I asked a question Literature SE a few days ago, trying to make sense of some of the references in an English poem by William Drummond of Hawthornden. One portion of the poem describes Venus/Aphrodite gathering 'those fair flowers/Which of her blood were born'. Some Googling (for example, this website) suggested that these 'fair flowers' are red roses: apparently, there is an ancient myth in which Venus pricks herself on a white rose bush and bleeds on the petals, thus creating the red rose.

None of the above Googling pointed me to an ancient source. The website I mentioned, for example, states that the myth is an episode in the narrative of Venus and Adonis, but neither Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, nor the section on Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses which was Shakespeare's primary literary inspiration, make any mention of it. Is there an ancient source for this myth? Or is it a Renaissance invention?


Mediaeval compilations referencing older, potentially ancient works do mention the story.

It is narrated in Ch. II of the "Διηγηματα" section of the "Appendix: Narrationum," on p. 359 of Anton Westermann's 1843 book Mythographoi: Scriptores poeticae historiae graeci.

Cited as the source here is the Progymnasmata 2, by Aphthonius of Antioch (c. 4th century AD), as well as a commentary on the same work by John Doxopatres (11th century AD).

The story also occurs in the Geoponika [Geoponica], "Agricultural Pursuits," which Wikipedia describes as "a twenty-book collection of agricultural lore, compiled during the 10th century in Constantinople for the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus."

According to the relevant passage thereof, i.e. Book 11, Chapter 17, entitled "Concerning the Rose",

Let him that admires the beauty of the rose, reflect on the wound of Aphrodite, they say; for the goddess indeed loved Adonis, and Ares on the other hand loved her: but Ares in a fit of jealousy killed Adonis, thinking that the death of Adonis would put an end to her affection for him; but the goddess, having understood what had been done, hastened to be revenged; and throwing herself in a hurry on the rose, when without her sandals, she was wounded by the thorns of the rose in the sole of her foot; and the rose, which was before white, from the blood of Aphrodite, changed into the colour in which it is now seen, and it became red and sweet-scented. But others say that, when the gods were feasting above, and there stood a great quantity of nectar, Eros led the dance, and with his wing struck the bottom of the bowl and overturned it, and that the nectar poured on the ground made the rose of a red colour.

On p. 226 (Footnote 3) of Vol. 1 of his 1914 book The Golden Bough, James George Frazer cites John Tzetzes' commentary on Lycophron's Alexandra 831 as a source for the myth, but I have struggled to find any explicit mention of such a thing therein, beyond a reference to the Muses weeping for Adonis upon his death.

Alexandra is an extremely cryptic poem narrated essentially in riddles, though, so it might just be that I don't get it, even with Tzetzes' commentary. If Lycophron did indeed allude to the story in Alexandra, this would be an undoubtedly ancient primary source for it, several centuries older than the aforementioned compilations.

Also ancient but sometime later than Lycophron, Bion's Epitaph of Adonis (commonly referred to in English also as Lament for Adonis) tells a slightly different version of the story, in which Aphrodite cuts herself on thorns as she rushes through the woods on her way to the fallen Adonis, but in the end it is Adonis' blood which turns into roses. Aphrodite in turn sheds a tear for each drop of his blood, and these tears turn into windflowers (anemones).


According to Anacreon, white roses appeared in the foam of the sea around the shell of Aphrodite's birth. The birth account of Aphrodite is first recorded in Hesod's Theogony. We all know this account from classic paintings, but what is perhaps less known is that Aphrodite was not the only one born from the casting of Ouranos' genitals in the sea by his son, and Aphrodite is not her only name:

Then the son from his ambush stretched forth his left hand and in his right took the great long sickle with jagged teeth, and swiftly lopped off his own father's members and cast them away to fall behind him. And not vainly did they fall from his hand; for all the bloody drops that gushed forth Earth received, and as the seasons moved round she bare the strong Erinyes and the great Giants with gleaming armour, holding long spears in their hands and the Nymphs whom they call Meliae all over the boundless earth. And so soon as he had cut off the members with flint and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden. First she drew near holy Cythera, and from there, afterwards, she came to sea-girt Cyprus, and came forth an awful and lovely goddess, and grass grew up about her beneath her shapely feet. Her gods and men call Aphrodite, and the foam-born goddess and rich-crowned Cytherea, because she grew amid the foam, and Cytherea because she reached Cythera, and Cyprogenes because she was born in billowy Cyprus, and Philommedes because sprang from the members. And with her went Eros, and comely Desire followed her at her birth at the first and as she went into the assembly of the gods. This honour she has from the beginning, and this is the portion allotted to her amongst men and undying gods, -- the whisperings of maidens and smiles and deceits with sweet delight and love and graciousness. - Hesod -Theogones

Some of the Nymphs in these verses are also associated with flowers, and roses in particular. Aphrodite's symbols have always included the sea, conch shells, and roses. The rose and myrtle flowers were both sacred to Aphrodite.

As to the "blood and roses" story you mention, this myth of Aphrodite and Adonis is probably derived from the ancient Sumerian legend of Inanna and Dumuzid. The Greek name Ἄδωνις (Adōnis) is derived from the Canaanite word ʼadōn, meaning "lord". There are two principle versions of this story, and Ovid's work does not mention the version with the roses and the blood. I could only find a link to a study that should contain this text, but not the original:

Cyrino, Monica S. (2010), Aphrodite, Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World, New York City, New York and London, England: Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-77523-6

In the Middle Ages, this story was transformed into a tale of romantic love, as can be found in Le Roman de la Rose (The novel of the Rose)

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