The Big Bang

The fate of poor Semele is a warning to all young girls who are flattered by the attentions of a male celebrity - be he footballer, popstar, politician, or, in Semele's case, a god. Actually the king of gods and men, Zeus himself.

Zeus and Semele by Gustave MoreauAs told by Ovid and Apollodorus, her story is this. She was a daughter of Cadmus, the founder of Thebes - one of four sisters, who all came to sticky ends (Ino threw herself into the sea to escape her crazy husband Athamas: she became a goddess called Leucothea and saved Odysseus from drowning on the coast of Phaeacia; Autonoe became the mother of Actaeon, who was torn apart by his own dogs; and the wretched Agave was the mother of Pentheus, who decapitated him while under the influence of his cousin Dionysus). Zeus took a fancy to her - something that was frequently fatal for mortal women, because of Hera's jealousy. In this instance, Hera disguised herself as an old woman, and befriended Semele, becoming her confidante. Egged on by the goddess, Semele bragged of her affair with Zeus, but Hera appeared reluctant to believe her, suggesting that she was merely talking up a perfectly normal affair with a mortal guy. Eventually she persuaded Semele that the only way to find out for sure was to ask him to come to her in the same way as he comes to the queen of heaven.

Now Zeus had already promised to give Semele anything she asked for: usually such promises from a man are meaningless, but when Zeus makes a promise, this can not be broken, not under any circumstances (compare his promise to Thetis in Homer, Iliad Book 1, which leads to Achilles' sulk, the death of Patroclus, the death of Hector, and countless other deaths among Greeks and Trojans ...). So now Semele asked him to come to her as he comes to Hera. Zeus was upset - she was a pretty young thing - but he had no alternative. He came as the thunder and lightning, and Semele was instantly incinerated.

Dionysus emerging from Zeus' thighBut there was a foetus among the smouldering embers: Zeus quickly snatched it up and sewed it into his thigh, until the time for its birth arrived. The baby was Dionysus, Dithyrambus the twice-born.

Dionysus, after discovering the vine and its properties, returned as a young man to Greece, and eventually to Thebes, his mother's city. Semele's sisters refused to believe that he was the son of Zeus, insisting that their nephew had perished with his mother when the lightning struck. Pentheus, Agave's son, who was now the ruler, imprisoned Dionysus and his followers, but the god broke free and exacted a terrible revenge on the people of Thebes. See Euripides' Bacchae.