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Princess Semele in Greek Mythology

Updated on December 12, 2015
Colin Quartermain profile image

Having travelled through Italy, Greece and the Aegean in his youth, Colin quickly became interested in the ancient mythology of the region.

Semele in Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology Semele was a Theban princess and a lover of Zeus; neither of these facts would necessarily make her an important figure, for there was plenty of Greek princesses, and multitudes of lovers for Zeus. What does make Semele an important character though, is the fact that this princess was mother to the Olympian god Dionysus.

The story of Semele in Greek mythology is a complex one, with many different versions told. The following, in the main, is the most linear of the stories to come out of Ancient Greece.

Semele of Thebes

In Greek mythology, the story of Semele begins in the Greek city that would become known as Thebes.

Thebes had been founded as Cadmea, by Cadmus; and there, Cadmus, with his wife Harmonia, would become parent to a son called Polydorus, and four daughters, Ino, Agave, Autonoe and Semele.

Zeus and Semele

Zeus and Semele - Dosso Dossi (1490–1542) - PD-art-100
Zeus and Semele - Dosso Dossi (1490–1542) - PD-art-100 | Source

Semele Lover of Zeus

In Thebes Semele was spotted by Zeus. Semele was of course beautiful, but it was commonly said that the daughter of Cadmus came to the attention of Zeus, because she acted as a priestess dedicated to the god. Zeus was therefore said to have first spotted Semele when she bathed nude in the River Asopus to wash away the sacrificial bull’s blood.

Taken by the beauty of Semele, Zeus descended from Mount Olympus, and made Semele his lover. This was not a one time relationship though, and the god would visit the princess on numerous occasions, and in time Semele became pregnant by the god, and Semele was well aware that her lover was Zeus.

Hera's Revenge

Eventually, Hera became aware of her husband’s infidelity and so sought to punish Semele. Hera then descended from Mount Olympus herself and disguised herself as Semele’ old nurse Beroe.

Hera planted seeds of doubt in the mind of Semele, making her question whether her lover was really Zeus; and Hera then convinced her that the only way to find out the truth was have her lover reveal himself in his full glory.

So the next time that Zeus visited Semele, the Theban princess made the god promise on the River Styx to give her whatever she asked. Zeus was very much in love with Semele, and so without thinking made the promise.

Semele then asked Zeus to reveal himself in god-like form. Zeus tried to get Semele to change her request, but the princess persevered and so Zeus had to acquiesce. As soon as he revealed himself though, Semele was consumed by fire, for no mortal can observe a god in their unshielded form.

Dionysus

Dionsysus Son of Semele - Caravaggio (1571–1610) - PD-art-100
Dionsysus Son of Semele - Caravaggio (1571–1610) - PD-art-100 | Source

Dionysus is Born

As Semele died, Zeus rescued his unborn son from the womb of Semele, and sewed him into his thigh. A few months later the son, named Dionysus, was born, and the method of his birth would see Dionysus referred to as “twice born”.

The “twice born” epitaph was explained in different ways by different writers, and an alternate version of the birth of Dionysus, sees him original born as a son of Zeus and Demeter, or Persephone. This son, also known as Zagreus, though was killed during the Titanomachy, but Zeus rescued the heart of his son. The heart was then transformed into a liquid drunk by Semele, to cause Dionysus to be born once again.

Zeus A Jealous Lover

In an associated myth, Zeus was said to be very protective of his lover, and when Actaeon, Semele’s nephew, fell in love with Semele, Zeus is said to have had Artemis have Actaeon’s own hunting dogs rip him to shreds and then devour him.

The killing of Actaeon though is normally said to have occurred after the hunter had spied Artemis bathing naked.

Semele Rescued from the Underworld

The son of Semele would eventually grow into a powerful god, and his deeds, saw Dionysus ask for a position upon Mount Olympus, a position given to him by Zeus. Dionysus would also ask his father for permission to go to the Underworld to bring back Semele.

Again, it was a request agreed to by Zeus, and so of course it has to be believed that Dionysus had the power to resurrect the dead.

Dionysus would enter the Underworld through the entrance found at the bottomless Alcyonian Lake; a lake near to Lerna. The actions of Dionysus in the Underworld are not expanded upon in surviving texts, although the supposition is that Dionysus avoided the likes of Hades and Thanatos, and instead sought the assistance of Persephone. In any case, Dionysus found Semele, and successfully brought the lover of Zeus out of the realm of Hades.

Bacchante

A Follower of Dionysus - William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) - PD-art-100
A Follower of Dionysus - William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905) - PD-art-100 | Source

The Goddess Semele

Upon her ascent from the Underworld, Semele would be transformed into a goddess, with Dionysus sharing his immortality with his mother; the giving of immortality was a power normally only associated with Zeus.

Semele would then be given a second name, that of Thyone, when she would become known as the Goddess of Frenzy, a goddess who would appear in the retinue of her son, and at the banquets and orgies organised by Dionysus.

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