This painting, by the French artist Jacques Blanchard (c. 1600 – 1638), re-creates the tragic mythical romance of Zeus and Semele, parents of the wine-god, Dionysus. Zeus, for those who may need a refresher, was the leading god among the Greek deities. He was technically a married man, with the formidable goddess Hera being his wife, but the marriage did not stop lecherous Zeus from endlessly pursuing other women. While gratifying his desires, Zeus sometimes used courtship and other times used force or magic (often including Zeus’ ability to disguise himself by shapeshifting into objects, animals or people). Fortunately for the woman in this particular painting, she experienced the peaceful, charming, side of the god, which won her over completely. Her name was Semele, a princess of Thebes and a daughter of the famous King Cadmus. During their romance, Zeus showed Semele only kindness and tenderness—there was no force or trickery in this particular relationship. In fact, Zeus doted on the Theban princess and could not help but grant her every whim and wish. Ironically, this inability of Zeus to refuse Semele’s wishes would ultimately prove to be the princess’ undoing. As the story goes, the goddess Hera eventually (as she always did) discovered that her husband was yet again being unfaithful. Ever the wrathful goddess, Hera decided to end the dalliance by taking out Semele. To achieve her goal, the goddess planted a dangerous seed of an idea into the mind of Semele; Hera (while wearing a disguise) encouraged Semele to ask Zeus to reveal his full radiance and power. Unbeknownst to Semele, Zeus’ divine radiance was a terrifying thing to behold when it was fully unleashed, not to mention that it could also be deadly to bystanders when the lightning-god let his powers go unrestrained. Nevertheless, this was the idea that Hera planted in Semele’s head, and the princess was too curious to stop herself from asking Zeus to reveal his full might.
What happened next varied from storyteller to storyteller. Some said Semele was burnt to death by the incredible light; others claimed she was struck dead by stray lightning. Another variation said Semele did not directly die from Zeus’ power, but that she instead died of fright or a heart attack in response to seeing Zeus’ in his full regalia and radiance. Although there are many accounts of the myth of Zeus and Semele, the narrative of the mythographer, Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century), seems to fit Jacques Blanchard’s painting well. Apollodorus wrote: “Now Zeus had engaged to do whatever Semele asked, and as the result of a deception by Hera, she asked him to come to her just as he had come when he was courting Hera. Unable to refuse, Zeus came to her bedchamber in a chariot to the accompaniment of lightning and thunder, and hurled a thunderbolt. Semele died of fright…” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.4.3). Jacques Blanchard’s painting, like Apollodorus’ description, shows a regally-equipped Zeus riding to Semele’s bedchamber (albeit on a giant bird in the artwork). Zeus is seen accompanied by storm clouds and wielding a bolt of lightning. Although Semele, for her part, looks to be calm and unafraid, all variations of the myth unfortunately agreed that her encounter with Zeus would be fatal. There was, however, a silver lining—Dionysus, Semele’s son with Zeus, was salvaged from the tragic incident and was raised by the gods. According to one tradition of the Dionysus myths, Semele was later resurrected by her divine son.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.