Readings for reflection: Semele

Apollodoros, Bibliotheka 3.30
Aktaion was the child of Autonoe and Aristaios. He was raised by Cheiron and taught to be a hunter, and then later he was devoured on Kithairon by his own dogs. He died in this manner because, as Akousilaos says, he angered Zeus by wooing Semele, but according to greater number of authorities, it was because he saw Artemis bathing.

Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Greeks 2.30
Dionysos was anxious to descend into Haides, but did not know the way. Thereupon a certain man, Prosymnos by name, promises to tell him; though not without reward. It was a favour of lust, this reward which Dionysos was asked for. The god is willing to grant the request; and so he promises, in the event of his return, to fulfil the wish of Prosymnos, confirming the promise with an oath. Having learnt the way he set out, and came back again. He does not find Prosymnos, for he was dead. In fulfilment of the vow to his lover Dionysos hastens to the tomb and indulges his unnatural lust. Cutting off a branch from a fig-tree which was at hand, he shaped it into the likeness of a phallos, and then made a show of fulfilling his promise to the dead man. As a mystic memorial of this passion phalloi are set up to Dionysos in cities. ‘For if it were not to Dionysos that hey held solemn procession and sang the phallic hymn, they would be acting most shamefully,’ says Herakleitos

Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.2.1
Semele was loved by Zeus because of her beauty, but since he had his intercourse with her secretly and without speech she thought that the god despised her; consequently she made the request of him that he come to her embraces in the same manner as in his approaches to Hera. Accordingly, Zeus visited her in a way befitting a god, accompanied by thunder and lightning, revealing himself to her as he embraced her; but Semele, who was pregnant and unable to endure the majesty of the divine presence, brought forth the babe untimely and was herself slain by the fire. Thereupon Zeus, taking up the child, handed it over to the care of Hermes, and ordered him to take it to the cave in Nysa where he should deliver it to the Nymphai.

Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.23.6-7
Now at a later time Orpheus, who was held in high regard among the Greeks for his singing, initiatory rites, and instructions on things divine, was entertained as a guest by the descendants of Kadmos and accorded unusual honours in Thebes. Out of regard for the descendants of Kadmos he instituted new rites and thenceforth initiates were given the account that Dionysos had been born of Semele and Zeus.

Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 4.25.2-4
Orpheus also took part in the expedition of the Argonauts, and because of the love held for his wife he dared the amazing deed of descending into Hades, where he entranced Persephone by his melodious song and persuaded her to assist him in his desires and to allow him to bring up his dead wife from Hades, in this exploit resembling Dionysos; for the myths relate that Dionysos brought up his mother Semelê from Hades, and that, sharing with her his own immortality, he changed her name to Thyonê.

Diodoros Sikeliotes, Library of History 5.52.1-2
The Naxians tell a story about this God, that he was raised among them, and on account of this the island was especially beloved by him, and some people called it Dionysias. For according to received myth, Zeus, at the time when Semele was struck by a thunderbolt before giving birth, took the child and sewed it up into his thigh, and when the full term for birth arrived, wishing to escape Hera’s notice he extracted the baby on what is now Naxos and gave him to the local Nymphs, Philia, Koronis, and Kleide, to raise. He struck Semele with lightning before she gave birth in order that, being born not from a mortal but from two immortals, he would automatically be immortal from birth.

Hyginus, Astronomica 2.5
Those who wrote the Argolica give the following reason for the constellation Corona. When Liber received permission from his father to bring back his mother Semele from the Lower World, and in seeking a place of descent had come to the land of the Argives, a certain Hyplipnus met him, a man worthy of that generation, who was to show the entrance to Liber in answer to his request. However, when Hypolipnus saw him, a mere boy in years, excelling all others in remarkable beauty of form, he asked from him the reward that could be given without loss. Liber, however, eager for his mother, swore that if he brought her back, he would do as he wished, on terms, though, that a god could swear to a shameless man. At this, Hypolipnus showed the entrance. So then, when Liber came to that place and was about to descend, he left the crown, which he had received as a gift from Venus, at that place which in consequence is called Stephanos, for he was unwilling to take it with him for fear the immortal gift of the gods would be contaminated by contact with the dead. When he brought his mother back unharmed, he is said to have placed the crown in the stars as an everlasting memorial.

Malalas, Chronographia 2.15
The members of the assembly and the citizens of the city of Kadmeia did not accept Dionysos as administrator of their kingdom. They said that he killed his own cousin without being king; if he became king, he would destroy Boiotia. They summoned Lykourgos, a learned man, pleaded with him and told him what had happened. Lykourgos took up arms against Dionysos, and expelled him from the city of Kadmeia and from Boiotia. When Dionysos realized that Lykourgos had taken up arms against him, he fled from him and went to Delphi where he died. Dionysos’s body was laid there in a tomb, and he hung up his weapons there in the temple, as the most learned Deinarchos has written about Dionysos himself. Equally, the most learned Philochoros has written the same thing; in his account of Dionysos he said: ‘His burial-place could be seen at Delphi, next to the golden Apollon. His tomb is identified by a certain base on which is written, “Here in death lies Dionysos, the son of Semele”’. Likewise, the most learned Kephalion has stated these matters in his writings.

