The Birth of Dionysus

Myth-rich Thebes was first and foremost the city of Dionysus, for it was here that the god was conceived. Yet his gestation and delivery were hard. When Princess Semele was bathing naked in the River Asopos, cleansing herself from the spattered blood of a sacrificial bull, Zeus spied her radiant beauty and felt lust’s stirrings. Intent on seduction, he disguised himself as a handsome young man, and soon he was a regular yet furtive visitor to Semele’s bedchamber. But Hera, Zeus’ wife, found out and wreaked her vengeance.

The Birth of Dionysus Photo Gallery

Hera, too, was a mistress of disguise, and dressed as an old woman she won Semele’s trust. When the girl discussed her lover, Hera professed disbelief. Did Semele know who the young man was? Had he told her anything about himself? Surely it was time to learn all she could about him -especially as Semele was pregnant. So that night Semele badgered her ardent admirer to promise to do anything she asked. Innocently, he agreed – but when Semele demanded he reveal his true identity, Zeus was horrified. For Zeus’ true identity was the white heat of the lightning blast, which no human could experience and still live. Yet, he had sworn an oath.

Allowing himself a last look at Semele’s unparalleled loveliness, Zeus exploded in a blaze of sulphur, engulfing the room in sudden fire. But in the moment before Semele was vaporized, Zeus plunged his hand into her womb and rescued the child that she was carrying. Then he sliced open his thigh, inserted the foetus and carried it until it was old enough to be delivered. The son he bore was Dionysus. (Subsequently Dionysus rescued Semele from Hades and elevated her to Mount Olympus.) When Pausanias visited Thebes, he was shown the house in which Semele lived. It was so sacred that no one might enter it.

A goddess (perhaps Hera) prepares to snatch the ivy-crowned baby Dionysus as he is born from Zeus’ thigh. (Late fifth- to early fourth-century BC Athenian red figure wine cup.)

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