To Semele, Fumigation from Storax. Kadmeis (daughter of Kadmos) Goddess, universal queen, thee, Semele, I call, of beauteous mien; deep-bosomed, lovely flowing locks are thine, mother of Dionysos, joyful and divine, the mighty offspring, whom Zeus’ thunder bright forced immature, and frightened into light. Born from the deathless counsels, secret, high, of Kronion Zeus, regent of the sky; whom Persephone permits to view the light, and visit mortals from the realms of night. Constant attending on the sacred rites, and feast triennial [the Orgia], which thy soul delights; when thy son’s wondrous birth mankind relate, and secrets pure and holy celebrate. Now I invoke thee, great queen Kadmeis, to bless thy mystics, lenient and serene.”
Orphic Hymn 44 to Semele (trans. Taylor)
I chose to write this post because I wanted to learn more about Semele, the Theban princess who was the lover of Zeus and (one of the) mother(s) of Dionysos, and later became Thyone, Goddess of the Bacchic Frenzy.
I know many Dionysians honor Ariadne, the wife of Dionysos who was also deified – or died tragically – or both – but I’ve seen little mention of his mother. Lately I’ve been feeling the need to honor her in some way, so I am beginning by learning what I can about her, and sharing it.
Semele’s story begins in Thebes, where she is born to King Kadmos and Harmonia, daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. The youngest and most lovely of four sisters, she caught the eye of Zeus, and when He came to her, she did not refuse Him. How she became pregnant by Him is a matter of question. In the usual way of things, mortal women always conceive when they mate with one of the Gods. But there is another story in which Zeus and Persephone had a son, Zagreus, who was torn apart by Titans while still a child. Father Zeus saved the pieces of the child’s heart and gave them in a potion for Semele to drink, and this is how she conceived.
Queen Hera, upon hearing of this pregnancy was outraged. Yet another petty infidelity she might bear, but this woman intended to become a mother by Zeus. (Given that all His affairs with mortals would result in pregnancy, could Hera’s wrath have been disproportionate due to Semele’s divine mother? And therefore the possibility that, half-divine though mortal, she might be capable of giving birth to a true God?)
The Queen of Heaven chose to enact Her justice in this way: taking on the form of Semele’s trusted old nurse Beroe, She convinced Semele to ask Zeus to come to her in his true form so that she would know it was really a God who was her lover and not some mortal trickster. Semele asked this boon. What happened next is unclear. Zeus was either outraged at the hubris of her request and struck her dead on the spot with His lightning bolt, or He truly loved her, and had sworn to give her anything she asked for. Bound to His oath, Zeus appeared before Semele in his true divine form, and “her mortal frame could not endure the tumult of the heavens, that gift of love consumed her.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3. 255 ff (trans. Melville))
(Of course, her jealous sisters spread the rumor that Semele had known only a mortal lover and when Zeus caught wind that she had been claiming it was Him, the God struck her with lightning as punishment for her lies.)
Zeus saved the child, who was to become the God Dionysos, from His mother’s womb. When Dionysos grew to adulthood, he descended into Hades’ realm and brought out Semele, to whom he gave the new name Thyone, meaning “inspire frenzy.” He took her to Olympus where Zeus granted her immortality with these words: “Europa glorified by Zeus’ bed went to Krete (Crete), Semele goes to Olympos. What more do you want after heaven and the starry sky . . . you bring forth a son who shall not die and you I will call immortal. Happy woman! You have conceived a son who will make mortals forget their troubles, you shall bring forth joy for gods and men.” (Nonnus, Dionysiaca 7. 352 ff (trans. Rouse))
Thyone now reigns, as She always has, as Goddess of the Bacchic Frenzy. There is evidence in the primary sources of cultic worship from Homeric times through at least the 2nd century CE. In many areas, She was worshipped right alongside Her son, sharing altars and even sacrifices.
I’ll close with a quote from Otto: “Thus the human mother of the divine son was crowned with immortality and received her share of cultic honors. That is the magnificent finale of the myth of the birth of the son born of lightning from the womb of a mortal woman.” (Otto, Dionysos: Myth and Cult, p.68. (trans Palmer))
http://www.theoi.com/Georgikos/Thyone.html (Where direct quotes from ancient texts were used I have given the primary sources provided by Theoi.com)
Dionysus: Myth and Cult by Walter F. Otto
10/4/12 – Discovered this article on Boetia on wikipedia, that currently has some interesting – and well cited – information on the myth of Semele and Dionysos.