher King is linked to the fertility of the land, and Christian piety is linked to spiritual longevity, Tiresias is bound to all of these, unifying these contingencies in a confluence spanning hundreds of years of cultural history.

Works Cited

Frye, Herman Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. New Jersey : Princeton U. Press, 1957. Print.

Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. Boston : Little, Brown, 1942. Print.

North, Michael, ed. The Waste Land: T. S. Eliot. New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.

Southam, B.C. A Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot. New York : Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1968. Print.


“The Golden Bough” by J. M. W. Turner

The Fisher King

“Kreuzigung” by Conrad Laib

Created by Greg LaLuna

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