The story of Semele embraces a wide array of themes and tropes found in Greek Mythology. Although born a mortal woman, Semele gave birth to the god Dionysus and soon became a goddess herself, being worshipped as part of the cult of her son. The earliest telling of the myth of Semele dates back to oral tradition passed down by the Mycenaeans in the 14th Century BC.
An account of Semele’s story was also transcribed in the Homeric Hymns, which were written several centuries later. The Romans would also have their own version of the story of Semele, her Roman equivalent being Stimula. The story of Semele would eventually become the inspiration for countless operas and works of art in the modern era.
The Classic Myth of Semele
In the classic myth, Semele was the princess of Thebes and a priestess of Zeus, the king of the Olympic Pantheon. One day, when Semele sacrificed a bull to Zeus, the head god became infatuated with her. Zeus’s affection soon turned to love when he spied on Semele in the form of an eagle as she bathed in the river Asophus to clean the blood of the sacrifice from her. When Zeus revealed himself to her, he and Semele fell in love, and she became pregnant with Dionysus.
Zeus’s coupling with Semele soon attracted the ire of Hera, Zeus’s wife and the queen of the gods. Hera descended to Earth in the guise of an old woman and spoke to Semele. Hera tricked Semele into revealing the truth about her unborn baby’s parentage and sowed doubt in the young woman’s mind about Zeus’s true identity. When Zeus returned, Semele asked a favor of the god. Intent on proving his love for Semele, Zeus swore on the River Styx that he would grant any of her desires. Semele asked only one thing of Zeus: that he would reveal himself to her in all of his glory.
Zeus was taken aback by Semele’s request. Trying to discourage her from making such a request, the god reminded Semele that no mortal could look upon the gods and still live. Undeterred, Semele demanded that Zeus show her his true form, reminding him that he made an oath granting her the favor. Dismayed, Zeus granted the request. Although only showing his love the smallest of thunderbolts and the tiniest of rain clouds, Semele burst into flames upon viewing the might of Zeus. Overcome with grief at the loss of Semele, Zeus was nevertheless determined not to lose their child. Scooping up the fetus, Zeus sewed him into his thigh, where he emerged several months later as the god Dionysus. Since Dionysus was born both from the ashes of Semele and the thigh of Zeus, he is sometimes referred to as “twice-born.”
When Dionysus came of age, he set out to rescue Semele from Hades. Traveling to the Underworld, Dionysus freed Semele from the grips of death and brought her to Mount Olympus, where she became the goddess Thyone. As a goddess, Semele looked over the portion of Dionysus’s cult that partook in the frenzied devotion to her son.
Other Versions of the Myth of Semele
An alternate version of the myth of Semele can be found in the Fabulae, a collection of myths dating back to the time of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus and written by Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus. In Fabulae, Hyginus writes that the true parents of Dionysus were Jupiter and Proserpina. When Dionysus is torn apart by a group of Titans, Jupiter saves his heart and crushes it into a drink. Jupiter then convinced Semele to drink the potion and she became pregnant with the reborn Dionysus.
Another version of the myth was written by the Greek poets Callimachus and Nonnus in the 5th Century AD. In this version of the tale, Dionysus is first known as Zagreus. Like in Fabulae, Zagreus is dismembered by Titans, who murdered the young god at the urging of Hera. To save his son from the Underworld, Zeus swallowed the heart of Zagreus and traveled to Thebes to impregnate Semele with the reborn god.
The Continued Legacy of Semele
As Semele’s myth spread, more and more people came to devote themselves to her. Worship of Semele became so expansive in Ancient Greece that rites to her were even performed at the Lenaia, an annual festival in Athens. During the ceremony, her cultists would sacrifice a young bull, which symbolized Dionysus, to her. When the cult of Semele and Dionysus came to Rome, they were met with hostility from the Roman government. The Romans viewed those who worshipped the two deities with a great deal of suspicion due to the frenzied nature of the cult’s worship. In the 2nd Century AD, the Roman Senate voted to suppress the cult, citing its defiance of Roman cultural norms.
Interest in Semele was renewed in the 18th Century, with many poets and musicians writing new takes on the myth. George Fredric Handel’s opera based on the story became one of the most well-known adaptations of the myth and it is still performed till this day.
Semele was the daughter of Cadmus, a Greek hero and the first king of Thebes, and Harmonia, the goddess of concord.
Semele is the only mortal woman in Greek Mythology to give birth to a god.
Hera’s treatment of Semele is a common theme in Greek Mythology. Ever angry at Zeus for his frequent infidelities, Hera always finds ways to torment the god’s lovers.
The palace where legend holds that Zeus and Semele conceived Dionysus is known as Cadmeia. A real location in the city of Thebes, Cadmeia was destroyed by Alexander the Great in 335 BC as a warning to those who might rebel against his rule.
The famed Greek poet Aeschylus wrote a tragedy based on the life Semele that has been lost for centuries.
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