Roulette Checkmate

The Role of Semele in Ancient Greek Art

Semele was the beautiful daughter of Cadmus and Harmonia of ancient Thebes. She was the sister of Ino, Agave (Agaue), Autonoe and Polydorus. She was so beautiful she got the attention of Zeus who wished to mate with her. Hera, the wife of Zeus, found out about Semele and tried to trick her to eliminate her as a rival. Hera told Semele that her sexual relations with Zeus would be best if Zeus would appear in all his glory. Semele made Zeus promise to appear this way but when he did she was burned to a crisp. Evidently the relation of Zeus and Semele took some time because Zeus saved a baby from her body and was able to preserve it in his thigh. That baby was the god Dionysus. At any rate this is the myth that comes to us from ancient Greece.

Zeus and Semele
Zeus and Semele, An Allegory of the Desication of Summer Heat

Homer and Hesiod confirm only the geneology of Semele:

  • Hesiod — “And Semele, daughter of Cadmus was joined with him (Zeus) in love and bore him a splendid son, joyous Dionysus,—a mortal woman an immortal son. And now they both are gods.” Hes. Th. 940
  • Hesiod — “And Harmonia, the daughter of golden Aphrodite, bore to Cadmus Ino and Semele and fair-cheeked Agave and Autonoe whom long haired Aristaeus wedded, and Polydorus also in rich-crowned Thebes” Hes. Th. 975
  • Homer — “and Semele bare Dionysus, the joy of mortals” Hom. Il. 14.325

In the Homeric Hymns Hymn 1 to Dionysus line 20 “And so, farewell, Dionysus, Insewn, with your mother Semele whom men call Thyone.”

In the Bacchae of Euripides Dionysus states that Semele was killed by a thunderbolt that was brought about by Hera. The Chorus states that Zeus hid the baby in his thigh. The other parts of the story were added by later authors.

That this story has Indo-European roots is supported by the fact that all the namess associated with the story seem to have Indo-European roots:

  • Semele (Σεμέλη) — ‘Summer destroyer’ from Indo-European and ‘3. sem- ‘summer’ and ‘5. el-, ol-‘, ‘to destroy’
  • Thyone — inspired frenzy — ‘4. dheu-, dheu̯ə-, presumably dhu̯ē-, compare suffixes dhu̯ē-k-, dhu̯ē̆-s-‘, ‘to blow, dissipate, fly about like dust, etc.’ and ‘2. nei-, neiə-, nī- ‘to be moved, excited; to shine”
  • Cadmus — Κάδμος — ‘glorify by by struggle’, ‘2. kar-, karə-‘, ‘to glorify, praise aloud’ and ‘mō-, mo-lo-‘, ‘to strain, trouble oneself’
  • Harmonia — Ἀρμονία — ‘harmony’ from Indo-European ‘1. ar-, thematic (a)re-, heavy-base arə-, rē-, and i-base (a)rī̆-, rēi-‘, ‘to fit, suit’ and ‘mono-‘ ‘neck; mane’ — (The necklace of Harmonia is particularly significant)
  • Sisters:
    • Ino — Ἰνώ — ‘shining one’ from Indo-European ‘2. nei-, neiə-, nī-‘, ‘to be moved, excited; to shine’
    • Agaue — Ἀγαύη — ‘leader’ from Indo-European ‘ag̑-‘, ‘to lead, drive, agitate’
    • Autonoe — Αὐτονόη — ‘self inspired’ from Indo-European ‘4. au-, u- : u̯ē̆-, u̯o-‘, ‘other; that (one)’ and ‘1. to-, tā-, ti̯o-‘, ‘that, him (neut. or non-nom. demonstrative stem)’ and ‘2. nei-, neiə-, nī-‘, ‘to be moved, excited; to shine’
  • Brother:
    • Polydorus — Πολύδωρος — ‘ many gifts’ from Indo-European ‘1. pel-, pelə-, plē-‘, ‘to pour, fill; full; town?’ and ‘dō- : də-, also dō-u- : dəu- : du-‘, ‘to give, donate’ and ‘4. rei- : rēi-‘, ‘thing, possession’

The derivation of the name ‘Semele’ makes a lot of sense for the story. Some have suggested that the mother of a god must be a goddess. What we find is that Semele must be a mortal goddess in the same vein as Medusa. Se must have been a goddess of Summer. Her beauty is the beauty of late summer that parches the landsape and waits for rain. Her death is the death of the many crops such as grain that dry up in the summer sun. But from that summer sun comes the grapes and their harvest as the following from Hesiod states:

“And when the dark-winged whirring grasshopper, perched on a green shoot, begins to sing of summer to men— [395] his food and drink is the dainty dew—and all day long from dawn pours forth his voice in the deadliest heat, when Sirius scorches the flesh (then the beard grows upon the millet which men sow in summer), when the crude grapes [400] which Dionysus gave to men— a joy and a sorrow both—begin to color, in that season they fought and loud rose the clamor.” Hesiod, Shield of Heracles line 392

And so Semele the goddess of the heat of summer must be the mother of Dionysus, the god of grapes.