Semele

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In Greek mythology, Semele (Σεμέλη), daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia, was the mortal mother[1] of Dionysus by Zeus in one of his many origin myths. (In another version of his mythic origin, he had two mothers, Persephone and Semele.) The name "Semele", like other elements of Dionysiac cult (e.g., thyrsus and dithyramb), is manifestly not Greek[2] but apparently Thraco-Phrygian;[3] the myth of Semele's father Cadmus gives him a Phoenician origin. Herodotus, who gives the account of Cadmus, estimates that Semele lived sixteen hundred years before his time, or around 2000 B.C.[4]

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Seduction by Zeus and birth of Dionysus

In one version of the myth, Semele was a priestess of Zeus, and on one occasion was observed by Zeus as she slaughtered a bull at his altar and afterwards swam in the river Asopus to cleanse herself of the blood. Flying over the scene in the guise of an eagle, Zeus fell in love with Semele and afterwards repeatedly visited her secretly.[5]

Zeus' wife, Hera, a goddess jealous of usurpers, discovered his affair with Semele when she later became pregnant. Appearing as an old crone,[6] Hera befriended Semele, who confided in her that her lover was actually Zeus. Hera pretended not to believe her, and planted seeds of doubt in Semele's mind. Curious, Semele asked Zeus to grant her a boon. Zeus, eager to please his beloved promised on the River Styx to grant her anything she wanted. She then demanded that Zeus reveal himself in all his glory as proof of his godhood. Though Zeus begged her not to ask this, she persisted and he was forced by his oath to comply. Zeus tried to spare her by showing her the smallest of his bolts and the sparsest thunderstorm clouds he could find. Mortals, however, cannot look upon Zeus without incinerating, and she perished, consumed in lightning-ignited flame.[7]

Zeus rescued the fetal Dionysus, however, by sewing him into his thigh (whence the epithet Eiraphiotes, "insewn", of the Homeric Hymn). A few months later, Dionysus was born. This leads to his being called "the twice-born".[8]

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