Semele, a princess of Thebes and a daughter of the famous King Cadmus, was famously said to have died while she was pregnant with Dionysus, the son of Zeus. As the story goes, the princess’ death came after Zeus’ wrathful wife, Hera, tricked Semele into asking Zeus to reveal his full radiance and power. This was a fatal request. What happened next varied from storyteller to storyteller. Some said Semele was burnt to death by the incredible light of Zeus’ unleashed aura; 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 Semele did not survive the incident, Dionysus—Semele’s son with Zeus—was salvaged from the tragic incident and was raised by the gods.
Dionysus, as a son of Zeus, inherited great power. After he grew up and honed his godly abilities, Dionysus gained enough might and influence to start contemplating ways to free his mother, Semele, from the underworld. To complete this goal, Dionysus was said to have traveled into the underworld and negotiated with Hades to come to some agreement about letting Semele leave the realm of the dead. Dionysus, a powerful god in his own right, was able to sway Hades, the ruler of the underworld. Yet, Semele’s resurrection apparently came with some conditions. First, she needed to take a new name—Thyone. Second, she would need to go live on Olympus or some other heavenly location, presumably so that her unnatural resurrection would not confuse human events. On this rescue mission carried out by Dionysus, a mythographer known as Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st-2nd century) wrote, “after he had brought his mother up from Hades and named her Thyone, he ascended to heaven in her company” (Apollodorus, Library, 3.5.3). Therefore, mother and son were finally reunited. Although Hera likely was not pleased by the entrance of Zeus’ former lover into the exclusive realm of the gods, Dionysus and Zeus were apparently able to ensure that Semele/Thyone was able to live in peace and security during her second life.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Terracotta neck-amphora depicting Dionysus between a satyr and maenad, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.