Nonnos, Dionysiaka 8.402 ff
Semele saw her fiery end, and perished rejoicing in a childbearing death. In one bridal chamber could be seen Himeros, Eileithyia, and the Erinyes together. So the babe half-grown, and his limbs washed with heavenly fire, was carried by Hermes to his father for the lying-in. Zeus was able to change the mind of jealous Hera, to calm and undo the savage threatening resentment which burdened her. Semele consumed by the fire he translated into the starry vault; he gave the mother of Bakchos a home in the sky among the heavenly inhabitants, as one of Hera’s family, as daughter of Harmonia sprung from both Ares and Aphrodite. So her new body bathed in the purifying fire ((lacuna)) she received the immortal life of the Olympians. Instead of Kadmos and the soil of earth, instead of Autonoe and Agave, she found Artemis by her side, she had converse with Athena, she received the heavens as her wedding-gift, sitting at one table with Zeus and Hermes and Ares and Kythereia.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.31.2
In the temple of Artemis at Troizen in Argolis are altars to the gods said to rule under the earth. It is here that they say Semele was brought out of Haides by Dionysos, and that Herakles dragged up the Hound of Haides. But I cannot bring myself to believe even that Semele died at all, seeing that she was the wife of Zeus.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.37.1-3; 2.37.5-6
At this mountain begins the grove which consists chiefly of plane trees, and reaches down to the sea. Its boundaries are, on the one side the river Pantinos, on the other side another river, called Amymane, after the daughter of Danaus. Within the grove are images of Demeter Prosymne and of Dionysos. Of Demeter there is a seated image of no great size. Both are of stone, but in another temple is a seated wooden image of Dionysos Saotes (Savior), while by the sea is a stone image of Aphrodite. They say that the daughters of Danaus dedicated it, while Danaus himself made the sanctuary of Athena by the Pontinos. The mysteries of the Lernaeans were established, they say, by Philammon. Now the words which accompany the ritual are evidently of no antiquity and the inscription also, which I have heard is written on the heart made of orichalcum, was shown not to be Philammon’s by Arriphon. I saw also what is called the Spring of Amphiaraus and the Alcyonian Lake, through which the Argives say Dionysos went down to Hell to bring up Semele, adding that the descent here was shown him by Palymnos. There is no limit to the depth of the Alcyonian Lake, and I know of nobody who by any contrivance has been able to reach the bottom of it since not even Nero, who had ropes made several stades long and fastened them together, tying lead to them, and omitting nothing that might help his experiment, was able to discover any limit to its depth. This, too, I heard. The water of the lake is, to all appearance, calm and quiet but, although it is such to look at, every swimmer who ventures to cross it is dragged down, sucked into the depths, and swept away. The circumference of the lake is not great, being about one-third of a stade. Upon its banks grow grass and rushes. The nocturnal rites performed every year in honor of Dionysos I must not divulge to the world at large.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 3.24.4
The inhabitants of Brasiai in Lakedaimonia have a story, found nowhere else in Greece, that Semele, after giving birth to her son by Zeus, was discovered by Kadmos and put with Dionysos into a chest, which was washed up by the waves in their country. Semele, who was no longer alive when found, received a splendid funeral, but they brought up Dionysos. The people of Brasiai add that Ino in the course of her wanderings came to the country and agreed to become the nurse of Dionysos. They show the cave where Ino nursed him, and call the plain the garden of Dionysos.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 6.26.1-2
Between the market-place and the Menios in the city of Elis is an old theater and a shrine of Dionysos. The image is the work of Praxiteles. Of the gods the Eleans worship Dionysos with the greatest reverence, and they assert that the god attends their festival, the Thyia. The place where they hold the festival they name the Thyia is about eight stades from the city. Three pots are brought into the building by the priests and set down empty in the presence of the citizens and of any strangers who may chance to be in the country. The doors of the building are sealed by the priests themselves and by any others who may be so inclined. On the morrow they are allowed to examine the seals, and on going into the building they find the pots filled with wine. I did not myself arrive at the time of the festival, but the most respected Elean citizens, and with them strangers also, swore that what I have said is the truth.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.4.3
Why Homer speaks of the beautiful dancing-floors of Panopeus I could not understand until I was taught by the women whom the Athenians call Thyiades. The Thyiades are Attic women, who with the Delphian women go to Parnassos and celebrate orgies in honor of Dionysos. It is the custom for these Thyiades to hold dances at places, including Panopeus, along the road from Athens. The epithet Homer applies to Panopeus is thought to refer to the dance of the Thyiades.

