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Myrrha

by Jennifer Middlesworth
According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, Myrrha, the daughter of Cinyras and Cenchreis, lusted for her father. Horrified by her emotions, Myrrha attempted to hang herself, but her nursemaid saved her at the last minute. After much imploring, the nursemaid discovered the cause of Myrrha's grief. Though appalled, the nursemaid devised way for Myrrha to consummate her lust for Cinyras, believing the sin to be a better option than suicide. Before the first sexual encounter, the nursemaid even urged Myrrha to go through with it. While Myrrha's mother, Cenchreis, was away at Ceres's festival, Myrrha had sex with her father, Cinyras. Cinyras was unaware of the girl's identity because these nightly encounters occurred in the dark while Cinyras was intoxicated. One night Cinyras brought in a lamp, discovered the girl was Myrrha, drew his sword, and chased her. Myrrha fled, and wandered for nine months until she came to rest at Sabo. After Myrrha prayed to the gods that she neither live nor die (since the severity of her crime would shock both the living and the dead), the gods turned her into the myrrh tree. The child Myrrha had conceived with Cinyras was ready to deliver, and Lucina enabled the birth from the tree. The child of this incestuous union, Adonis, was taken care of by Naiads and bathed in the myrrh which were Myrrha's tears. (x.298-518)

Powell's version differs from that in the Metamorphoses, in that Powell says Myrrha turned in to a myrrh tree as she fled from her father, who then killed himself, and that nine months later Adonis was born from the tree. According to Powell, Myrrha's incestuous love and its horrible consequences for Myrrha and Cinyras is the punishment allotted by Aphrodite in retribution for Cenchreis proclaiming that her daughter was more beautiful than Aphrodite. However, Myrrha gained Aphrodite's sympathy, and the resin from her tree is used at Aphrodite's altar. (156)

Grimal tells us that in some accounts of this myth, Myrrha is called Smyrna and her father is Theias. He also gives several variations for the birth of Myrrha's child. One is that the bark of the tree was split by the sword of Smyrna's (Myrrha's) father. Another version is that the tree was struck by a wild boar, foreshadowing Adonis's death. (13-14)

It is appropriate that Aphrodite's instrument of punishment is lust. Often the wrath of a god takes an extreme form of the power of the god's domain. For example, Bacchus punished mortals who spurned his cult by causing insanity and madness that often resulted in cannibalism, a perverted excess of the realms over which he has power, the life-force and rapture. Likewise, Aphrodite punished Cenchreis's arrogance through an aberration of her domain by causing the most vile of all loves to afflict Myrrha.


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