Today’s letter is S.
The story of Semele has yet another example of Zeus cheating on Hera, and Hera getting her revenge.
|Death Of Semele. Rubens. Public Domain|
Semele, the pretty daughter of Theban rulers Cadmus and Harmonia, who have their own story, has been having an affair with Zeus. Unlike many others, he didn’t need to rape her, and she knew who he was. No doubt she was flattered at the identity of her lover.
So, all has been going nicely. Semele is six months pregnant. And then Hera finds out. Really, that goddess must spend most of her time chasing up the “other women”, there are so many of them. But unlike some other occasions, she doesn’t just turn the other woman into a tree or whatever. She makes sure that the two lovers do her revenge for her.
Disguised as an elderly neighbour, she visits her latest rival and settles down for a nice chat. Maybe she comments on the swelling belly.
“So, who is the father?” she asks.
“Well, actually...” Semele leans over and whispers, “I’ve been sleeping with Zeus himself!”
Holding back her fury, Hera says,”Go on, dearie, pull the other one! Is that what the boy told you? You girls nowadays are so silly!” She cackles.
“But - but - he is!”
“Make him prove it, then. I bet he doesn’t shimmer and shine, and he walks in the door like everyone else. If it were me, I’d make him show himself as a god, in all his glory. But you know better, no doubt.”
She is right in one respect: Semele is silly. She can’t leave well enough alone, though if she had ignored Hera’s advice, Hera would probably have found another way.
So, when Zeus turns up next time, she demands to see him in all his glory. Shocked, he tells her it’s not a good idea, but not why - that it will kill her. She gives him an ultimatum: no glory, no sex.
Possibly muttering that if he does what she wants he isn’t going to get any nookie anyway, he slips off his mortal shell and turns into his dazzling self. Semele is destroyed, but he manages to grab the baby before he can be killed and sews the foetus into his thigh, a bit like when he swallowed his first wife, Metis, and gave birth to Athene through his head.
The child is Dionysus, god of wine, who travels around with a bunch of crazy women, the Maenads, who run all over the mountains in a frenzy and tear people like Orpheus into shreds. Interestingly, C.S Lewis manages to make him, as Bacchus, into a jolly, liberating character in his children’s books.
As an adult, Dionysus goes into the Underworld and retrieves his mother, whom he takes home to Olympus, as a goddess, so that was all right, but not a fun way to die.
|Selene with her crescent crown. Public domain.|
Selene is the moon goddess, in fact an anthropomorphic version of the moon itself, known to the Romans - and us - as Luna. She is the daughter of the Titans Hyperion and Theia, the sister of sun god Helios and Eos, goddess of the Dawn. She rides a chariot during the night, just as Helios drives his during the day. She is shown with crescent moons in her hair, which sometimes look like horns.
|Selene and Endymion. Public domain|
She has had a number of lovers, including Pan and Zeus(she must have got away with that, but then, she is a goddess), but the one for whom she is best known is Endymion, a beautiful young man who fell asleep in a cave and slept eternally, young and beautiful. According to various versions of the story, she may have put him to sleep, just so she could look at him as she passed in the night, or he asked to be put to sleep for his own reasons. One way or another, though, there he was, and she peeked in at him or kissed him in his sleep, which sounds a very pretty way to describe the moon seen through your window, except that there is also a version of the myth that says she managed to have fifty children with him.
The mind boggles.
Still, she did better than her sister, Eos, who fell in love with a mortal, Tithonus, for whom she asked and got immortality, forgetting to ask for eternal youth. Poor Tithonus just got older and older, shrivelled up and finally turned into a cicada.
See you tomorrow for the stories of Theseus and Thetis!