Photios, Lexicon s.v. Hyês
‘Rain-bringer’. An epithet of Dionysos, as Kleidemos says, since we perform sacrifices to him during the time when the god makes it rain; but Pherekydes says that Semele is called ‘rain-bringer’ and that the children of Dionysos are the Hyades. Aristophanes lists Hyês with foreign gods.

Pindar, Dithyrambs Fragment 75
Clearly seen are the bright symbols of sacred rites, whensoever, at the opening of the chamber of the purple-robed Horai, the fragrant spring bringeth the nectar-breathing plants. Then, oh then, are flung on the immortal earth the lovely tresses of violets, and roses are entwined in the hair; then ring the voices of songs to the sound of flutes; then ring the dances in honour of diadem-wreathed Semele.

Pindar, Olympian Ode 2.2
Such is the tale told of the fair-throned maids of Kadmos, who suffered mightily, but heavy woe falls before greater good. With the immortals Semele of the flowing locks lives still–who died in the roar of thunder–and Pallas loves her ever, and Zeus no less, and dearly too the ivy-bearing god, her son.

Pindar, Pythian Ode 3.5
To one of the daughters of Kadmos and Harmonia, Thyone the white-armed maiden, Zeus the almighty father came down to her to share her lovely bed.

Pindar, Pythian Ode 11
Daughter of Kadmos, Semele from your high place amidst the queens of heaven, and Ino Leukothea, you who dwell by the immortal sea-nymphs, Nereus’ daughters, come with the noble mother of Herakles to the shrine of Melia in Thebes, to the treasure-house of golden tripods, the temple that above all others Apollon held in honour, and he named it the Ismenion, the seat of prophecy that known no lie. Daughters of Harmonia, the god now summons to assemble here that band of heroine women who dwelt within this land, that you may sing in praise of holy Themis and Pytho, and the centre-stone of earth, whose word is justice – here as evening’s shadows fall.

Plutarch, Aetia Graeca 12
The Delphians celebrate three festivals one after the other which occur every eight years, the first of which they call Septerion, the second Heroïs, and the third Charilla. The greater part of the Heroïs has a secret import which the Thyiads know; but from the portions of the rites that are performed in public one might conjecture that it represents the evocation of Semele. The story of Charilla which they relate is somewhat as follows: A famine following a drought oppressed the Delphians, and they came to the palace of their king with their wives and children and made supplication. The king gave portions of barley and legumes to the more notable citizens, for there was not enough for all. But when an orphaned girl, who was still but a small child, approached him and importuned him, he struck her with his sandal and cast the sandal in her face. But, although the girl was poverty-stricken and without protectors, she was not ignoble in character; and when she had withdrawn, she took off her girdle and hanged herself. As the famine increased and diseases also were added thereto, the prophetic priestess gave an oracle to the king that he must appease Charilla, the maiden who had slain herself. Accordingly, when they had discovered with some difficulty that this was the name of the child who had been struck, they performed a certain sacrificial rite combined with purification, which even now they continue to perform every eight years. For the king sits in state and gives a portion of barley-meal and legumes to everyone, alien and citizen alike, and a doll-like image of Charilla is brought thither. When, accordingly, all have received a portion, the king strikes the image with his sandal. The leader of the Thyiads picks up the image and bears it to a certain place which is full of chasms; there they tie a rope round the neck of the image and bury it in the place where they buried Charilla after she had hanged herself.

Plutarch, On the Bravery of Women 13
When the despots in Phocis had seized Delphi, and the Thebans were waging war against them in what has been called the Sacred War, the women devotees of Dionysos, to whom they give the name Thyiades, in Bacchic frenzy wandering at night unwittingly arrived at Amphissa. As they were tired out, and sober reason had not yet returned to them, they flung themselves down in the market-place, and were lying asleep, some here, some there. The wives of the men of Amphissa, fearing, because their city had become allied with the Phocians, and numerous soldiers of the despots were present there, that the Thyiades might be treated with indignity, all ran out into the market-place, and, taking their stand round about in silence, did not go up to them while they were sleeping, but when they arose from their slumber, one devoted herself to one of the strangers and another to another, bestowing attentions on them and offering them food. Finally, the women of Amphissa, after winning the consent of their husbands, accompanied the strangers, who were safely escorted as far as the frontier.

Plutarch, De primo frigido 18
Cold, moreover, is perceptibly one of the hardest of things and it makes things hard and unyielding. At Delphi you yourself heard, in the case of those who climbed Parnassos to rescue the Thyiades when they were trapped by a fierce gale and snowstorm, that their capes were frozen so stiff and wooden that when they were opened out, they broke and split apart.

Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 364f
They call Dionysos up out of the water by the sound of trumpets, at the same time casting into the depths a lamb as an offering to the Keeper of the Gate.