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Semele perishes at the sight of Zeus. 3008: Zeus and Semele. Engraving by Bernard Picart, 1673-1733.

"Long-haired Semele, who died in the roar of the thunderbolt, lives among the Olympians; Pallas is her constant friend, and indeed so is father Zeus, and she is loved by her ivy-crowned son." (Pindar, Olympian Odes 2.25).

"Where'er you walk, cool gales shall fan the glade;
Trees, where you sit, shall crowd into a shade.
Where'er you tread, the blushing flowers shall rise,
And all things flourish where'er you turn your eyes."
(Jupiter, i.e. Zeus, in Handel's aria from 'Semele').

Some are famous for their remarkable lives, others for their remarkable deaths. Little is known about Semele's life except that Zeus loved her. But she, forgetting her mortal condition, wished to see him in the same guise as when he meets Hera, and when the god showed himself she perished. For this extraordinary way of dying, she is well known worldwide. Later, through the love of her son, she was brought up from the Underworld and made immortal, which is not less remarkable. And these things are so curious, odd, exceptional, strange and surprising, that practically no one expects to ever witness nothing like them.

Fortunes and misfortunes of the House of Cadmus

There would have been no House of Cadmus, had not Zeus abducted Europa from Phoenicia. For it was looking for her that he came first to Delphi and then to Boeotia, making himself master of the latter. And in this territory he founded the city of Thebes, became the city's first king, and having married Harmonia 1, daughter of Ares and Aphrodite, had sons and daughters by her. Cadmus and his daughters were both fortunate and unfortunate. For he was a great king and a learned one, having invented the alphabet and other useful things, but on the other hand he spent his last years in exile and was also turned into a serpent, which is the punishment he received for having enjoyed the glory of killing one. Yet he was sent to the Elysian Fields after his death.

Autonoe 2, Ino, and Agave 2

His daughter Autonoe 2 was also fortunate, for she married Aristaeus, a man who knew the arts of healing and of prophecy, and who discovered honey and later received immortal honours. But on the other hand, she had to grieve for the death of her beloved son Actaeon, and owing to her pain she left Thebes and emigrated to a place near Megara. As to Actaeon, some have said that his fate was due to the anger he awoke in Zeus for wooing Semele. Cadmus' daughter Ino married King Athamas 1, but being his second wife, she was jealous of his first wife's children and plotted against them. Ino could get rid of them, but afterwards, and because she and her husband took care of the child Dionysus 2, she was driven mad, killing herself and her little son Melicertes. Yet they were made immortal and became sea-deities. Also Agave 2, daughter of Cadmus, seemed to have a promising life. For she married Echion 2, who was a member of the powerful clan of the SPARTI, and had by him Pentheus 1, who became king of Thebes after Cadmus. And this king, who was the apple of his mother's eye, Agave 2 killed while she raved in Bacchic frenzy, for Dionysus 2 took her mind away, and she tore Pentheus 1 limb from limb.


As for Cadmus' daughter Semele, Zeus fell in love with her. He promised her, as lovers often do, to give her whatever she asked, and Hera persuaded Semele to ask Zeus to appear before her as the god does when he meets his own wife, knowing that Semele, being a mortal, could not endure the majesty of divine presence. And in order to do this, Hera came in the shape of Semele's nurse Beroe 3, and having come to the point through gossiping, she told the girl:

"Many, pretending to be gods, have found entrance into modest chambers. But to be Zeus is not enough; make him prove his love ... as great and glorious as he is when welcomed by Hera, so great and glorious, pray him grant you his embrace ..." (Disguised Hera to Semele. Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.281).

So Zeus, who could not take his promise back, appeared in her chamber with lightnings and thunderings. And as he also launched a thunderbolt making her perish of fright, he had to snatch the sixth-month abortive child Dionysus 2, whom Semele untimely brought forth, from the fire that killed her, sewing it in his thigh. It is also said that along with the hurled thunderbolt there fell a log from heaven, which later Cadmus' son Polydorus 2 adorned with bronze. But some have said that Zeus, who loved Semele for her unusual beauty, had intercourse with her without speech, and that for that reason Semele thought that the god despised her. This suspicion was, they say, the reason behind Semele's fatal request. Yet others have said that the reason why Zeus killed Semele before she could give birth, was that he wished the child to be born of two immortals, thus being itself immortal from its very birth. So as his mothers' womb was rent apart, the child Dionysus 2 came forth so brilliantly, they say, that he made the flame look dim. Still others have told that he who is called Zagreus or Dionysus 1, son either of Zeus and Demeter, or of Zeus and Persephone, was cruelly destroyed by the TITANS, who cut him into pieces with an infernal knife, boiling him thereafter. But Zeus, they say, gave the bits of Zagreus' heart to Semele in a drink, and she was thus made pregnant. So Hera, having assumed the shape of Semele's nurse Beroe 3, told the girl to ask Zeus to come to her as he comes to his own wife, so that she would know what pleasure it is to sleep with a god, and the girl, following her suggestion, made the fatal request that caused her death. When Semele's sisters learned what happened, they did not exercise benevolence, but instead spread the rumour that Semele had consorted with some mortal lover falsely accusing Zeus, and that was why, they said, Semele was blasted by thunder. This was denied by Cadmus, who had decided, whatever the truth was, to protect his daughter's reputation. And as his determination on this matter was so obvious, there were those who thought that he himself had fabricated the story of the love-affair between his daughter and Zeus, for he also exhorted others to leave their conviction, and tell lies:

"Even if, as you say, Dionysus is not a god, call him one; and tell a glorious falsehood, so that Semele might seem to have borne a god, and honor might come to all our race." (Cadmus to Pentheus 1. Euripides, Bacchanals 335).

Laconian account

The Laconians have said that when Semele gave birth to her son by Zeus, Cadmus put both mother and child into a chest, which was washed up by the waves in Laconia. Semele was already dead, but they brought up the child themselves, or so they have claimed.

Her son avenges her

In time the twice-born Dionysus 2 (for he first came forth from Semele's womb when she died, and later he came out from Zeus' thigh) arrived to Thebes, avenged her mother and punished those who refused to acknowledge him as a god:

"For this city must learn, even if it is unwilling, that it is not initiated into my Bacchic rites, and that I plead the case of my mother, Semele, in appearing manifest to mortals as a divinity whom she bore to Zeus." (Dionysus 2. Euripides, Bacchanals 40).

Afterwards, Dionysus 2 was allowed by Zeus to bring back his mother from the Underworld. And he descended to Hades from a place located in Argolis, being helped by Hypolipnus, or as some call him, Polymnus, who showed him the entrance, which was a bottomless pool called the Alcyonian Lake. And having named her mother Thyone 1, he ascended up with her to heaven.






Cadmus & Harmonia 1

Harmonia 1 was daughter of Ares & Aphrodite. She received a famous wedding present: the Robe & Necklace of Harmonia 1.
Before dying she was turned into a serpent, and later sent away by Zeus to the Elysian Fields, along with her husband.

Related sections Cadmus, Dionysus 2  

Apd.3.4.2-3, 3.5.3; Dio.4.2.2ff., 5.52.2; Hdt.2.145; Hes.The.940, 976; Nonn.5.203, 7.121, 8.286ff., 8.392-412, 16.238; Ov.Met.3.293; Pau.3.24.3, 9.2.3, 9.12.4; Phil.Im.1.14; Pin.Oly.2.26; Pin.Pyth.3.99, 11.1.