Who is the mother of Dionysus?

The Two Births

Dionysus was actually born twice. First, he was born as Zagreus and he was the son of Zeus and Persephone. However, he was torn apart by Titans on the orders of Hera.

However, Zagreus was resurrected by Zeus and reformed in Semele’s womb making her his second mother. This post will focus on Semele due to the fact that she is the mother who Dionysus is born from when he is named Dionysus.

Who is Semele?

Semele is the youngest daughter of the hero Cadmus who became king and founder of the city of Thebes. Her mother is the goddess Harmonia who is the daughter of a union between Aphrodite and Ares.

Semele has a possibly Phrygian related origin and was estimated by Herodotus to have lived around 2050 BC. This is interesting because the Phrygian civilization, while often overlooked, can be related back to all kinds of things including Göbekli Tepe which was the first temple ever created.

How did Semele become the mother of Dionysus?

After Zagreus was killed by the Titans, Zeus managed to get back his still-beating heart. Seeing that the heart was beating convinced Zeus that there was a way to save the child, and, after trying several options that did not work, he was led by the Oracle at Delphi to turn the heart into a potion that, when drank by a woman, would lead her to give birth to the child again.

Zeus did so and then came to Semele in a dream because she was someone who greatly praised him and offered bulls to him. In the dream, Zeus convinces Semele to have his child for him and in exchange he will make her immortal and she agrees to do it.

Semele then awakens and Zeus arrives to her in person, they celebrate and she drinks the drink which causes her to become pregnant. The two rejoice and have good times together and the pregnant Semele goes to live in the meadows and surrounds herself with beautiful music.

The Death of Semele

After Semele became pregnant with the new Zagreus, who would be called Dionysus, Hera became greatly upset. She believed that if Semele successfully birthed this child for Zeus then Zeus would not only make her immortal but also have Semele replace Hera as the new queen of the gods.

Hera took on a disguise and met with Semele, convincing her that she should doubt whether the love that Zeus had for her was actually real. She persuaded Semele that she should tell Zeus to reveal himself to her in his true form.

Semele is convinced by Hera’s persuasion and seeks Zeus out, who comes to her and asks what she wants. Semele tells Zeus that she does not believe that their love is true and Zeus tells her, in a promise on the River Styx, that he will prove his love for her by granting any request she desires here and now.

Semele tells Zeus, as Hera instructed her, that she wants to see his true form and Zeus is surprised and begs her not to request this as no mortal has ever survived seeing him in his true form. Semele insists that she wants to see his true form because this is the way he will prove that he loves her, and so Zeus is forced to because he bound himself on his own word with a promise on the River Styx.

Zeus reveals the tiniest, briefest glimpse of his true form to Semele in hopes that it would be so minor that she could survive, but even this was enough to turn her into ashes the moment she saw it. Semele perished but the divinity of the infant saved him and so Dionysus was able to be born anyway.

Semele in the Underworld

While Dionysus grew up, mostly under the care of his paternal grandmother Rhea, his mother Semele was in the underworld because she had perished. When Dionysus had grown up and had many adventures including outside of Greece, he learned of his mother’s fate and sought to rescue her so that she could have the proper place in Heaven as an immortal just like Zeus had promised her when she agreed to give birth to him.

Dionysus embarked on his katabsis after getting the help of a shepherd named Prosymnus. However, a lot of the text on Prosymnus’s involvement was tampered with by sources from early Christianity whose aims were to discredit Paganism so to the truth of the events between them is largely unknown.

We do know that Prosymnus showed Dionysus a way to get into the underworld through a lake, and once on the other side Dionysus was confronted by Cerberus. However, Heracles arrived and helped Dionysus by restraining the three-headed dog so that Dionysus could contend with him.

Once past Cerberus, Dionysus continued through the underworld until he encountered Hades himself. Dionysus told the king of the underworld to give him back the soul of his mother and Hades refused so they battled, but Dionysus won and Hades agreed to give him the soul back so that he could bring his mother back to life.

Dionysus reemerged with Semele and arose from the waters outside of the coast of Lerna, which held a yearly festival kept incredibly secret by their local religion to celebrate the ascent of Dionysus in a form of religious rebirth. Dionysus took his mother back with him to Heaven where she was made an immortal by Zeus, as was promised long ago, and her name became Thyone.

The Goddess Thyone

Thyone became the goddess of the Bacchic frenzy and the frenzy of women, especially during orgies. Her ascent to godhood and rescue from the underworld by Dionysus proved his worth and elevated him to the status of an Olympian God.

Due to the placement of her son as an Olympian God, Thyone was very prideful of this and boasted of her powerful offspring. Thyone even taunted and tormented a mortal sister she had who had a rather unfortunate choice in husband in comparison, her husband was intentionally trying to hunt her down and murder her and their child.

Stimula, the Roman Semele

Semele, or Thyone as she was called in divinity, was not only known to the Greeks but also to the Romans. In fact, the Romans held a greater role for her than the Greeks seemed to.

The Romans gave this goddess the name Stimula, which is where we get words such as stimulant and stimulation from. Her name was associated with stimulae, which was a Latin word that meant to drive a person to excessive actions.

Stimula was symbolized by the whip and goading someone was an act of imitating her. This may be related to the Roman view on the Bacchanals, the cult worshiping her and Bacchus (the Roman name for Dionysus), or it may possibly be a twist of irony related to the way that Stimula was goaded into asking for the true form of Jupiter (the Roman name for Zeus) which caused her death.

In addition to the Romans and the Greeks, it appears that Semele was also revered as a goddess by the Etruscans. At least, according to archaeological findings uncovered that date back to around 400 BC.

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