The Birth of Dionysos

Published July 2, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I wanted to go back and start filling in the post-theogony gaps, but…yeah, most of the earlier stuff has too many variations I have to work through first.  This is the earliest myth that isn’t in a muddle.


 

In the city of Thebes lived a young woman named Semele.  She often advised her father, King Kadmos, on the running of the city, and her beauty even outshone her mother Harmonia’s, though she was the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares.  Though she charmed all the men in Thebes and the neighboring cities, somehow they all felt a dread at the idea of approaching her, and she attained the marriage age and passed it by, without marrying.

Yet she wasn’t lonely at all, for she had–unbeknownst even to her father–a suitor far greater than any mortal man, and it was he who was frightening away all the others.  He would come and pay court to her at the cistern, or as she spun wool in the courtyard, or walked in the gardens of her father’s palace.  Walls, no matter how high, were no obstacle to her relentless suitor, who could come to her on the wings of a dove, if he so wished, and appeared to her with the face of a young man, or an old woman, but always Semele knew it was him by his words of unfailing love.

But Semele was a proper maiden who would not simply succumb to a few words of passion.  No matter how much he proclaimed he adored her, she would not admit her to her bedchamber just like that.  She expected to be made a proper wife before she went to any man’s–or god’s–bed.  Eventually, she told him so.

“You must realize I have a wife already,” he told her.  At the moment, he had taken on the form of a handsome man in the prime of his life.  It was his favorite form in which to approach her, and–in truth–it was Semele’s favorite as well.

“My father comes from the east, originally, you know,” Semele told him.  “In the land of his birth, kings sometimes have more than one wife.  I might accept being a second wife…” she hinted, having long ago suspected the true identity of her determined suitor.

“I must admit, I had a similar idea,” he agreed, stroking her hair before finally stealing a kiss.

Semele accepted her suitor’s kiss and his love with delight, and they consummated their union that very night.  He returned to see her nearly every night, always keeping her father from catching him, though as Semele began to show signs of pregnancy, even her divine–and secret–bridegroom could not keep that a secret, and she had to remain sequestered in her chamber, claiming illness.  She trusted only her nurse with her secret.

But Semele’s father was the least of her worries, it turned out, for while Kadmos would have been enraged to learn that his daughter had been impregnated, he would have been placated to learn that the father was divine.  The divine father’s wife, on the other hand…

For the longer his dalliance with Semele continued, the more lax Zeus was growing as he traveled down to Thebes to see her, and eventually Hera caught sight of him on his way down to Semele’s chamber.  She waited until he had returned to Olympos, then she took on the form of Semele’s nurse, Beroe, and went to speak to the pregnant woman.

“You’ll be letting him get away with this, then?” the disguised Hera asked her.

“Get away with what?” Semele asked, idly stroking her belly, which was only barely swollen, still no obstacle to love-making, though swollen enough to be noticeable.

“He doesn’t take you seriously, my dear.  He’s just using you!”

“What a terrible thing to say!” Semele exclaimed.  “He’s going to take me up to Mt. Olympos and make me into a goddess to sit by his side, once our son is born!  He promised!  He’s just waiting for the right moment.”

“If that’s so, then why won’t he appear to you in his true guise, the way he does to Hera?” Hera in the guise of the nurse asked.

“He will if I ask him to,” Semele insisted.  “He’d do anything I asked him to.  He loves me.”

But the disguised Hera just shook her head in disbelief, planting the seeds of doubt in poor, doomed Semele’s mind.  By the time Zeus arrived that night, Semele was beside herself with worry, and hastily extracted a promise from him that he would grant her a request to prove his love.

“Of course I will,” he rashly swore.  “Whatever you desire.”

“Then show me your true form.  Come to me as you would to Hera.”

“Semele, don’t ask for that.  Anything else, but not–”

“You gave your word!  Is the word of Zeus so meaningless?!”

Bound by his oath, Zeus had no choice, and assumed his true form, lightning bolt in hand.  His sheer radiance incinerated Semele instantly, leaving nothing but the half-formed body of their son.

Weeping for his lovely mortal, Zeus lifted the half-formed baby, and opened a hole in his thigh, placing their son inside, so that he could carry the child to term inside his own body.  Once the baby was ready to be born, Zeus cut his thigh open again, and the infant Dionysos emerged.  When grown, he would become the capricious god of wine, but now he was just a helpless baby, in need of the love and care of a mother who no longer existed.

Zeus handed the infant over to Hermes, sending him to the care of Ino, Semele’s sister.  She would raise the young god until he was old enough to care for himself and rescue the spirit of his mother from the darkness of the house of Hades.

In the mean time, now that Zeus was no longer bearing the baby in his thigh, he was going to have a few very harsh words with his wife-sister regarding the cruel trick she had played on hapless Semele…


 

Okay, sorry about the abrupt ending.  It’s just that I have no idea what Zeus might do to Hera to get vengeance for Semele.  Because she just gets away with it in the myth, which is odd.  (Let’s face it; Hera is just plain an aberration all around.  Her mythic and cultic personae are entirely unlike each other, and she’s treated like a villainess, even though she has every right to be pissed at her excessively lecherous and unfaithful husband…although she has no right whatsoever to take out her anger on his mistresses and bastards, particularly not on the bastards.)

Anyway, Dionysos has a long road ahead of him, of course, since his divinity is so often doubted by mortals (which is rather odd, considering he’s been a god in Greece longer than some of the others whose divinity is never doubted, like, say, Apollo) but those are all definitely separate tales.

The notion of Zeus intending to make Semele a second wife is a new one of mine, but it’s definitely a fact that something was weird there.  Normally Zeus is a “wham-bam-thank you, ma’am” kind of god where mortal maids are concerned, you know?  (Am I going to be struck by lightning for writing that?)  But he keeps sleeping with Semele even after she’s pregnant?  That’s not just unique, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that was even unusual among married couples in the period.  (Or maybe not.  How would I know?)  Anyway, I thought this seemed like a reasonable explanation, and make the “show me your true form” demand seem less unlikely.

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